I recently visited the CMA’s exhibit of medieval reliquaries. The official lit on the exhibit made much about the power of memory and the function of the relics as mementos linking the worshippers to their collective past, and while this probably has some validity, I doubt that medieval Christians thought about these objects in such psychologized terms. It’s always risky to speculate on what a group of people a thousand years ago “really” thought about their cultural constructs, but what I saw of these objects leads me to believe that the whole system of relics and reliquaries bespeaks a peculiarly material, even mechanical, approach to religious practice.
The basic theory hinges on a quantity that, for lack of a better term, we might call “holiness”. This is what the medieval pilgrim would have sought, and what the relics would purport to give access to. Etherial as this concept might seem at first blush, a couple of things can be said about it with some confidence:
Firstly, holiness (h hereafter) is good. We must clarify that “good” is intended in its most objective, unequivocal sense, and as so h functions as an end in itself. Having h or being in its presence is better than the alternative, whatever other effects might be attributed to it. That being said, h has practical functions, and these follow from its essential goodness. The supposed miraculous properties of a relic owe to its resident h increasing the goodness of those around it in a very concrete (if unpredictable) fashion.
Second, h can be said to act as a physical substance. Its existence is spatial and temporal; it exists in higher concentrations in certain places, times, and, in the case of relics, objects. One might even speak of h-gradients. In other contexts however, it displays properties of energy, particularly heat. For example, a high-h object such as a relic might provoke people to touch it, in hopes of absorbing some of its h. h, like heat, would seem to conduct from regions of higher to lower “temperature”. With this in sight, it makes sense that the church would strive to insulate relics as thoroughly as possible. A sort of Second Law of Theodynamics seems to be at work here, and h-entropy is to be avoided at all costs. The only significant departure from classical physics lies in the fact that h conducts not only via physical but also historical contact. A saint’s toenail continues to receive h from the saint long after it has been clipped and its owner martyred. Sir James Frazier called this the Law of Contagion, but for our purposes we can call it the Principle of Conduction-by-Association.
With these principles in sight, we may define relics as implements of controlled h-propagation. To our medieval votaries, the ultimate source of h was, of course, God, but this source was distant and therefore, like a faraway power plant, not reliable as a direct resource. Hence the need for an accessible system for the dissemination of this commodity, a system in which relics formed the ultimate “outlets”. We may map the flow of h thusly: