Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

A Mania for Martyrdom & A Rage for Relics

As we have seen, the very notion of religious belief is decidedly double-edged. Although it creates the bedrock of faith, and all the civilised values based on this, it can also provide the justification for all kinds of excessive forms of behaviour. In the early years of Christianity, for instance, the fashion for the ultimate declaration of faith, martyrdom, got completely out of hand.


Despite its reputation for authoritarianism, and the brutal manner in which it conducted many of its affairs, the Roman state was surprisingly tolerant towards the many religions within its fold. Unless they threatened the state, religion was regarded as a private matter. There were official state religions of course, but in the later years of the Republic a whole range of hero-worshipping and 'mystery' cults appeared, mostly coming from the East. The Christians were fairly late arrivals, and by the time they established themselves they were just one among many. But, almost from the moment they appeared on the scene, it was clear that they were distinctive, a sect apart. Christian hostility to the old religions, which, it soon became apparent, went beyond mere rivalry, was at first simply puzzling to the Roman authorities. The obvious disdain that they felt for pagan beliefs, coupled with an unshakeable conviction of their own superiority, soon marked them out as suspect. Ironically, they were suspected of immorality. Their aloofness was thought to be a front for depraved activities, and their services, which were semi-secret, were widely believed to be orgiastic.

As time went by there was a steady polarisation of attitudes. On their side the Christians persisted with their 'holier than thou' attitude, while for their part the Roman authorities grew increasingly suspicious of their intentions. Their constant criticism of other religions made them very unpopular, and official censure intensified. They were at first persecuted, and later banned; eventually adherence to the new religion became a capital offence. Convinced of their mission, but faced with the determined opposition of the Roman state (and having disavowed violent means), the tactic that seemed most appropriate to many Christians was self-sacrifice. There was a distinctly masochistic inclination among these new sectaries, and there developed among them what can only be described as a positive passion for martyrdom.

In the course of the first Christian century acts of martyrdom became the principle focus of the conflict with Imperial Rome. It conferred instant admission to paradise for the martyrs themselves, and it provided an effective, if extreme, form of publicity for the early Church. But, as often happens with excessive enthusiasm, things began to get quite out of hand. Within a very short time there was a veritable flood of would-be Christian martyrs engaged in actively provoking the authorities into action against them. This was annoying to the Roman authorities, who were sometimes faced with entire villages of would-be martyrs, but also became a serious embarrassment to the fledgling Church, which was eventually forced to censure these provocations and decry them as mere suicides. The notion of a fast track to Heaven had to be played down. For their part the Romans were simply unable to comprehend these motives. The response of the proconsul Antoninus epitomises their sense of bewilderment - 'Oh unhappy men, if you are thus weary of your lives is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?'- in other words, 'Why bother us?'

It was not simply the Christian enthusiasm for martyrdom that amazed the Romans, but their apparent desire to suffer as much as possible in the process. There seemed to be a rule that the more gruesome the death, the greater the degree of sanctity it conferred. When exposed to wild animals in the amphitheatre Christian prisoners deliberately provoked the animals to ensure that they were torn to pieces. They cheerfully invited torture and willingly leapt into the fires that were prepared for them. The gory details of all such events were, of course, carefully recorded by their fellow Christians, and circulated among other believers. The 2nd century Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was himself a Stoic and therefore not opposed to suicide in principle, utterly deplored this new fashion which, as he saw it, combined an irrational fanaticism with theatricality.

The persecution of the Church and the cult of martyrdom continued throughout the first and second centuries, and the declaration by the Church Father Tertullian that 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church' was a statement of a simple fact. All of the early martyrs were sanctified - indeed this was originally the only path to sainthood. The tombs of the martyred saints were held in high honour throughout the Roman Empire. Churches were founded on these sites, and wherever they were established they became the centres of pilgrimage.

In time, when the Roman Empire itself had adopted Christianity, the cult of saintly martyrs became thoroughly institutionalised. As Christianity spread, every locality wanted its own saint and, inevitably, the system became riddled with abuse. Rival localities challenged the authenticity of each others martyred remains and sanctimonious disputes multiplied. Eventually a central authority was established to devise rules to regulate the system, and to examine and authorise all reported cases of martyrdom.

