Christianity has been, since its inception, a religion obsessed with death and the dead. From the reverence of Christ on the cross to the burial practices of early Christians, which brought bodies within the walls of settlements, and even within the places of worship themselves, mediaeval religion was saturated with a concern for one’s mortal remains. (Many Roman settlements placed cemeteries outside the walls, in dedicated necropolises.) It was thought by many, for example, that unless one was buried whole, it would be impossible to join Christ in the second coming.
This concern for bodies–particularly dead ones–has little resonance in Western society today, unless one is attending either a Halloween party or an archaeological conference. The allure of the dead, evident in the recent upsurge of interest in zombie apocalypses and vampiric romance, also has a serious academic dimension. Graves, and grave goods in particular, can be a powerful source of information about society, material culture, and, of course, the biological traits of past populations. (See my post on mediaeval brooches for more.)
Recently, archaeologists in Britain have been on the hunt for a very particular set of mortal remains–those of King Richard III of England, immortalised by Shakespeare as the blackest of England’s monarchs. In the ‘historical’ play which bears his name, he is a bloody and manipulative tyrant, despised by all, whose physical deformity barely manages to reflect the perversity within. This reputation, though fuelled by the propagandist efforts of the Tudor dynasty which supplanted Richard, has helped to entrance generations of readers. With researchers finally inspecting a skeleton excavated in Leister–reputed burial place of Richard–this fascination may finally have a focus. The remains display many injuries consistent with Richard’s death in battle, as well as a severe curvature of the spine from scoliosis. If the DNA from these bones matches those from a modern descendent (through the comparison of mitochondrial DNA), then Richard III will join a very select club of mediaeval individuals whose bodies have been positively identified.
Among them are many British royals, including Edward, ‘Black Prince’ of Wales, and many of Richard III’s successors. Some more exotic confederates would be Tamerlane, whom Russian archaeologists exhumed in the mid-20th century, and Childeric, whose tomb at Tournai was discovered in the 17th century. Buried with dozens of golden bee ornaments, Childeric inspired Napoleon’s own conception of French kingship, but his remains, like his treasures, have long since disappeared. Even King Arthur, the fictitious figure of Welsh legend and continental romance, has a tomb, at Glastonbury, ‘discovered’ in the 12th century. To most mediaeval people, however, these secular bodies would have placed a distant second in comparison with the bodily relics of the saints.
During life, the physical body of a saint was often the enemy, subject to stringent asceticism and deprivation. The biographer of St Germanus of Auxerre (a post-Roman bishop in Gaul), for example, happily declared that ‘no words can describe the fierceness with which he did violence to himself and the crucifixions and penances with which he persecuted his own body.’
After death, however, saintly bodies underwent a startling transformation. Unlike normal flesh, the dead saint remained uncorrupted, fragrant, and beautiful to look upon. Because these bodies became a testament to sainthood, they also became the focus for saints’ cults. Bodies (and body parts) were transported large distances across Europe, and were even fought over by rival religious communities. This persisted even after the Reformation, as attested by the Franciscan nuns of Munich who, in the 1660s, imported a martyred body from Rome despite the strident complaints of their religious superiors.
From infamous kings to beloved saints, mediaeval peoples were highly aware of the power of the human body–even when dead. It should come as no surprise that even today, we pursue the remains of long-dead generations as a way to recover the immediacy of the past.
Constantius of Lyon, The Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre, trans. F.R. Hoare, in Thomas F.X. Noble and Thomas Head, (eds.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, (University Park, Pa., 1995), pp.75-105.
Ulrike, Strasser, ‘Bones of Contention Cloistered Nuns, Decorated Relics, and the Contest over Women’s Place in the Public Sphere of Counter-Reformation Munich,’ Historical Journal 25 (1982).