Book Review: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics by Thomas J. Craughwell

How many heads did Saint John the Baptist have?

Probably only one, but according to Thomas J. Craughwell’s Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics, at least seven places have claimed to have preserved the holy skull, including the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (156).

With about 350 separate entities, Craughwell’s Saints Preserved is a whirlwind tour of the world’s bits and bones of sanctity. Although many entities note only where a saint’s body is entombed or major relics are enshrined and venerated, all of the entries of saints’ relics include at least a brief hagiography (biographical sketch), notes on associated patronage, and feast day data. Lengthier entries include what is known about the history of the relic(s) of a given saint, including peregrinations, translations, and thefts.

In addition to cataloguing relics of saints, Craughwell includes major and minor relics associated with the life of Christ—the holy prepuce (foreskin); articles of clothing; boards from the Bethlehem manger; a bench from the Last Supper and other relics of the Passion (crown of thorns, nails). No attempt is made to reconcile competing relic traditions, such as the shroud and sudarium of Aachen with their more famous counterparts at Turin and Oviedo, the various veils of Veronica or the lances of Longinus. Craughwell’s skills as both a serious historian and a popular journalist are in play here, reporting “just the facts,” and refraining from value judgments. Those same skills are also evident in his bibliography, and positively impact his economical but engaging writing style.

The breadth of saints’ relics represented in this collection is truly noteworthy. The European saints included (obviously a majority) span beyond the usual Spanish-French-Italian-German swath and include a number of English and Irish saints (not to mention the Danish Saint Knud Lavard). Of English saints from after the reformation, Craughwell notes what relics remain and where they are enshrined—such as the hand of Saint John Kemble at Hereford, or the eye of Saint Edward Oldcorne at Stonyhurst College. Non-Europeans mentioned in the book include the martyrs of Nagasaki, Uganda, Korea and Vietnam. The balance between women and men is nearly equal, and non-ordained persons are well represented. All United States citizens who have been canonized or beatified are included in the volume, and mention is made of two of the larger relic collections in the United States (Maria Stein, Ohio and Saint Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh). Unfortunately, some saints whose major relics (i.e., full remains) are enshrined in this country—including the boy-martyr Saint Peregrine at Collegeville, MN and Saint Marcellus at Notre Dame in Indiana—are not included among the entries.

Although Craughwell makes no mention of the relics and shrines of those venerated as saints and worthies from communities that emerged after the sixteenth-century reformations, he does include a number of holy ones who have been glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church, including Saint Sergius of Radzoneh and Saint Alexander Nevski.

This book suffers only from a few flaws, all of which may be overlooked and some of which have already been mentioned. A comprehensive index including associated locations would have made it more useful, though as an alphabetically arranged book, intended for a popular audience, once can understand the absence. More substantive is Craughwell’s remark that “[e]very Catholic church and chapel contains at least one relic—it is a requirement of the Church under canon law that every altar consecrated fro the celebration of Mass must contain the relic of at least one saint, preferably a martyr” (xvi) is undocumented and simply untrue. While such a case is ideal, highly desirable, laudably customary, every-effort-ought-to-be-made, etc., it is neither a strict requirement of the 1983 Code, nor of the Rite for the Dedication of an Altar that a relic be reposed in a consecrated altar. That factual gaffe may be overlooked in light of the overall achievement of the book’s introduction, which contextualizes the cultus of relics both theologically and anthropologically, making it—along with the rest of the book—as useful an entrée into the world of relics for skeptical Catholics and non-Catholics as for the devout.

Thomas J. Craughwell, Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics. New York: Random House/Doubleday/Image, 2011. xx + 313 pages.

$16.00 — ISBN-13: 978-0-307-59073-2
Available from Random House.

4 comments

  1. My wife relayed an amusing story to me of multiple heads of John the Baptist. A pilgrim saw an adult-sized skull in one place, and then saw a much smaller skull in another place. When the confused pilgrim asked the curator of the second establishment, he was told, “This is the skull of John the Baptist when he was a child.”

  2. When I was a student in Rome we used to look forward to the Lenten Stational church day for St. Mark’s in the Piazza Venezia. They had a lot of relics! It reminded me of the shelves of produce at the county fair. Although it was not really possible to see what all the relics were they supposedly included a vial of the darkness from the plague over Egypt.

  3. Thanks for review of Thomas J Craughwell’s book. Some years back he wrote a fascinating little book called “Saints Behaving Badly” (2006), about the early lives of some well known and some not so familiar saints.
    St John Kemble’s hand once went missing from the church in Hereford, but was there last time I looked. My parents and younger sister are all buried in Hereford, and I’ve said Mass in the church there on numerous occasions.
    Once when I told a Carmelite sister that I’d seen a relic of one of the heels of Teresa of Avila, her response was, that if you counted up all the ‘foot relics’ for Tereasa, then she was probably a centipede.
    While not a ‘relic story’, though the church where I heard it had its share of relics, I encountered a statue in a church in London, where I served time briefly as a deacon, that had three names. Depending on the age of the speaker the name changed, as naturally did the name of the PP who had assured them it was Saint???’s statue. The church had quite a gallery of saints, and you could pray the Office by the light from the votive candles on a late summer evening.
    Whether through relics, statues or stories we still need to stay in touch with the witness of the saints, so I shall be putting Thomas Craughwell’s book on my Amazon wish list.

  4. While our family was in London this past summer, I saw a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum called “Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe.” Sadly, it is now closed; I had been hoping to include a link to the British Museum website. (Though the shop still has the catalog, with a useful “look inside” feature for those who are really interested!)

    My favorite strange and unlikely relic displayed in this exhibit was a purported vial of breast milk from the Virgin Mary (seemed completely out of character to me that Our Blessed Lady would have been expressing extra milk on the side and socking it away for the benefit of posterity!) … but I also found it extremely moving to contemplate many of these objects (the most ancient of which often featured simple line-drawn caricatures completely accessible to a modern eye which effectively made the countless generations separating me from the original worshippers disappear).

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