Christians fought over them,
for to many these relics were more valuable than gold or precious stones.
Relics were earthly remains or objects and scraps of cloth which had come
into contact with the living or dead body of a saint. Above all, the bones
were the most precious. Since ancient times, it was believed that through
them God very often continued to work in mysterious ways, and those who
venerated them received special graces. Some medieval Christians, however,
saw them as possessing magical powers, and so an illegal trade in relics
grew up. Traders would do almost anything to get hold of these sacred
objects. They robbed graves, skeletons were taken apart or stolen and
limbs hacked off; the head of a saint was particularly sought after. The
trade was so grotesque that St Francis gave Perugia a wide berth on his
last journey from Siena to Assisi; he was afraid the traders would tear
him apart. And it is said, though we cannot know for certain, that Bishop
Hugh of Lincoln shocked the monks at Fecamp monastery in France by gnawing
"like a dog" on a bone, reputedly that of Mary Magdalene's arm, in order
to ensure protection from all harm.
The monasteries and secular princes were the chief
collectors of relics, as well as the precious reliquaries which housed
them. Assembled between 1347 and 1378, the most important collection of
this kind was owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The relics and
reliquaries amassed by this inveterate collector represented all the
countries he ruled. His collection included bones from the skeletons of St
Palmatius (Italy), St Sigismund (Burgundy) and Wenceslas (Bohemia). The
Emperor never tired of praising the "empire-preserving powers" inherent in
He also owned treasures which signified his omnipotence:
crown, sceptre, orb and the Imperial sword. These symbols of the temporal
power of the Holy Roman Empire were regarded as relics of Charlemagne, who
was then venerated as a saint, and who, according to legend, commissioned
and first used these objects. Even more sacred were the sacred lance and
nails thought to be from the True Cross. The lance itself was believed to
be the very one with which the soldier Longinus pierced the side of Christ
on Mount Calvary.
Utterly convinced that his relics were genuine, Charles
IV had Karlstein Castle built near Prague to house these sacred treasures.
It became a gathering place for knights of the Grail and was the spiritual
centre of his reign. Today, the Imperial Jewels are kept in Vienna.
However, Karlstein Castle is still a delight to visit due to its
magnificent frescoes, and it is the Bohemian national monument.