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The Bones of St. Cuthbert: Defining a Saint’s Cult in Medieval Northumbria

Sarah Luginbill (Trinity University)

Trinity University: History Honors Theses. Paper 6 (2014)

Across Christian Europe throughout the Middle Ages, holy men and women were venerated for their sanctity in life and death by ecclesiastical and lay individuals. Saints and their remains were the focus of popular spiritual devotion, and churches displayed the relics of the holy deceased as representations of ecclesiastical and secular power. Every day, individuals of all genders, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds venerated relics in order to gain the saint’s help or blessing, believing the relics’ power lay in the ability to perform miracles and connect with Heaven. The possession of a saint’s relics increased the status of the church and the city, enhanced the authority of the clergy, and provided the secular owners with political, spiritual, and economic influence. Patrick Geary, one of the preeminent scholars on the medieval cult of relics, summarizes the value of relics by stating that the remains reflected the amount of significance a community gave them. Not all relics were equally venerated during the Middle Ages, and only specific saints with cults in powerful ecclesiastical settings were ultimately successful and long-lasting. In order for the cult of saints to succeed, lay Christians needed to accept the idea that relics could move from place to place and still retain their sanctity. In medieval thought, deceased saints allowed their relics to be relocated in order to aid their followers or lend support to a particular community. This transfer process was known as translation, or “the ritual movement of a saint’s bodily remains from one place to another.” Saints’ remains were translated because there was an understanding that holy bodies should not stay underground like the ordinary deceased. The idea that an average burial was not appropriate for a saint relates to historian Catherine Cubitt’s statement that there existed a notion of hierarchical burial places in the Middle Ages. Altars and tombs were viewed as superior to graves in the ground, and shrines within large cathedrals were even more prominent resting places. Translations were often to newly built churches in order to legitimize the church and provide a proper atmosphere for the veneration of the saint, and if a church was rebuilt or consecrated after a saint’s death, the saint would be translated to the newest shrine.

Click here to read this thesis from Trinity University