Monday 23 March 2015

Relics, Reburials, and Richard III

I have no particular feelings about Richard III. I'm just going to put that out there straight away, because expressing any opinion about his reinterment - currently ongoing all this week in Leicester, complete with extensive TV coverage - is a little risky; I expressed an attitude of mild puzzlement about it on Twitter yesterday, and it was received by some of his defenders as if I had personally spat on the king's coffin. So I'm just making it very clear to begin with that I really don't care in the least about Richard or his reburial - 'mild puzzlement' is probably an overstatement of my level of interest in this particular king. (If it was Alfred the Great, or Cnut, that might be different.)

However, I am interested in medieval saints and relics, and especially in the texts which were composed to record their reburials, their 'translations' from one shrine or church to another. These texts are highly conventional, with a well-established pattern describing the finding, identifying, and reburying of a saint's remains, and it's amused and intrigued me to see how far Richard's reburial has echoed many of the generically typical features of a translation narrative. This is surprising, but useful, because translation narratives are often one of the most difficult aspects of medieval culture to explain to non-medievalists. As someone who often blogs about medieval saints, I've found that stories about saints' relics and their elaborate translations always get a strong reaction. Some people think it's all just weird; it's alienating for them, and they frequently say they can't begin to understand it. Alternatively, they think they understand it all too well: the translation of relics, they say knowingly, was a cynical money-grab, designed to fleece pilgrims and bolster a church's prestige. But of course it's more complicated and more interesting than that. Saints' translations, and the texts written about them, can tell us fascinating things about the communities which organised these events: which historical figures were most valued and why, which parts of a community's history were most important to its identity at any point in time, how a community defined itself and told the story of its own past. In general, saints' translations are much less about the body being reburied than they are about the body which is arranging the translation, and these questions of identity, communal experience, and engagement with local and institutional history go much deeper than a desire for fund-raising. It's interesting to think about Richard's reburial in the context of medieval translations, not because what's happening to his body is actually in any way 'medieval', but because it helps to challenge some preconceptions about an aspect of the medieval past which is often said to be particularly alien to a modern audience.

Goscelin's account of the translation of St Mildred (BL Harley 3908, f. 51)

Let me give a few examples of generically typical features of a translation narrative, to illustrate some of the complexity of the forces which motivated these events. Many of these tropes are universal in medieval hagiography, but I'll take examples from Anglo-Saxon England, since that's what I know best; I'm focusing here not so much on how these events might have actually happened, but on how they were explained and described in narratives about the discovery and translation of relics.

As in the case of Richard III, these texts often say that the impetus for the translation of relics came from an individual, rather than an institution. This might be someone who's had a vision telling them the saint wants to be translated: St Swithun's case is a famous example, in which Swithun appears in a dream to a smith, telling him the saint should be brought inside the Old Minster at Winchester. The saint plays the role of Merlin in a sword-in-the-stone story, instructing the smith that if he can pull a ring out of Swithun's tomb, it will prove the truth of the apparition; but more importantly, the vision and the translation story seem to have helped to negotiate a particularly contentious situation at the Old Minster, conflict between the newly-installed monastic foundation and the clerics they had displaced. For a community in an unsettling state of flux, rediscovering the bones of its patrons and saints could provide an important rallying-point, a focus of renewed communal identity emphasising shared interests which were able to transcend political, ethnic, or religious differences.

In other cases, an individual might want to discover particular relics not because of a vision but in a spirit of historical or personal inquiry - although this could be dangerous. My favourite story of this kind is told by the historian Eadmer, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, who late in life described how his fellow monk/historian Osbern once persuaded him that the two of them should go and investigate some relics in the monastery's archives which had not yet been explored. This was during an interregnum at Christ Church, so Osbern presumably thought they should seize the opportunity to have a look while they could do so without get caught. The two curious historians went investigating, and found the relics of St Ouen. They were delighted, but the saint was less pleased - disapproving of their disobedient expedition, he punished them with some frightening dreams. This is a revealing story; the treatment of the saints' relics buried at Canterbury was a sore point with Eadmer, who thought they deserved much more respect than they had received from the post-Conquest leaders of the monastery. His description of his and Osbern's desire to go in search of long-lost relics is all at once a generic trope, a personal quest, and a historical investigation, and it's hard to separate out those motives.

Saints were also often discovered in more mundane ways, of course, such as during building works; but however the relics have been found, they have to be identified. Sometimes there'll be an inscription or object which names them, but sometimes they can only be identified by a miraculous sign - a beautiful odour coming from the bones, that kind of thing. (Considering how the Channel 4 programme last night went into raptures over the miracle of DNA analysis, we'll take that as the modern-day equivalent.) Then the remains are examined, and as they're studied they reveal information about who the person was in life. Perhaps some particularly holy part of them is undecayed - like St Oswald's right arm which, blessed by St Aidan, remained miraculously intact - so the state of their physical body can confirm stories and legends already being told about their life. The relics allow those studying them to test theories about the person's moral character as well as their physical state.

