Author Article by Charles Freeman: The Sacred Flesh of the Saints

The Reliquary of Sainte Foy, a rare survival from the tenth century. It is known to have been taken about to effect miracles in the countryside and, once, was even thrust in the faces of some rioters to quell them.

In his newly published book Holy Bones, Holy Dust, CHARLES FREEMAN presents a full-scale history of medieval relics. Here he explores the forgotten medieval concept of ‘spiritual flesh’, a sacred form of human flesh possessed by dead saints that was believed to be impervious to decay. Freeman discusses the intense belief surrounding this idea, and the difficulty in writing about a subject so at odds with scientific fact. 

Article by Charles Freeman

I was browsing in a dark corner of a church in the Italian Marche trying to make out the subject of a picture. As I turned round just two feet away from me lay a dead body. It had, thankfully, been dead a very long time, possibly four hundred years but its face was largely intact and the rest concealed under the habit of a Franciscan friar. It was still a shock to find it so close.

Uncorrupted saints and martyrs loom large in my book Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. Some have been analysed and shown to have been given a real embalming, others have been shown to carry high levels of lead in their flesh but, for the medieval mind, their preserved flesh was a sign of their sanctity.

What I had never realised, until I began intensive research for my book, was just how important was the idea that there was a higher level of flesh which contrasted with the decaying bodies of mere mortals. Very early in the Church the idea arose that Adam and Eve had been created with a ‘spiritual’ flesh which was impossible to damage and which would never decay. With the Fall this status had been lost and flesh of themselves and their offspring, the human race itself, had become subject to desires and, after death with decomposition. The risen Christ was clothed in this higher flesh and the spiritual status could be regained by ordinary humans, at the moment of martyrdom or through a life of intense saintliness which transcended and expunged the desires of the mortal flesh. Some believed that ingesting the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist helped the process along.

This was all helpful if you had to identify a saint’s body in a graveyard. It would be the one that had not decayed. Even better it would exude a sweet fragrance and the blood would still be on the flesh. Often oil would flow from it. It could show other signs of life. When the body of Thomas of Cantilupe was returned to his native Hereford, it passed by the Earl of Gloucester with whom Thomas, as bishop, had often fought over the rights of his cathedral. The body oozed blood, the shocked earl withdrew all his claims. Other bodies sat up when the Eucharist passed. St. Francis of Assisi was found, two and a half centuries after his death, standing in his tomb, his eyes fixed on heaven, and his stigmata, the wounds of the crucifixion that had miraculously appeared on his hands, still bleeding.

Such bodies could, of course, bring miracles which is why pilgrims jostled and scrambled to get near them. Few went so far as Hugh of Lincoln who was shown one of Mary Magdalen’s arms, preserved in an abbey at Fécamp in northernFrance. To the horror of the monks he bent down and took a bite out of it. If, he argued, one can consume the body of Christ at the Eucharist, surely there is no problem about having a morsel of Mary Magdalen. Often it was at the moment of death, before decay had actually set in, that mourners were given the promise of a saint’s presence through an immediate miracle. In my book I show a fresco of the body of little Saint Fina of San Gimignano on her death bed. The paralysed hand of her nurse is healed, a small blind boy rubs his head against her feet and is cured while angels fly through the air to ring the town bells. This really is a saint.

St Fina was a native of the Tuscan city of San Gimignano who died after a lifetime of resigned suffering in 1253. Her saintliness was confirmed at her death by the healing of the paralysed hand of her nurse, shown here in the centre of the scene, while the blindness of a small boy is cured when he kisses her feet. The magnificent fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1470) is in the chapel dedicated to her in the cathedral in her home town.

The intensity of belief in the incorruptibility of saintly bodies set against the ‘scientific’ fact that they would decay unless given special treatment makes this subject hard to write about. I had to accept that the medieval mind lived somewhere between heaven and earth where scientific laws were suspended. It was the only way I could explore the subject on its own terms but I remain surprised how this pervasive idea had almost vanished completely from the historical record. It is the aim of Holy Bones, Holy Dust to bring it back to life.

Holy Bones, Holy Dust is available from Yale University Press

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.

Related Links

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: Relics Map

Holy Bones, Holy Dust book page

Treasures of Heaven: Relics Exhibition at the British Museum

Author Article by Christopher Lane: Doubt, Dogma and the Sunday Law

Science Versus Religion: The debate continues as top scientist accepts £1million religious prize

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