In later centuries martyrologies, or lists of martyrs, were drawn up for devotional use but, predictably, these too became the subject of a great deal of rancour. There was a wholesale creation of local 'martyrs', many of whom were adapted from older, pre-Christian myths. Rival martyrologies were brought out for every kind of local, political purpose and, in effect, they became instruments of policy. After the conquest of Britain, for instance, the Normans attempted to substitute their own lists of saints for those of the Anglo-Saxons.

There were periodic attempts to 'rectify' these lists, i.e. to eliminate spurious claims and place the whole system on a more consistent footing. But this was ever a highly subjective process and constantly met with objections from parties with vested interests in a particular martyr. In the meantime the physical relics of saints had become a valuable commodity. It was a mark of distinction for a church to house the remains of a notable saint. They imparted a distinct aura to the possessing church, and were felt to impart divine protection.

There was also, in those pre-medical days, a general belief in the efficacy of saintly intercession, a belief that had been sanctioned by the Church Fathers themselves. Relics were felt to offer the possibility of miracle cures, and a form of specialisation operated in which particular relics were associated with specific ailments - St. Gall for tumours, for instance, St. Valentine for epilepsy, St. Christopher for diseases of the throat, St. Ovid for deafness and so on. People travelled enormous distances in those days in hope of a cure. For this reason, and because they were venerated in a more general sense, relics attracted great numbers of pilgrims, with the result that they also became an important source of alms.

The devotion to saintly remains spread with the church itself, but over the centuries all manner of abuses crept in. Rivalries sprang up between churches, and there were many disputes as to the number and quality of their respective relics. Because of their prestige, and because they were a valuable source of income, huge sums were spent on acquiring them, and an extensive trade in sacred relics came into being to furnish the demand. This was such a lucrative business that for a long period it was Rome's principle export, the Roman catacombs providing an apparently endless supply of holy bones. Naturally the entire trade was contaminated by fakes and forgeries. Many fortunes were made by supplying relics of dubious authenticity, but pious acquisitiveness ensured the continuance of the trade for centuries. Such was the fervour to acquire relics that it was far from unheard of for them to be stolen from one church or monastery and transferred to another, usually by the covetous priests or monks themselves. When successful these acts of sacratissimum furtum (‘most sacred theft’) were usually celebrated with a thanksgiving mass.

Relics that were placed on open display were particularly at risk since pilgrims were rather prone to take a souvenir of the sacred object. High birth was apparently no guarantee of proper behaviour in this field - it is recorded that Hugh, the Bishop of Lincoln bit off part of the bone of Mary Magdelene, the greatest treasure of the Abbey of Fécamp, and took it home with him to Lincoln (Hugh was himself later canonised). This mania to secure relics meant that the bodies of those who had led exemplary lives were liable to be attacked immediately after their death. While St, Elizabeth of Hungary was lying in state her ears and parts of her breasts were cut off as relics; on the death of St. Douceline his coverings were torn to pieces and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the soldiers guarding his body prevented the crowd from tearing it to pieces. There were countless similar incidents.

Throughout the entire Medieval period edifying tomes on the lives of the Saints were enormously popular, but with the coming of the Reformation the martyr-cults and the relics themselves became one of the main targets of the Protestant reformers. There followed a veritable iconoclastic storm; Luther himself condemned the 5005 relics in the chapel of Frederick the Wise at Wittenberg. Predictably, the Protestant hostility to relics and martyrology led to a revival of interest in the subject within the Catholic world. There arose a movement to assemble a sort of ultimate Encyclopaedia of the lives of all the Saints that ever were. As a result the Bollandists came into being – they were a dedicated, learned society who devoted their entire lives to the task. Their work, the Acta Sanctorem (‘Acts of the Saints’), which is still being compiled, now runs to more than sixty massive volumes. For a true, Catholic believer it is a precious record of the faith. For those of a more sceptical turn of mind it is an entirely incredible jumble of myth, legend and propaganda.