Post-classical history

Relics: The Holy Land

The discovery, acquisition, and veneration of sacred relics formed an integral part of the crusading experience in the Holy Land.

The importance of saints’ remains and other holy objects for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and its environs dates back to at least the fourth century. This was a crucial period for the formation of a Christian sacred topography in Palestine, fostered by the ecclesiastical building program of Constantine I the Great, Roman emperor (312-337). Constantine’s efforts included the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the site of Christ’s tomb, where (according to an almost contemporary legend) his mother, Helena, had discovered nails from the Crucifixion and a portion of the True Cross. The appeal of the latter relic is vividly illustrated by the Iberian pilgrim Egeria, who around 380 reported that zealous worshipers kissing the cross were known to bite off slivers of it. By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the veneration of such physical relics associated with biblical events and places, popularized by St. Jerome among others, had come to occupy a prominent place in the pilgrimage experience of Western Christians.

The subsequent disruptions of authority in the western Roman Empire and the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the seventh century made long-distance pilgrimage to Jerusalem increasingly difficult. Local developments in the West, however, ensured that the cult of relics held a central position in Latin Christian piety. In particular, Carolingian rulers and prelates actively fostered and regulated the importance of saints’ cults, mandating (among other efforts) the presence of a relic in every consecrated altar. With the decline of Car- olingian authority in the late ninth and tenth centuries, accompanied by invasions of Europe’s frontiers by Vikings, Magyars, and Muslim Arabs, saints’ shrines emerged as powerful centers of local authority, bringing prestige, protection, and oblations to the religious institutions housing them, as well as healing miracles and other forms of intercession to their pilgrim devotees.

The brisk trade in holy remains that developed during the early Middle Ages, particularly between northern Europe and Rome, testifies to the religious, social, and economic significance that relics held among both the laity and the clergy. Nor were the relics of the Holy Land and other Eastern regions with a connection to the Bible or the age of the primitive church completely lost from view. Despite the difficulties, Western pilgrims continued to venerate the remains of saints and other holy objects at various sites in and around Jerusalem, as seen in the seventh-century pilgrimage account of the English traveler Arculf. In addition, pious travelers were more than willing to translate Eastern relics to new homes in the West, where they were seen as being safer from defilement by Muslims. The theft of St. Mark’s remains from Alexandria and their removal to Venice in the year 827 is a well-known example of this phenomenon. Intensified European involvement in the Mediterranean region in the eleventh century, including mass pilgrimages to Jerusalem, undoubtedly encouraged a heightened sensitivity among Western Christians to the significance of the East and the Holy Land in particular as sources of relics. The increasing commercial activity of Italian cities in the Mediterranean also provided new opportunities for the westward translation of Eastern relics, such as the remains of St. Nicholas, which were translated from Myra (mod. Demre, Turkey) in Asia Minor to Bari in Apulia in 1087.

As pilgrims, the participants in the First Crusade (1096-1099) had a natural interest in holy relics. There are indications that contemporary Latins conceived of the entire Holy Land itself as a relic, imbued with sanctity by the blood of Christ and the remains of other biblical figures. Liberating this holiest of relics from the hands of the unbelievers quickly became a central theme of the crusading endeavor, particularly with regard to the Holy Sepulchre, the physical space where the central moment of Christian salvation was enacted. En route to Jerusalem, the crusaders would have had a striking preview of the Holy Land’s sacred treasures when they passed through Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), where such relics had been gathered for centuries.

As the crusading armies progressed through Anatolia and Syria, they soon obtained relics of their own that were associated with Eastern saints or the biblical past. These included the Holy Lance, discovered at Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) on 14 June 1098, but there were a number of other, lesser relics acquired by pious Westerners during that march to Jerusalem, including relics of saints George, Cyprian, John Chrysostom, and Thecla. The capture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099 was followed by another famous discovery: a relic of the True Cross uncovered in or near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Contemporary Latin historians were clear that the discovery of objects like the Holy Lance and the True Cross was a sign of God’s favor toward the crusading armies, who had recovered the ultimate relic, the Holy Land, against overwhelming odds.

Following the First Crusade, crusaders returned home to Western Europe with relics in their possession, often the only objects of wealth accrued on their journey, which they bestowed upon local churches and monastic houses. Subsequent crusades and the continued Western presence in Palestine for much of the twelfth century meant that there were ample opportunities for crusaders, other pilgrims, and the new Latin inhabitants of the Holy Land to acquire additional relics. In some cases, this was a matter of discovering previously unknown remains, such as the relics of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob unearthed by a priory of Latin canons at Hebron in 1119. In other cases, such sacred treasures were stolen or otherwise acquired from Eastern Christian communities in the Holy Land or surrounding regions.

Regardless of the exact circumstances, ecclesiastical authors commemorating the discovery of Eastern relics or their transferal to the West represented these events as a clear sign of the Lord’s favor toward Latin Christians, who had proven themselves more worthy of the saints’ holy patronage than non-Latin Christians. Describing the acquisition of relics in this manner provided Western hagiogra- phers with an opportunity to connect not only their respective communities but all of Latin Christendom with the narrative of sacred history, starting with the Bible or the days of the early church and leading down to the period of the crusades. This argument worked in both directions, however, as demonstrated by the Latin explanation for the defeat at the Horns of Hattin on 4 July 1187. This involved the loss of the church of Jerusalem’s relic of the True Cross and was followed by the loss of the city of Jerusalem itself: Western churchmen unanimously attributed this shocking turn of events to the sins and shortcomings of their own people.

With the rise of Marian and Eucharistic devotion in the central and later Middle Ages, the cult of relics by no means vanished, but its centrality waned, as did the ecclesiastical celebration of relics brought from the Holy Land and other Eastern regions. During this same period, particularly during and after the thirteenth century, crusading in the eastern Mediterranean shifted toward different theaters of action than the Holy Land proper. At the same time Christian wars against Islam were increasingly validated by recourse to theories of just war, including the argument that Palestine, as a former possession of the Roman Empire, had been illicitly seized by the Muslims and was legally part of Christendom. Whatever the strategic realities and legal parsing, however, the recovery of Jerusalem as the ultimate Christian relic remained central to crusading ideology and propaganda.

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