Author Article by Charles Freeman: The sacred blood of John Paul II

Last week CHARLES FREEMAN, author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust, discussed the Medieval concept of ‘sacred flesh’. This week Freeman writes about ‘blood relics’ and the forthcoming coming beatification of John Paul II.

Article by Charles Freeman

I was excited to see that that at the coming beatification of John Paul II in Rome on Sunday May 1st, a phial of his blood might be exposed to the crowds. Blood relics are special, especially if they have not coagulated, although in this case the blood of the late pope has already been treated with an anti-coagulent added after it had been taken from him during medical tests. This particular extract has been divided into four. Apart from theVatican sample, one is to be kept by the nuns of the hospital where it was tested and two are in the possession of the pope’s private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz. Here medieval practice is being followed. When the bones of Thomas Becket were being reburied in Canterbury Cathedral by Archbishop Stephen Langton in 1220, the archbishop set aside a few small ones ‘for distributing to great men and churches for the honour of the martyr’. As even the smallest relic has the power of the whole, there is, as there was in medieval times, a good chance  to extend one’s spiritual and social network by opportunistic distribution. Stanislaw Dziwisz may, of course, prefer to keep his samples for his own private devotions as did many of the crowned heads of medieval Europe.

Blood relics were always popular but it is always better if they coagulate. Naples holds its breath when the blood of St Januarius is exposed in a solid form that then becomes liquid to show that the city is still under his protection. As it has already been treated with anti-coagulents, John Paul’s blood will avoid any such cliffhanging drama. Of course, relics of the blood of Jesus gathered as he suffered on the cross were the most prestigious. Weingarten in southern Germany had blood preserved by no less than Longinus, the Roman soldier who had pierced Jesus’ side with a lance. The monks were insistent that it always remained liquid so assuring its authenticity. When Louis IX was building the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house the Crown of Thorns, Henry III in England tried to outclass him with blood of Jesus that the king had been sent from Jerusalem. Unfortunately for Henry, the ‘blood’ arrived with a demand from the Patriarch for some cash to help him fight off the Muslims and this was seen to challenge its authenticity. The cult, in Westminster Abbey, never prospered.

In general relics bled to show their authenticity or their outrage at being mistreated. In 1287, the bones of Thomas de Cantilupe, a saintly bishop of Hereford, were returned to his cathedral. As they passed the Earl of Gloucester who had had many disputes over land with Thomas, they began to ooze blood. The chastened earl withdrew all his claims.  When the arms of the long dead St Nicholas of Tolentino, a specialist in the resurrection of drowned children, were stolen by a German pilgrim in 1345 a trail of fresh blood quickly led to their recovery. At the moment John Paul has been accredited with one miracle, the recovery of a French nun from Parkinson’s Disease. Another is needed if he is to be canonised as a saint. That phial of blood, already placed in a reliquary and ready for veneration, might just do it.

Charles Freeman is author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, just published by Yale. Click here to view a map of relics mentioned in Freeman’s book.

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