Once it's decided (from a mixture of evidence and powerful wishful thinking) that the bones belong to someone important, it's decided to move the body to a more worthy shrine. A Translatio will sometimes explain that the relics have to be removed from their original location because it's now in ruins, or in some other way an inappropriate resting-place; in the case of English saints it's often said that the original shrine was destroyed by the Vikings some time in the Anglo-Saxon period. In some cases this was probably true, but whether true or not, it provides a convenient way of explaining a break in the history of a shrine, and a reason why it needs to be renewed. This allows the present-day community performing the translation to look back at violent or disruptive periods in its own past, and express a desire for continuity with the time before the rupture. The modern community may be very different from that in which the saint lived - based in a new location, speaking a different language, belonging to a different religious order - but the narrative is one of continuity, where the modern institution presents itself as heir to that of the past, its history perhaps interrupted but ultimately unbroken. Interestingly, yesterday's procession for Richard, with historical re-enactors dressed up in medieval costume, goes much further with this than any medieval translation would have; and the rupture of the Reformation, at the core of the debate about whether the king should have an Anglican or Catholic reburial, is a much larger chasm to bridge than anything a medieval community faced. But these things can be negotiated when the desire for continuity, or the appearance of continuity, is strong enough.

It's also common in translation narratives for possession of the relics to be contested, usually between two churches which both think they have a right to the body. Rather than a court case, this is often settled by a furtum sacrum (holy theft): stealing the relics under the cover of darkness, or perhaps doing something like inciting a rebellion so as to get the relics away while people are distracted (as when St Ælfheah was taken from London to Canterbury). Alternatively, you can just get the custodians drunk and steal the relics, as happened when the body of Bishop Eadnoth, killed in battle at Assandun, was on its way to be buried at Ramsey Abbey: the Ramsey monks made the mistake of staying the night at Ely, where the Ely monks got them drunk and stole the relics. (I'm not advocating this strategy, those of you who think Richard should be buried in York.) This might seem like undignified squabbling, but it often reflects real tensions and political fractures on a local or national level.

Once the relics are secured, the successful church makes grand preparations, perhaps rebuilding part of the church to accommodate the new shrine and the expected increase in visitors. All the ceremony, thought and effort which goes into a translation makes it a hugely significant moment in the life of a community, important enough to be subsequently celebrated with a yearly commemoration on the anniversary. To mark the occasion, new texts are commissioned about the saint, retelling the narrative of his or her life in a way more suitable for a contemporary audience, and often finding fault with previous retellings (sorry, Shakespeare). You can do this in-house or commission an expert historian to write it for you; writers like Goscelin made a career out of doing it well, and were doubtless a bit more polite about it than some TV historians are today. In fact, some of the most important projects of historical investigation in the Middle Ages were undertaken to support saints' translations, responding to the need to understand and record who the saint was and what they meant to their community. For the best historians, this involved a sustained and thoughtful engagement with the past, a reflection on how and why it differed from the present, and how it related to the modern world and to the community they knew. This is itself a form of 'translation', a reworking of the narratives of the past for the needs and concerns of the present. And it wasn't only historians who undertook serious scholarly and creative work to accompany translations: these events could entail the examination of archives and documents, the composition of new music, the production of stained glass windows or vestments or other works of art, the building of ambitious architectural projects like the Corona at Canterbury Cathedral.

The reburial of St Edmund of East Anglia (BL Harley 2278 f. 117)

Medieval translations of relics always involve a complicated interaction of forces, multiple currents which flow together: interests political, personal, devotional, financial, historical, and more. Amid all the fuss about Richard III's reburial, I've seen various people observe the parallels with medieval saints' cults with a note of disapproval - condemning the whole thing as medieval-in-the-bad-sense, where 'medieval' suggests superstition, irrationality, all the usual stereotypes. This troubles me. Whatever you think of how Richard's reburial is being conducted, it's clearly not 'medieval', since it's happening right now, in 2015, and in a manner in which no medieval community would have done it. For better or worse, what's happening this week is the product of our society, not of the Middle Ages. And since it's not easy to decide what it all tells us about ourselves, perhaps we could allow the medieval past the same complexity, and not just repeat cliches about superstition, raising revenue, how weird it is to care about bones, etc. There seems to be an idea that we can only talk about why and how people care for famous remains in order to pass judgement on whether they're right or wrong to do so - wrong historically, doctrinally, morally, or whatever. I don't think that's helpful. It is helpful to ask why people care so much about the relics of the famous dead, perhaps especially the royal dead; and it is helpful to wonder why some manifestations of that interest are perceived to be acceptable in the modern age, and some are not. I don't have answers to these questions, but they are worth asking.

