Germany / Travel / Weird

Religious Relics: A Hot Commodity in The Middle Ages

Saint Mundita

Say hello to Saint Mundita: 2nd century Christian martyr and patron saint of single women. Given our 21st Century sensibilities, this relic in Munich’s St. Peter’s Church clearly fits into our “Weird and Wonderful Series” … definitely a bit on the weird side. 

But in the Middle Ages this relic would have been a perfectly natural (or should I say supernatural) sight in any cathedral. In fact, any cathedral would have been proud to have a relic like St. Mundita because pilgrims from all over Germany would flock to their doors, filling the coffers of both the church and the town’s businesses. In Medieval Europe, relics were a big deal for the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Mundita 2

Little is known about St. Mundita, but most sources say she was dispatched with a hatchet by a Roman executioner around 300 AD. And while not as important as the the bones of St. Peter, the head of St. John the Baptist, or The Tongue of St Anthony of Padua (I’m not making this up.), she’s doing OK for herself – she has her own Facebook page!

Saint Mundita's Hand

Relics are religious objects generally connected to a saint, or some other venerated person, and they aren’t necessarily just bones.

Saint Mundita's Feet

They might be a body part, a saint’s finger, an article of clothing, or a piece of the True Cross. And the most important ones were involved in the life of Jesus.

Shrine of the Three Kings

In addition to St. Mundita, we saw another important relic on our recent trip to Germany: the Shrine of the Three Kings which is in the Cologne Cathedral. This beautiful 7-foot gilded reliquary is said to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi.

Relics and pilgrimage churches played a large role in religious life in the Middle Ages, and had a significant economic impact on both the church as well as the city where it was located. Towns that possessed important sacred relics were popular destinations for spiritual tourism, and the offerings these pilgrims made to the church as well as the money they spent at local businesses made relics an important commodity.

The competition to obtain relics quickly lead to merchants and agents who located, bought, and sold them. And as inevitably happens, most areas had a network of unscrupulous riffraff who dealt in counterfeits.

In those days it was impossible to tell if you had the skull of Saint Bernard or Bernard the bartender. Protestant theologian John Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship.

Authentic or not, relics have a long tradition in the Catholic Church. They’re an intriguing part of the history of the church, and they continue to inspire the faithful to this day.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Saint Ivo of Kermartin (1253–1303) in Tréguier, Brittany, France

Saint Ivo of Kermartin (1253–1303) in Tréguier, Brittany, France

Photo Credits:
6. Derepus via Wikimedia Commons

53 thoughts on “Religious Relics: A Hot Commodity in The Middle Ages

  1. Good story!
    My favourite is Saint Spyridon in Corfu. it is said that at night when everyone is gone and the town is empty he rises from the silver sarcophagus and walks the streets of Corfu granting peoples wishes. Every year he wears out a perfectly good pair of shoes and every year he has to be fitted up for a new pair! Really!

    • I’m glad you brought that up Yvonne. I had read about the Holy Foreskin, and wanted to include it in the post, but thought it might gross people out. And according to Wikipedia: “Depending on what you read, there were eight, twelve, fourteen, or even 18 different holy foreskins in various European towns during the Middle Ages.” Given this, you don’t need to remember where it is because it could be anywhere (and everywhere). ~James

    • In our travels in the Far East, I’ve had the same thought Alison. And the interesting thing about all this adoration of the body of Buddha is that it pretty much goes against his teachings. Buddhism is about anything but the physical body. ~James

  2. It isn’t just religious relics that cause such a stir. Mummies, wrecked vehicles belonging to famous people, you name it, people will flock to anything. Remember the lines at the museum when King Tut was on display? It’s all about commerce in the end.

    • Laura, not everyone would agree that the sandals of Jesus (a cathedral supposedly has them) are on par with Elvis’ blue suede shoes, but I guess that it depends on your point of view. At least in the case of Elvis, they admit that it’s just about the money. ~James

      • A medievalist, think maybe Caroline Bynum Walker, wrote this great essay comparing the modern day journey to Graceland to medieval pilgrimages. So it’s not so far off. A great read on the topic of medieval relics is Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra, which traces the thefts of relics in the middle ages. Relics were indeed a commodity and there was a hot competition for the pilgrimage ‘business’ among the various towns and cities which held relics, which helped fuel the construction of all those cathedrals to hours them.

      • Thanks for the comment Bob and for dropping by the blog. It’s nice to have input from a scholar who knows whereof he speaks. I’m sure that our readers will appreciate your reading recommendations on the topic. We’ll continue this conversation offline when I see you next, but in the meantime, I find it very interesting that the concept of supply and demand was alive and well in the Middle Ages. I mean, I don’t want to step on any toes here, but 18 foreskins from baby Jesus – that’s just not right. Thanks again for watching over things and see you soon Buddy. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Zoe and for dropping by the blog. Very little is known about Saint Mundita, and I’m wondering how she got to be the patron saint of single women. I’m sure that in a male-dominated culture like the Catholic Church there’s a good story, but I couldn’t find it. But she’s rockin’ those jewels and sandals. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. On our first “Eurail Pass” trip to Europe we spent a fair amount of time in Austria, and saw quite a few relics. But I must admit, at the time I didn’t really appreciate what they were all about. I specifically remember a huge pile of skulls, but can’t remember where they were. What an interesting tradition. ~James

    • Martha, to me this demonstrates that even religious folks aren’t immune to flights of fantasy and harboring a few weird ideas. It’s interesting that in the Middle Ages even churches had to keep up with the Joneses. ~James

    • Venerated is exactly the word. The church was quick to rule that the relics could not be worshipped, because only God could be worshipped. The relics could be venerated, and as you say, still are today. ~James

  3. As a non-Catholic on our 3 year ABC (Another Blessed Cathedral) Tour, I was able to view with a mostly objective eye some of the odd exhibits in cathedrals throughout the Catholic world.

