A Bone to Pick: Relic Thefts In the News

The relic thieves have struck again! According to German news outlet The Local, police are seeking thieves who stole a mummified “liar’s hand” from a church in Legden, North Rhine-Westphalia. (Gruesome photo at the link.)

To be clear, the hand isn’t the relic of a saint—in fact, it’s not clear who it originally belonged to. The Telegraph explains, “Known as the ‘perjury-hand’, local legend dictates that it was severed from its owner when he or she broke an oath, and to serve as a bloody lesson to anybody else contemplating straying from the truth. But nobody knows the real history behind the hand other than that it was discovered preserved in lime during the demolition of an old fortified town in 1905.” In fact, locals had just raised enough money to send the mysterious item to Düsseldorf University for tests to determine its age and the sex of its owner.

The world has been plagued by a spate of thefts of mummified body parts—and their accessories—over the past year and a half. This past March, the 900-year-old heart of 12th century Irish saint St. Laurence O’Toole was stolen from a church in Dublin. In February, also in Ireland, a burglar stole a valuable shrine that normally contains part of cheekbone of St. Brigid. (The bone was out at the cleaners; hat tip to Christine Quigley for news of that theft.)

Christ Church, Heart of Archbishop Saint-Laurence O’Toole. Photo by Chickpea, via Creative Commons on Flickr

In October 2011, three “relics of the true cross” were taken from Holy Cross Abbey in Ireland, while in June 2011 in California, a bone said to be from St. Anthony’s body was stolen from a Long Beach Catholic church. In the latter two cases, both of the relics were later recovered.

(Then there’s the Czech whack job who claimed this past summer to have plundered the Vienna graves of composers Strauss and Brahms, but that’s a different story.)

There’s a long history of relic thefts in the Catholic Church, though for a variety of reasons. In the Middle Ages, owning a fragment of a major saint—their tongue, say, or a scrap of their cloak—could establish your church as a must-see pilgrimage destination, providing a steam of both pilgrims and revenue. Eventually, relics became scarce enough that towns and churches began stealing them from one another—under the cover of night or in all-out assault.

According to medieval historian Patrick Geary, such thefts were known as “sacra furta,” or holy theft, and they weren’t seen as an ethical problem. Because the relics were viewed as the representative of the saint on earth, the bones, tongues, or bits of cloth were thought to have their own personalities. If they didn’t want to be stolen—or “translated”—they wouldn’t allow it. A successful theft meant the saint wanted to come with you.

Two of the most famous thefts of the Middle Ages concern Saint Mark and Saint Nicholas. In 828, Venetian merchants smuggled bones supposedly belonging to Saint Mark from Alexandria to Venice; the story goes that the relics were covered in a layer of pork to prevent the local Muslims from interfering. In 1087, sailors from Bari (now part of Italy) stole Saint Nicholas’s bones from Myra (now Demre, Turkey). The perfume of his “manna,” or “bone oil,” was said to be a sign that the saint approved of his move.

I discuss the theft of Saint Nicholas (the inspiration for Santa Claus) in Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. For those who want to more about medieval relic theft, I highly recommend Patrick Geary’s book Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. And if anyone reading this works at a Catholic Church, I highly recommend hiring some additional security guards.

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3 thoughts on “A Bone to Pick: Relic Thefts In the News

  1. Thanks, Loren! It is a pretty bizarre phenomenon, but like anything, makes more sense in historical context. (Well, the medieval thefts do–I’m not sure what to think of the modern ones.) I think you’d enjoy Furta Sacra!

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