Saturday, October 22, 2011

I Call It Body Snatching

It seems that, since cathedrals could not be consecrated without some saint's relics and possession of relics leads to pilgrim dollars donated to the cathedral, there was a lack of sharing amongst parishes when it comes to relics. Indeed, there was quite a bit of grave robbing going on. Of course it was not called 'grave robbing' or 'body snatching' rather it was called 'translatio' within the church. A given body was translated to its final resting place which often became a feast day in its own right.
Under King Cnut, the abbot of Canterbury, Aelfstan (elf-stone) claimed to have had a dream where St. Mildred came to him wanting to be buried in her home town. He claimed to have gotten permission from Cnut to take Mildred from her tomb on Thanet and translate her to Canterbury. If that is the case, why did they have a getaway boat by the shore and snuck up to her tomb at night to pry it open? The townspeople, when they realized something was up, chased after them with clubs and pointy sticks. They got away with the body, which apparently smelled delicious. There is a term for this kind of action 'furta sacra" or sacred thefts which shows you how common this kind of body-snatching was.
Grave robbing is grave robbing, however way you rename it. Of course owning the relics of a popular saint was like money in the bank but I am not going to accuse the abbot of being mercenary. Surely it was piety that drove him to this action. Another thirty years and Anglo Saxon saints would probably be out of fashion anyway. The Norman Conquest would be underway and French would then be the fashion. So where is her body now, since following the dissolution of the monasteries the relics were dispersed or thrown away? Possibly they were taken to Deventer in Holland for safekeeping. Although the saint 'desired' to remain in Canterbury, she did not make it back however a small piece was given to St. Mildred church in 1953. It is complicated. Here is a link.


Anachronist said...

Right, they weren't mercenary at all, just acting on the will of a saint. In Poland there was a very popular saint martyr, St Adalbert (Wojciech). His body was put into a silver coffin and revered in the Middle Ages as he was a real thing- he died at the hands of heathens when trying to convert them. Well, the Poles didn't enjoy his saint's presence for long. During one raid the Czechs, ordered by his king, stole the coffin and the saint although I doubt he asked them for it.

Tracy said...

I notice the Catholic Herald justifies it on the grounds that 'Thanet was not a very safe place in those days' (Definitely not if you're planning to steal their saint's body!)
And they even planned a diversion - their talents are clearly under-utilized in the Church!

The Red Witch said...

Thanet was still being subjected to Viking raids but I doubt the Vikings were going to bother with dead bodies.
Goscelin also described the 'translation' of another female saint Withburga. She was stolen from Dereham and taken to Ely. This account at Wikipedia describes it well:
"In 974 Brithnoth, the abbot of Ely, elected to steal her body so that he could have financial gain from the pilgrims. Brithnoth and some armed men came to Dereham and organised a feast. When the Dereham men were properly drunk, the Ely mob stole Withburga's body and set off for home. Dereham soon found out that this crime had taken place and set off after the Ely criminals.[4]
There was a large fight between the two sides, with spears as well as fists being thrown. As the men approached Ely, however, the thieves had the advantage of knowing their way through the swamps and marshes - and Wihtburh was deposited in Ely.
When the Dereham men returned home, however, they found that a spring had appeared in Wihtburh's violated tomb. The water in this spring was considered to be compensation for the loss of their saint and pilgrims continued to come and drink from the water. The spring has never run dry and the water, in Withburga's violated tomb, can be visited to this day."

The Venerable Bede was also stolen from Jarrow and taken to Durham, in case you thought it was a phenomenon that only occurred to female saints.

Anachronist said...

Thanet was still being subjected to Viking raids but I doubt the Vikings were going to bother with dead bodies.

Unless they knew they could sell them and make decent profit!