Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe

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Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. By Charles Freeman. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 306. $35.00.)

Relics and saints' cults have received a great deal of scholarly attention in the past few decades, as our understanding has increasingly placed these phenomena at the center of medieval life and culture. Noting that they were "accepted at every level of life, among rich and poor, king and serf, theologian and the illiterate, without challenge," Charles Freeman successfully weaves a tale of relic cults as the spine of medieval history and religion (xiv). In doing so, he fashions not only an excellent history of relics but also offers a novel (and informative) alternate history of the Middle Ages, seen through the lens of one of its most salient characteristics. Beginning with the dramatic martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Freeman deftly draws the reader in with a detailed and lively account of one of medieval Europe's most notorious murders and the influential relic cult that emerged in its aftermath. This sets the stage for Freeman to unfold the history of relic cults in engaging, clear, and easily digestible prose. Dividing the book into twenty-six pithy, chronologically arranged chapters, he ably traces the evolution and practice of relic cults from the origins of Christianity through the Reformation.

The breadth of coverage and wealth of detail make this a most rewarding read. For those not familiar with the phenomenon of relics, this book would be an ideal starting point. Those more versed in this history will also find much here, as Freeman includes many rich details and specifics doubtless of great interest to scholars. …