By the 12th century Christianity was actively practiced in much of Europe. Additionally, there is a clearer understanding on the doctrine of the faith. This is significant as for a long time the faith was practiced with many shades of gray. This can be drawn up to multiple factors, such as cultural clashes and simple things such as missionaries mistranslating material or communicating poorly. But what is perhaps the most striking factor in early Christianity is that of appropriation. By this I mean the habit that some locations had of fusing Christian teachings with concepts they where familiar with or rewriting what was already within their culture. This can be seen in the Anglo-Saxon drafts of Beowulf. Which adapts the ideas of prayer, the great flood and the Cain and Able mythos into its story. However, as Christianity became more of a powerful institution it was a problem to have these uneven practices being carried out. They sought to unify the faith with a clearer more uniform doctrine to be carried out. This was not an easy task. In coming centuries various practices would be challenged. Resulting in the later fractions of Christianity we associate with the later centuries. But studying popular trends in early Christianity tells us a great deal about the cultures within it and furthermore cultures they created. The popularity of religious relics and the veneration of saints is certainly a significant factor to consider.
This was a gradual progression. Christianity had fought against iconoclasm prior to this, actively punishing the practice. It was not until the Edict of Milan in 313AD that the cult of Saints and preservation of relics was accepted by the main body of the church. From then the early shrines sprung up quickly over the century. Starting with major saints such as the apostles. From here we can see the first significant reason for the flood of shrines and collection of relics. They were most often funded or promoted by powerful individuals from the secular world. Christian rulers were quick to poor money into the building of holy shrines or buildings dedicated to the Martyrs. This can be interpreted as a demonstration of both piety and to help their own political or religious image. Constantine I himself (Who signed the Edict of Milan) funded, commissioned and designed the shrine of Saint Peters tomb and great personal labour. With these religious sites appearing so did the popularisation of pilgrimage. Shrines and religious buildings made themselves more valuable by the relics they collected, the more valued the more attention and notoriety. Acquiring relics was not an easy feat. Louis IX sought to buy the relics of ‘The Passion of Christ’ for his masterpiece cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle. These relics had been in possession of Jerusalem but the financially vulnerable and weakened political state of the kingdom under Baldwin II lead them to be pawned to the state of Venice. Louis was so determined to possess these relics that he payed the state for a price higher than the cost of building. The building and relics brought hundreds of pilgrims to the city, boosting its global influence and the wealth, paying for any pains they may have cost Louis.
Religious relics and shrines come into play as a physically manifestation of Gods work on earth. They were considered to have spiritual value, as discussed previously, able to grant people some form of gratification or absolution. Miracles where often contributed to relics, proving their validity to onlookers. For example ‘The blood of saint Januarius’ which appears to liquify at three annual occasions of the year (And still dose on ceremony today). Failure cause panic as it was thought to be a premunition of evil events coming for the people of its resident city, Naples. Proof was thought to be events such as the Spanish taking control of the city in 1528. The miracles of these relics became passed by word of mouth of witnesses as well as being promoted by the church in official ceremonies. Doing this assured that these relics where proven and promoted to the wider culture. As if it was corporate marketing to keep people supportive of a wider cause. Why would the question what was recorded on mass and observed by so many? Who could blame pilgrims for their desire to observe these miracles first-hand? The suspension of disbelief went deeper still as people could believe impossible things given the guidance and the will to believe. This concept was further used to validify possible forgeries, fake relics or saving the integrity of religious houses by explaining them away with ‘divine providence.’ As explained by Ian Mortimer in reference to 3 places claiming to have preserved the head of john the Baptist. They believed if “God had determined it, it shall be- Even to the point of John the Baptist having three heads”.
Why where they so keen to believe this? Well, here is where the element of paganism can be seen just behind the veil of Christian themes. People would become deeply attached to saints that suited their needs or wishes. They would become greatly attached, praying or donating time and money to be invested in the churches or shrines dedicated to their chosen Saint. Mirroring how the ancients would pray at the temples of gods and goddesses. However this was not deemed as polytheistic as the Catholic church put emphasis that the Saints themselves where not granting the prayers or divine themselves, they were simply communicating with god on behalf of the person beseeching their help. Once more they could quantify this with ‘proof’. A Woman praying to a Saint representing fertility or childbearing carrying conceiving a child and delivering them safely, A man’s victory in battle, A safe travel to a foreign land? In their minds it could all be traced back to the saints that they revered to be watching over them.
So why did the people’s faith or commitment to saints and relics decline? In some part it can be contributed to the growing criticism aimed at the Catholic church in the 13thand 14th century. Leading to many differing branches of Christianity taking shape. Many argued that the worship of saints or relics where being used to exploit people. Some churches had started to use relics in connection to indulgences (Financial payments to absolve sins), meaning either the person had to pay a fee to view the item in question or the relic was used to illustrate that their sins where forgiven. For example, in 1310 the papacy granted permission for the Basilica of Holy Blood to charge a fee to view the blood of Christ. Other such controversies included the sale of certificates to confirm that a person had visited a religious site or been privileged enough to view a special relic. A horrid imitation of a gift shop. During the Edward VI’s short time on the throne, his religious policy directly attacked the cult of saints and acquisition of relics. Declaring them as superstitious and counter posing the teachings of the bible that opposed iconography. In England Relics and icons where gradually removed and sold before being banned by the order of the new religious settlement. Even during the reforms under Henry VIII there was great effort made to disprove relics in order to have a valid excuse to remove them, moreover, to make the present the practice in a poor light. Hugh Latimer was employed in 1539 for this very reason, traveling to various English religious houses to investigate these alleged artefacts with the intention to debunk them. It is easy to imagine how people could have felt betrayed or cheated by the church therefore leading to an unforgiving purge of the very items and doctrines that had caused the grievances. This is seen in England in the form of government sanctioned destruction of adornments in Churches. This was felt throughout the religious reforms of Europe. Over the course of 1522- 1566 The Holy Roman Empire and Switzerland underwent an intense period of violently destroying religious imagery. Both Churches and public areas where attacked by protestant reformers, this became known as “Beeldenstorm” (Statue Storm). In hindsight it can be viewed as a unfortunate result of change. Its unimaginable just how many great works of art or cultural icons we lost. By extension how many methods of innovation and design where dulled or frowned upon as something of an archaic affair.
Additionally, there was a discontent to of the moral grey area around the Catholic church itself. Practices such as indulgences, biblical interpretations, the use of a single language and the increased role it was playing in the political lives of the people. It is possible that this drastic attack on icons was a greater demonstration of unrest then just an anger around the images themselves. Moreover, that it was a stark direct way of protesting their dissatisfaction. Deformation of a symbol as a challenge to the power it represents is common, consider it comparative to flag burning or vandalism.
It is easy to forget just how much Christendom changed even prior to the reformation. It is a common misconception to think of it as an unchallenged or strict monolith before the appearance of Protestant or other challenging ideologies. To truly understand the relationship between the people and their engagement with faith we must always remember to consider just who influenced the choices and motivations of catholic practices. By extension we can also trace just how the church amassed so much influence and power. It was not a case of leading with unquestioned influence or resect. More so it seems to be the case that the Church cultivated what power it gained from many centuries of nursing a relationship that invited many avenues for themselves an those who sought to collaborate. A relationship of powers that fed off each other from the top down. Investment in the church be it from the investment in shrines, collection of relics or building religious structures. Both figure head and Church had something to be gained. This of course would come to be their undoing to, people would realise their influence and power within the practice of religion. Thus provoking the changes that would shake up Christianity as a whole leading to all new practices. Just as it itself had done so before hand, leading to centuries of religious fighting and debate.