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Reviewed by:
  • Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe
  • Caroline Walker Bynum (bio)
Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 306 pp.

In a tone sometimes condescending and judgmental, sometimes arch and breezy, Freeman chronicles the history of the Middle Ages with a focus on relics—parts of the bodies of holy people or objects in contact with them that were revered by European Christians from the fourth century on. Blurbs praise Freeman's intriguing stories, but they are mostly borrowed from the works of other authors, whose accounts are followed quite closely for pages at a time. Although the trappings of footnotes are present, passages are quoted with the most general of references or none; often we are simply told that a treatise is "easily available online" (with no URL given, and no credit to the scholar who labored to produce the translation being cited). Clichés and facile generalizations abound. The Greeks were rational; Christians were not. Freeman dismisses Augustine of Hippo, author of a work of self-exploration that is a landmark in the history of human consciousness, as a bitter and destructive old man who inflicted a fear of hell on a thousand years of European history; Martin Luther was, in Freeman's view, even worse. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose lush and elegant discussions of the biblical [End Page 362] love poem, the Song of Songs, were among the most influential texts of the Middle Ages, is characterized as "cold" and "polemical," a hater of beauty. Some of the material and many of the illustrations are connected only loosely to relic cult, if at all. It is hard to tell what audience is intended: the book is too dismissive of many aspects of Christianity to be attractive to the religious, too derivative to be acceptable to scholars, and too detailed to be an accessible popular read.

At a time when it is increasingly difficult for authors to find outlets for serious scholarship or for big and genuinely new ideas, I find it puzzling that an academic press would spend precious resources on such an unnecessary book. Relics are a somewhat trendy topic at the moment, in part because of the gorgeous exhibit, "Treasures of Heaven," that opened at the British Museum in late June 2011, after traveling to Cleveland and Baltimore. Serious and imaginative scholars such as Julia Smith, Cynthia Hahn, and Holger Klein are all at work on major studies of the phenomenon of saint and relic veneration. It is a shame that Yale University Press did not wait to publish on this topic until a first-rate book came along.

Caroline Walker Bynum

Caroline Walker Bynum, formerly a MacArthur Fellow, is professor emerita of medieval European history at the Institute for Advanced Study, University Professor Emerita at Columbia, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A former president of the American Historical Association, her books include Jesus as Mother; Holy Feast and Holy Fast; Fragmentation and Redemption; The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christendom, 200-1336; Metamorphosis and Identity; and, most recently, Wonderful Blood, which has received the American Academy of Religion's Award for Excellence in Historical Studies.



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pp. 362-363
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