Throughout much of history, at the heart of every village, town, and city in Europe, there lay a dead body. This was not the mystical body of Christ, symbolically consumed by his followers in the sacred rite of mass. It was a real body—a corpse; and whether intact, or only a fragment of bone, hair, or flesh, it was believed to be magical and alive. During feast days and other sacral events, this body had the power to draw the entire community together in a united and sanctified whole. Even more, it was only in the presence of this body, and through its miraculous agency, that one could supplicate God and be confident that he would listen. In times of crisis, in war, famine, plague, and drought, the promise of its protection was sought with the utmost fervor; sometimes this promise was all one had. It was the first, last, and best of hopes.
How very odd such behavior seems, and yet how very common it was. All over the world families and communities have looked to the spirits of the dead for guidance and protection, and have desired to speak with them via their physical remains. The cult of the heroes in ancient Greece, and then the religion of household gods in classical Rome, served this function. With the end of paganism and the rise of Christianity, the impulse found new expression in the worship of saints and the veneration of their relics. The devotion to the dead bodies of holy persons began in the second century, grew rapidly at the end of the fourth century, and continued unabated until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. For more than a thousand years in Europe, all the important deeds of life were carried out under saints’ blessings, assured by the proximity of their relics. One did not plant crops, launch a ship, start a building, convene a gathering, give birth to a baby, or bury a relative without seeking to have the remains of saints physically nearby. As the special dead, saints were believed to be spiritual and invisible, but their power to heal, to bless, and to defend worked—or worked best—if they were materially and bodily present as relics.