    I was often struck with the idea that the Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Museums were the modern-day progression of the odd and sometimes bizarre displays we discovered along the way. You reinforced this with the notion of early religious tourism.

    The building of amusement parks was no doubt part of the natural evolution of civilization’s quest for entertainment as well as to satisfy our insatiable curiosity. That is not to trivialize the religious element of early tourism. Nevertheless, the idea of throwing in a thrill ride or two at the end of a long trek strikes me as more rewarding than taking a cross-country trek for the ultimate goal of viewing of relics. 🙂 – Mike

    • Ripley’s – what a good comparison. The bits and pieces of saints lying around Europe are amazing. The foreskin of Jesus? I appreciate the concept, but not sure I’d get too excited about the actual relic. But still, lots of folks believe and if it makes them feel better, that’s fine with me. I also like that the church has 3 classes of relics. I found this online:
      The 1st Class Relic consists of a part of the Saint, such as a bone, hair, etc…, and the instruments of Christ’s Passion.

      The 2nd Class Relic consists of something that was owned by the Saint or instruments of torture that was used against a martyr.

      The 3rd Class Relic consists of something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic. Anyone can make their own 3rd Class relics by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic, including the tomb of a Saint.

      I would think that it’s in class 3 where the “relic inflation” occurs. ~James

  4. I´m surprised they allowed you to take pictures. (But I´m glad they did). Sure is weird and wonderful. Perhaps she (or someone like her) may work her way into one of my books.

    • Darlene, I read a historical fiction novel a few years ago which was a murder mystery, and the motivation for the murder was an important relic. But for the life of me I can’t remember the author or name of the book. I think it would be a wonderful addition to one of your books. And those Spaniards were pretty serious Catholics (what with the Inquisition and all), so I’m sure there are a few relics scattered around Spain that you could go and see. ~James

  5. I have my own photo collection of relics, James. Imagine the cottage industry that must have been involved in chopping up saints and distributing them. But then, maybe I am being a little sacrilegious here. Bad Curt.

    Somehow I am reminded of the first bishop who went to Fiji and tried to persuade the natives that cannibalism was bad. He was cut up in little pieces and distributed by runners throughout the island so everyone could partake in the feast.

    In this day of cremation, I wonder how many of us have urns of Uncle Charlie up on our mantle. Hmmm… Is it all that different?

    And finally, in terms of weird, have you ever been to the Chapel of Bones in Evora, Portugal. The walls and ceilings are made up of bones and skulls of thousands of people who perished in an earthquake. It is indeed a strange trip to walk through the chapel.

    —Curt

    • I hear you Curt. I had to tread carefully when I wrote this post. Folks get a little tetchy about their religions. I haven’t see the Evora Chapel, but we did see quite the ossuary in Hallstatt, Austria. It was in our early days of travel, and these carefully sorted and stacked piles of legs bones, skulls, hands, etc were quite a sight. I get the idea of relics, but these incredible stacks of bones, and incorporating them into the architecture I don’t really understand. And I myself will be in an urn, but only temporarily, as the scattering will happen soon thereafter. ~James

    • Anita, apparently Saint Mundita had been interred in the catacombs beneath Rome for a few centuries, so I suspect that the majority of her cleanup was natural. But even after a few hundred years, it would seem that in order to get such clean bones that some sort of second wash cycle would be needed. Nice bling though! ~James

  6. It’s not that I didn’t believe you, but I had to click and see the Facebook page! Wow. How have I never heard of this St. Mundita? Or seen a likeness of her? But now that I have, I’m not sure I can sleep well tonight. OMG. Thanks for sharing, I think.

    • Rusha, there’s not a single day that passes that at some point I don’t say to myself: “The stuff you can find on the internet!” Is this Facebook page not the ultimate hoot. Did you scroll down on the page to may absolute favorite post title – “Bling out the Dead! That’s been my best laugh of the week, and as I said to Sue above, I really really wanted to steal that title. ~James

    • Marie, Mundita was originally interred in the catacombs of Rome for a few hundred years, so I suspect that they let nature take its course. But, given the state of the bones today, I think she’s had some additional cleanup. ~James

  7. Saint Mondita could fit in well with Mexico’s Day of the Dead! I always thought these reliques were just macabre but the economic explanation you give makes perfect sense…and dollars.

    • The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela contains the relics of Saint James (one of my personal favorites) as well as a piece of the True Cross, and the pilgrimage to this church was one of the most popular in the Middle Ages. Imagine how good that was for business. ~James

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