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LA POLITIQUE DES RELIQUES DE CONSTANTIN A SAINT-LOUIS
[213044]

LA POLITIQUE DES RELIQUES DE CONSTANTIN A SAINT-LOUIS

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Date d'ajout : mercredi 02 février 2011

par E. GORDON WHAHEY

E. GORDON WHAHEY, Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

SPECULUM

The front cover of this welcome survey of secular involvement in the medieval cult of relics shows the French royal saint, Louis IX, receiving the crown of thorns from the hands of the Byzantine emperor outside the walls of an unidentifieed city (presumably Paris), The scene is fictitious: the emperor in question, Baldwin Il (a Frank), neither brought the famous relic to Paris nor presented it to St. Louis in person, but apparently he did write to confirm the transfer of ownership. After residing for centuries in the great relics hoard in the royal palace in Constantinople, the crown of thorns had been sent to Saint Mark's, Venice, as collateral for a large bank loan, in .1238, After Louis paid off the loan, the relic was brought to Paris in 1239 and, along with numerous Passion relics brought by Louis from Constantinople in the early 1240s, was eventually enshrined in the newly constructed palatine chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle (1248). According to Bozóky (pp. 165-69), the illustration (from a fifteenth-century French life and miracles of St. Louis) and the events it evokes epitomize the "sacralization" of political power through the highly publicized acquisition and display of such relics by kings like Louis IX. For some of his contemporaries the painting would also signify the translatio imperii, and the transfer of God's favor, from the Eastern empire to "la Gaule." Bozóky's earlier work has shown how the wholesale translatio of saints' relics during the ninth and tenth centuries from a debilitated old Rome, discredited by the slaughter of early Christian martyrs, to a vigorous and expanding Carolingian Christian Francia was likewise interpreted as the transfer of divine power to a new populus Dei.
Bozóky’s book, to which Jean-Claude Schmitt contributes a short, characteristically thoughtful preface, is divided into five large chapters. The first offers various explanations for the origins and theology of the cult of saints' relics in late antiquity and illustrates the range of medieval beliefs concerning the relics' power over human and animal disease, famine, weather, and public safety. Much of the latter part of the chapter is devoted to explaining, illustrating, and documenting a medieval theory of the cult of relics as a means of achieving peace and stabilitas in a given community, the peacemaking function (p. 68) of the ruler being completed and in part replaced by saints' relics (p. 72). According to Bozóky this emerging ideology culminated in the Peace of God movement in the early eleventh century.
This reader expected to learn more about this interesting thesis in chapter 2, on the "Byzantine model" for the political use of cults of relics, but instead Bozóky offers a detailed narrative history of the Eastern emperors' accumulation, from the fourth century on, of what became over time a treasure trove of relics (especially of the holy family and Christ's Passion), housed in the imperial palace itself. Their motives for this obsessive accumulation are attributed in vague, general terms to the Byzantines' belief in the power of the relics to protect the city of Constantinople and to serve as symbols of imperial power.
The next two chapters, copiously illustrated like chapter 2 with narrative anecdotes from a rich variety of sources, relate how the Byzantine emperors were imitated (chapter 3) by kings in France, Germany, England, Spain, and Italy and (chapter 4) by local lords in various regions in their zeal for acquiring relies and enshrining them in their palaces or favored religious communities. Again there is no further treatment of the theory of stabilitas. Rather than any transcendent ideology of social order or the common good, the term Bozóky uses here most frequently is "sacralisation du pouvoir": in other words, a more self-centered, more purely "political" exploitation of the cult of relics by lay rulers to legitimize their power, increase their prestige, and enforce their will. The interesting filth and final chapter illustrates the surprising extent to which lay rulers played an active role in the actual "exposition" (ostensio) of relics, that is, in their actual physical handling and visual display on public occasions such as inventiones, translationes, and other festive ritualized occasions.
Bozóky rightly presents her work here as a synthesis of existing scholarship rather than as original research, although a whole book, covering most of medieval Christian history focused exclusively on the cult of relics among monarchs and nobility is an original contribution to this flourishing field of study, Bozóky provides copious narrative and anecdotal detail, mainly from Latin sources accompanied by lucid translations. The book's emphasis on the secular, political ramifications of the cult of relics is reflected in the preponderance of nonhagiographical texts in the footnotes and list of primary sources; amply documented throughout is the importance of archival material (including charters, laws, royal and episcopal acta, as well as chronicles, alongside the more familiar hagiographic narrative genres such as the vita, miracula, and translatio) for the study and interpretation of saints' cults, Bozóky's footnotes are in themselves a treasury of references to th~~ vast bibliography of important original scholarship that she has drawn on and synthesized here, especially from work published in the past twenty or thirty years in French, English, German, and Italian. Perhaps underrepresented, on the other hand, are liturgical scholarship and texts that might throw light on the "sacral" aspect of medieval kingship, a tropic that Bozoky implies but does not directly address but one that is surely relevant to her striking images (drawings by Matthew Paris) of King Louis elevating the relic of the true cross with his own hands (p. 246, fig. Il) and of Henry III of England carrying the casket of holy blood from London to Westminster (p. 241, fig. 10).
The book has some structural weaknesses. More a collection of separate essays than a coherent, unified monograph, it seems to start out as a chronological study of a process of historical development but becomes instead a series of thematic explorations, with quite a bit of repetition, backtracking, and revisiting of episodes discussed earlier and occasional contradictions between chapters. Nevertheless the book provides a wide-ranging, richly documented introduction to its topic, valuable for both novices and specialists.


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