Holy robbery

In 9th century CE France, a monk went undercover in a rival monastery for ten years to steal a holy relic.

The reliquary of Saint Foy
自由馴鹿 (ZiYouXunLu), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In my post on relic souvenirs I mentioned that people sometimes chipped off bits of relics… or just stole them whole. They had a good reason to do so: religious relics in the Middle Ages were big business. Get a relic, and your church or monastery might get on the pilgrimage trail. Get on the pilgrimage trail, and you would get a steady stream of devout visitors. Get a steady stream of pilgrims and a lot of money would follow – both in devout offerings and in ancillary business.

Relic robbery was common enough that it has its own name: furta sacra. In the 9th century CE, for example, an abbey in southern France really wanted some relics. A nearby monastery had a doozy of a relic, the body of Saint Faith (Sainte-Foye). So a monk from the abbey, Ariviscus, went undercover in the monastery. For ten years he stayed in the monastery, waiting for a chance to get close to the relics. And then, in 866, he got his chance and smuggled the relic out of the monastery and into the abbey. That abbey, today known as the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy, still houses the relic today. It’s bundled in the golden reliquary pictured above.

I was reading about the theft of Saint-Foye and I came across another amusing example of relic robbery. Hugh of Lincoln had a sacramental ring that contained a number of small relics, at least one of them supposedly obtained by theft. Hugh was visiting Fécamp Abbey (incidentally, the first producer of Bénédictine). As part of that visit he had the opportunity to see a bone relic of Mary Magdalene. He leaned down to kiss the relic, and promptly bit a chunk of bone off it. Wasn’t this sacrilege? Hugh argued that he received the holy sacrament on his lips every week, and that was a much more precious relic than any old bone. And he kept those relic fragments for himself.

[Credit: In Our Time’s episode on medieval pilgrimages.]

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