Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Relics

I saw on the Internet that some Marilyn Monroe memorabilia sold in Las Vegas last weekend. Three chest x-rays taken in 1954 were sold for a large amount. There were also four x-rays of her abdomen taken at the same time. It seems rather wrong that someone has portions of her medical files and can sell them but memorabilia has value. The article in the Toronto Star states that a lock of Elvis Presley's hair would also be sold at the auction and the most bizarre thing they had sold was William Shatner's kidney stone for $75,000.
What has that to do with the Middle Ages? Well, they were collectors of celebrity memorabilia too, except that their celebs were superstars in the church. Going back to A Distant Mirror, I was struck by Duc de Berry's (Charles V's uncle and he of the Tres Riches Heures) collection of relics which included "one of Charlemagne's teeth, a piece of Elijah's mantle, Christ's cup from the Last Supper, drops of the Virgin's milk, enough of her hairs and teeth to distribute as gifts, soil from various Biblical sites, a narwhal's teeth, porcupine's quills, the molar tooth of a giant."
In another book, Glastonbury Abbey by James P. Carley, the author has a small chapter on relics in which he writes "Chaucer's description of the unscrupulous and corrupt Pardoner who makes unsuspecting simple folk gulls by selling them his false and valueless relics has a particularly strong resonance for modern readers, who find the medieval cult of relics naively superstitious and almost impossible to respect." I don't know. $75,000 for a kidney stone seems strange to me. It seems to me that I recall a peanut butter sandwich, half eaten by Elvis being sold once for a fair amount of money. If one considers those auctions of Princess Diana's dresses that fetched huge amounts of money, modern people can understand relics well enough if they stop and think about it. The author does concede that modern people have their own cult of the preserved bodies of political leaders like Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Eva Peron.
He goes on to list the collection of relics held at Glastonbury: "a part of Moses's and Aaron's rods, manna, a fragment of Isaiah's tomb, and parts of Daniel's body...; items related to the Virgin Mary, including a small portion of her milk, bones from St. John the Baptist; bones, teeth and clothing from the Apostles; numerous remains from the Holy Martyrs and Confessors" There were also King Arthur's bones and his queen, Guinevere, as well as Joseph of Arimathia's as yet undiscovered grave somewhere nearby.
The one relic that stands out for me is the Virgin's breast milk. Now, she only had one child so someone had been stealing milk from baby Jesus. If Mary was not milking herself, someone was milking the Holy Virgin. Someone was squeezing the sacred 'dumplings' to later sell the contents of the 'dumplings'. Something seems wrong about that. As well, when Mary had Jesus, nobody but her knew that Jesus was going to be that special so who would have known to think ahead to save some breast milk for later selling? You have to wonder why people did not consider those things before they purchased this stuff.
Carley goes on to relate how Erasmus visited Canterbury with John Colet and Colet was horrified to be presented with a 'reputed arm of St. George with dry blood and flesh still on it". Mmmmmm, yummy. "He also refused to accept a fragment of dirty linen which had reportedly been used by Becket 'to wipe the perspiration from his face or his neck, the runnings from his nose, or such other superfluities from which the human frame is not free." When you consider that people like Elvis Presley or Engelbert Humperdinck, among others, handed out sweat soaked handkerchiefs to their audiences to be treasured, the tradition goes on and includes post mortem Elvis sightings and healing the sick.
Carley went on to write that most of the relics of Glastonbury were destroyed with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, being called pagan images. He wrote, "Much superstition was no doubt overcome at the Reformation but it was done at a great psychological cost. Protestant man become considerably more alone in the world than were his Catholic predecessors, who had their tangible links with eternity." Don't worry James we still have Elvis.

10 comments:

Tracy said...

"Much superstition was no doubt overcome at the Reformation but it was done at a great psychological cost".
Quite a sweeping generalisation! As you've shown, many centuries later superstition is alive and well and desperately buying into the cult of celebrity in the hope that celebrityness rubs off on them/wearing it's lucky pants to encourage a Murray victory at Wimbledon - the England team having let it down by crashing out of the World Cup/reading it's horoscope every day.

The Red Witch said...

@Quite a sweeping generalisation!

I believe the author was mourning the loss of magic in the world. I don't think he owns a television and has probably missed the cult of celebrity but, even so, whose dirty handkerchief would you rather press to your lips Elvis' or Becket's? What you rather own - St. George's bloody stump or William Shatner's kidney stone? Madonna's breast milk or the Virgin Mary's breast milk?

Tracy said...

I believe the author was mourning the loss of magic in the world.
Fair point - but that reminds me of Richard Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow - there is still plenty of magic in the world, depends what you consider to be magical.

even so, whose dirty handkerchief would you rather press to your lips Elvis' or Becket's? What you rather own - St. George's bloody stump or William Shatner's kidney stone? Madonna's breast milk or the Virgin Mary's breast milk?
Umm, personally? - neither - unless they're definitely the real thing. In which case, obviously, the medieval relics would have far more value, and not just monetary value - they'd have a spiritual value, too, which the celebrity stuff doesn't at all. (If you believe that spirituality can reside in objects)

It isn't superstition that's really disappeared, it's a sense of the spiritual.

Jeanne said...

That is quite a macabre list of body parts! And did you see this possibly related story:

King Tut's Penis is Missing
http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/06/29/is-king-tuts-penis-missing/

LOL :)

The Red Witch said...

@It isn't superstition that's really disappeared, it's a sense of the spiritual.

Some people set up veritable shrines to their idols.

@That is quite a macabre list of body parts! And did you see this possibly related story?

And good on Colet for being disgusted. I hadn't seen the story on Tut, maybe it just fell off through disuse.

anachronist said...

I hadn't seen the story on Tut, maybe it just fell off through disuse.

Oh dear, I had a good laugh here! Really it's nice to know some people have no other worries than missing body parts of a very old mummy!

Let me just observe here that relics, old and new, have been a weird and horrible way to earn money, full stop. I will never understand why people want to have somebody's underpants or handkerchief(or hand) at home.

The Red Witch said...

I would like to add that we don't keep bones because there are laws about indignities to a corpse. However there is the powerful Skull and Bones society who have been accused of stealing Geronimo and Pancho Villa's skulls and keeping them. So relic gathering does go one. And Albert Einstein's brain is a hot commodity too.

Tracy said...

And Albert Einstein's brain is a hot commodity too.
What happened to Einstein's brain is truly bizarre. The pathologist, Dr Harvey, decided to embalm Einstein's brain and keep it in a jar, without asking permission of the family. He ended up travelling around America, still with the brain, sending pieces of it to random scientists. The brain became a travelling relic for more than forty years, occasionally tracked down by journalists - Michael Paterniti wrote a best-selling book about it called Driving Mr Albert
But even more creepy, if that's possible, is that Einstein's opthalmologist 'happened' to wander into the autopsy room, and he took Einstein's eyeballs!
(source: Einstein, his life and universe by Walter Isaacson)

The Red Witch said...

See, Henry VIII didn't really do away with idolatry. Boo-yah!

anachronist said...

But even more creepy, if that's possible, is that Einstein's opthalmologist 'happened' to wander into the autopsy room, and he took Einstein's eyeballs!

That's trully creepy. What did he need them for? Don't become famous, your body parts might be missing after your death...