A black market for holy relics thrived in the Middle Ages

Christian churches treasured objects associated with Jesus, Mary, and the saints, but con artists took advantage of the faithful, selling outright fakes.

Reliquary in the form of an angel, 14th century. Louvre Museum, Paris
M. BECK-COPPOLA/RMN-GRAND PALAIS

During the Middle Ages, objects and body parts associated with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and the saints played a central role in Christian life in Europe. Faithful pilgrims flocked to sites across the continent to venerate these relics, like the skull of St. Bridget in Sweden, the girdle of the Virgin Mary in the Netherlands, and Christ’s blood in Belgium.

The top league of medieval relics were associated with Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Apostles, with lesser saints and martyrs ranked below. Pilgrims flocked to Rome, site of the burial of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Peter, believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Peter, the first pope. Ranked after Rome in importance was the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which tradition holds is built over the tomb containing the remains of the Apostle James.

From the 11th century, relics were in even greater demand, to furnish the churches along the pilgrim ways. It has often been argued that the cult of relics became a victim of its own success: Regarded as objects of superstition by reformers, these objects would feature in the disputes that led to Europe’s violent split between Catholicism and Protestantism. (See inside today's cloak-and-dagger search for sacred texts.)

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