Object lessons

royal booksReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity | Eamon Duffy

Eamon Duffy writes that Christianity is a material religion, and it’s this theme that connects this collection of assorted essays and reviews.

Christ was made man, and Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. In the medieval era, the sense of the material infused with the spiritual manifested itself in enthusiasm for saints’ bones, shrines, pilgrimages, sculpture, as well as gilded and richly illustrated books.

Although a strength of the Reformation was to find that much of this medieval piety was superstition, it was not a stretch to still see power in objects. Even in relics, “some of them possibly even genuine” Duffy suggests sardonically, and, of course, in the Eucharist.

Medieval people lived in an often harsh world, with death and decay more immediately present than in our Western society. The miraculous transformation of matter, be it in the Eucharist, the resurrection of the body after death, or the power of a saint’s bones, reassured people that God was in control. Institutions, buildings, liturgies and sacred objects were all figures of permanence and that made them spiritual insurance policies.

Even though the medieval church had insisted that all this pointed directly to God, practice didn’t always match theory.

The laity were often dazzled and fixated on “sacred bling” (Duffy’s words). This extended to the Bible itself, which was available only in Latin and often recited like a magical incantation. That made it an object of superstitious power, rather than the didactic and devotional tool it would become.

Duffy writes, almost with a shrug, that religious fashions change. This may give the impression that medieval people were not that different to our own fickle selves. While Duffy’s impressive grasp of the complexity and richness of medieval Christian practice gives us insight, it also conveys the unsettling sense that much of the vast history of Christianity is foreign to our own contemporary experience.

Available from Bloomsbury, RRP $40

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