Charles Freeman is a top expert in the ancient world and its legacy. His book Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe was published last year to massive critical acclaim, and provided a richly textured history of holy relics across Europe spanning a thousand years. He has just written a new free online article on the Turin Shroud. Here Freeman discusses the controversial relic, and explains why he has chosen to tackle and critique some of the scholarly writing surrounding it.
Article by Charles Freeman
When I was researching my book on medieval relics, Holy Bones, Holy Dust, I decided to leave out the Shroud of Turin. It is essentially a cult of modern times, not a medieval one.
First mentioned in the 1350s, it was even then denounced as a fake and it was only the haunting image revealed by photography in 1898 that transformed it into an icon. When one looked at modern debates over its authenticity they were, and continue to be, acrimonious. The scientific study of the Shroud was hampered in the 1970s by a number of individuals, many of whom had no expertise in ancient textiles, being allowed to examine the Shroud (then still in the ownership of the Royal Family of Savoy) and even remove samples from it. These samples are still travelling around and in doing so have surely lost any integrity as materials on which scientific conclusions can be based; hence, the continued and inclusive debates. It was better to leave well alone.
Then, two months ago, I was sent for review Thomas de Wesselow’s The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Resurrection of Christ (Viking 2012). This put forward the extraordinary thesis that it was the revealed Shroud that inspired the first Christian communities. No significant evidence was provided for this unlikely catalyst for Christianity’s growth. To get back to the first century de Wesselow had to provide a history for the Shroud and he accepted, almost uncritically, the narrative that has now been repeated since 1978 by the Shroud historian Ian Wilson in a series of books. I had never come across Wilson’s work but when I read his latest survey his assertions simply made no sense at all within the wider context of what we know about relic cults.
For those interested in the Shroud of Turin I have now written a longer critique of Wilson’s work to be found on here, entitled The Shroud of Turin and the Image of Edessa: A Misguided Journey
Charles Freeman is a specialist on the ancient world and its legacy. He has worked on archaeological digs on the continents surrounding the Mediterranean and develops study tour programmes in Italy, Greece and Turkey. Freeman is Historical Consultant to the prestigious Blue Guides series and the author of numerous books, including the bestseller The Closing of the Western Mind and, most recently, A New History of Early Christianity.
Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe is available now from Yale.