There's no doubt that many people today are fascinated by the relics of kings, even as they look down on the medieval age for caring about the relics of saints. We're quite accustomed to the idea of a royal shrine as a place of historical pilgrimage - or else Westminster Abbey wouldn't be able to charge such steep admission fees! Richard III isn't the only king, of course, whose body draws in the tourists. For a medievalist, it's always interesting to visit English cathedrals - most of which began life as a communities centred around a saint's shrine, and which in the Middle Ages defined their identity by the saints whose bodies lay within - and find them now focusing almost exclusively on their royal burials. I was especially struck by this at Worcester Cathedral, where King John's tomb, right in front of the high altar, is one of the cathedral's most prominent attractions, and every tourist is directed to it. John was buried at Worcester because he wanted to be near the shrine of St Wulfstan - but Wulfstan's tomb is gone, and John's survives. John has a pretty bad reputation as kings go (rivalled only by Richard III, perhaps) but it's accepted and expected that tourists will want to see his tomb; but wanting to see the site of St Wulfstan's tomb is a bit weird, a bit too 'medieval'. At Canterbury Cathedral, where the various royal tombs are all labelled and pointed out to tourists, one of the big attractions is the tattered accoutrements of the Black Prince - second-class relics hung up on display, before which every tourist is encouraged to pause and marvel - while the medieval pilgrims who marvelled at Becket's shrine are presented as something distinctly 'other', a historical oddity which has to be explained. Personally I find the fascination with royal relics puzzling, and interest in saints' relics much less so; at least medieval pilgrims believed that the people whose bodies they were so eager to encounter were holy, the remains of men and women of extraordinary virtue whose devout, self-denying lives infused their relics with power after death. Even the most dedicated defender of Richard III or King John doesn't quite claim that!

This isn't a criticism of the cathedrals, which are understandably driven by what tourists want to see, or of the tourists themselves; it's an intriguing phenomenon, with various possible causes, but one cause is simply modern embarrassment about the medieval cults of saints, which is so deeply ingrained (I've talked about this before). I think it's helpful to try and overcome that embarrassment, or else it becomes a barrier in understanding the medieval past and its uses in the present. I don't want to downplay the differences between medieval saints' cults and the (to me, much stranger) modern fascination with long-dead royalty, but what's going on this week in Leicester provides a useful opportunity to challenge a popular modern narrative about medieval saints: the idea that our interest in relics is scientific and rational and scholarly, while their interest was superstitious and ignorant and silly. Translations and reburials are a moment at which to think about the intersection of the past and the present, to come literally face-to-face with the remains of history. Most translation narratives are about that, to some extent, and this week's events are no different. The parts of the Richard III pageantry which were (I suspect) supposed to seem the most 'medieval' - the costumed reenactors, the three soils in the coffin - are actually the least so, revelatory only of what we think the medieval past was like. But the complex mixture in these events of scholarly and personal desire, of communal and individual celebration, of serious study and popular pageantry, is neither uniquely medieval nor uniquely modern. So if you're the kind of person who thinks it's weird that the Middle Ages cared so much about the relics of the famous dead, I suggest you pay close attention to the reburial of Richard this week. You can think that's weird, too, of course - but don't call it 'medieval'.


pjamesstuart said...

In a way kings are the saints, or prophets, of the state.

Our connection to religion is attenuated and mixed, but everyone living in Britain today, no matter who they are, has a deep and intimate relationship with the British State.

The history of the state and its origins is bound up with the history of kings, they are the major nodes of its development so perhaps that's part of why we are so obsessed with them.

D. Jonathan said...

Your reflections reminded me of the discovery of the H.R. Hunley, a confederate submarine that sank after sinking a Union ship. It was discovered in the 1990s, and in 2004, the remains of its crew were buried in a cemetery in Charleston, SC. More than 4000 re-enactors, color guards from all branches of the US Armed Forces participated.

chris elliott said...

That's a really interesting examination of the parallel, and thank you for taking the time to write it

Jeremy said...

Interesting. When I went to Canterbury, I was surprised to find the mother church of the Anglican communion being presented primarily as a Thomas-Becket themed exhibition, as though everything else, from Augustine and Theodore onwards, would obviously be of no real interest to visitors.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, I agree with you there (I've written about that before, actually: That's part of why I find the focus on royal memorials so odd, because it comes at the expense of other aspects of the cathedral's history. And I think the focus on Becket runs the risk of presenting medieval pilgrimage as a kind of curiosity, something modern tourists are expected to find alien, rather than an activity not unlike what they are engaging in themselves.

Dr. Obscure said...

Thoughtful post and interesting commentary. Thanks!