The Relics of Richard III: An older but provocative post on medieval bones and modern worship

The Relics of Richard III: An older but provocative post on medieval bones and modern worship July 11, 2016

by Eleanor Parker aka A Clerk of Oxford. The rest of this post is quite peaceable and non-polemical but I fastened my fangs on the very David Foster Wallace/”everybody worships” bit:

There’s no doubt that many people today are fascinated by the relics of kings, even as they look down on the medieval age for caring about the relics of saints. We’re quite accustomed to the idea of a royal shrine as a place of historical pilgrimage – or else Westminster Abbey wouldn’t be able to charge such steep admission fees! Richard III isn’t the only king, of course, whose body draws in the tourists. For a medievalist, it’s always interesting to visit English cathedrals – most of which began life as a communities centred around a saint’s shrine, and which in the Middle Ages defined their identity by the saints whose bodies lay within – and find them now focusing almost exclusively on their royal burials. I was especially struck by this at Worcester Cathedral, where King John’s tomb, right in front of the high altar, is one of the cathedral’s most prominent attractions, and every tourist is directed to it. John was buried at Worcester because he wanted to be near the shrine of St Wulfstan – but Wulfstan’s tomb is gone, and John’s survives. John has a pretty bad reputation as kings go (rivalled only by Richard III, perhaps) but it’s accepted and expected that tourists will want to see his tomb; but wanting to see the site of St Wulfstan’s tomb is a bit weird, a bit too ‘medieval’. At Canterbury Cathedral, where the various royal tombs are all labelled and pointed out to tourists, one of the big attractions is the tattered accoutrements of the Black Prince – second-class relics hung up on display, before which every tourist is encouraged to pause and marvel – while the medieval pilgrims who marvelled at Becket’s shrine are presented as something distinctly ‘other’, a historical oddity which has to be explained. Personally I find the fascination with royal relics puzzling, and interest in saints’ relics much less so; at least medieval pilgrims believed that the people whose bodies they were so eager to encounter were holy, the remains of men and women of extraordinary virtue whose devout, self-denying lives infused their relics with power after death. Even the most dedicated defender of Richard III or King John doesn’t quite claim that!

more, including excellent details of medieval relic-reburials. Historiography, personal spirituality, drunk monks, and more!


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