Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 331-338
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Social Thought and Commentary
Authenticity, Anthropology, and the Sacred
My charge for this paper was completely open-ended. I was told I could "write about anything I liked, as much as I wanted, in any format I pleased". While liberating, this unaccustomed freedom also caused me considerable anxiety. I am used to following a certain rhetorical structure: writing a set number of pages on a particular topic in a preordained style. In a very minor way, the nervousness generated by the openness of my mandate for this article resembled what occurs anytime the bases for action are problematic, ambiguous, or absent entirely, and where limits are unknown.
As many social theorists have argued, the disoriented and anxious state caused by lack of boundaries and absence of rules is commonplace today, and is a consequence of the rupture with the past associated with the triumph of capitalism. 1 The authoritative worldviews that existed previously were the products of a process of sacralization that provided human beings with the legitimization of their daily orientation to action. This sacralization of a meaning system was, as Weber says, first aroused by a creative act of charismatic connection which stimulated an immediate, magical sense of transcendence and participation; primary charisma was then rationalized and channeled into sacred objects. As time passed, and the immediate compulsion of the original irrational [End Page 331] charismatic annunciation receded, followers maintained their spiritual connection by worship of those items imbued with the charismatic aura. 2 According to secularization theory, it is this connection that has been lost in modern life.
In contrast, in Medieval Europe, a living bond with the sacred past was achieved through many means, including furta sacra, which was the "sacred theft" of holy relics from ruined, neglected or provincial shrines. According to historians, there was intense competition for possession of saintly body parts and other such objects, since the sanctity (and popularity) of churches rested in large measure on the number and quality of the relics displayed within them. To meet the demand, professional traffickers in holiness travelled around medieval Europe, snatching and then selling splinters of the cross and bits and pieces of various saints to anyone with funds to buy. Some priests also sought relics themselves. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln (later canonized) was one of the most assiduous practitioners of furta sacra. Allowed to handle the arm of Mary Magdalene at a rival shrine, he surreptitiously bit off a finger and took it back to his parish, where it remains today. 3
Bishop Hugh, with his good teeth and opportunistic gnawing at the sacred, was a precursor of our modern museum curators, who also seek out and acquire, usually by less macabre means, the artworks that serve as contemporary equivalents of the sacred, though instead of the bones of the saint they present for veneration the personal creations of the artist. Like Medieval priests, curators are also concerned to demonstrate that the objects they have accumulated are originals, not forgeries, and therefore truly worthy of devotion.
The issue of authentication foregrounds differences between medieval and modern consciousness. Even though Mary Magdalene seems to have had as many arms as Kali, and although only a sequoia could have produced all the existent fragments of the true cross, among Medieval believers an undeniable verification of relics was possible through the offices of the Holy See, which carefully checked records of the history of the object and of the miracles associated with it in order to provide incontrovertible official validation. Warring claims could be settled by Papal intervention as well. Thus the body of the Irish St. Abbanus was deemed to exist both in the monastery where he began preaching and in the one where he died. 4 In other controversial cases, vendors selling suspect objects and body parts could be subjected to official ordeals, such as submersion in boiling water, to test their veracity.
No doubt modern museum curators envy their Medieval counterparts their methods for certification, since their own attempts to authenticate the authorship [End Page 332] of...