Friday, June 17, 2011

Furta Sacra!



The LA Times reported yesterday that a stolen relic from St. Anthony's in Long Beach was found and returned to the church. The relic, a bone from St. Anthony, is over 750 years old and rests in an elaborate golden reliquary.

Relic theft has an illustrious history. In medieval Europe, relics--well, their reliquaries, really--were looted by Vikings in the 8-10th centuries. Catholic armies on the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople (the capital of a Christian empire) and returned home with a bunch of good relic loot, including the head of John the Baptist. Medieval clerics also participated enthusiastically in furta sacra. St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln*, had a trick ring that could conceal small relics. While on a visit to the monastery at Fécamp, he bit off a piece of a finger bone of St. Mary Magdalene after requesting a private audience with the saint. Ste. Foy was removed (excuse me, "translated") to the monastery at Conques by an enterprising monk. Shrines were, and are, big business. Conques was an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, and pilgrims to the shrine brought offerings, money, and trade to the monastery and its surroundings.

The Brother Cadfael episode "A Morbid Taste for Bones" deals with this issue nicely. It also has this guy in it.

What I like about the story of this more recent instance of relic theft is that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. You just knew he wasn't going to stay lost for long. Also, instead of praying to the saint for a vision that would reveal his whereabouts, the police relied on surveillance footage from a nearby business. Of course, police have relied on St. Anthony's assistance for help with their own cases...


*St. Hugh is also the patron saint of the author's Oxford college.

4 comments:

Jen B said...

The story of St. Foy is so great - my students are always completely shocked by the activities around her "translation," and are especially entertained by the argument that if she didn't want to be moved, she would have prevented it from happening. I'll have to check out that episode of Brother Cadfael...

E. R. Truitt said...

Yeah, I usually assign excerpts from the Book of Ste. Foy in my classes on medieval medicine, and last year I screened the Cadfael. It's a little overwrought, but dramatizes the issue nicely.

AV said...

Translated? That's some real Pentagon-ese.

Jenji said...

Furta sacra! Fabulous phrase which should be used more widely. Did a friend borrow your 1960s Courreges shift and not return it? Furta sacra!

But seriously, were these relic "liberators" more interested in the spiritual significance and saintly associations of having a holy item in their grasp, or was it more of a prestige / political / economic move, upping your pilgrimage trade? Wasn't anyone afraid that they would anger the saint in question and face some serious consequences, afterlife or no?

Hmmm, maybe there were relic-boosting mercenaries to do some dirty work...