Book Review: Charles Freeman’s Holy Bones, Holy Dust


December 15, 2013 by magpiemenina

Another book review. Nonfiction. 

Charles Freeman. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2011.


Freeman follows the development of relic cults in the Christian tradition, beginning with Christianity’s early days in Rome and concluding with the Counter-Reformation. The development of Christianity in the West is also discussed in the context of relic- and icon-veneration in the Byzantine Empire. In his comprehensive introduction, he discusses the nature of relics and their origins and roles in politics, economics, society, and the individual mind. He places the veneration of relics in the larger context of Christian theology, especially the comfort and hope relics, as a means of connecting to divine intercessors, offered to those living in a mindset dominated by the ever-present fear of eternal damnation.

Key Concepts:

  • Translatio– the movement (and ceremony accompanying the movement) of a saint’s remains, either from their original resting place to a new location or from a less prestigious tomb to a more prestigious area of the church or a richer tomb.
  • Brandea – an object associated with or used by Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or the Apostles, retaining power to cure or assist through contact with a sacred being.
  • Relics were held in a sort of hierarchy based on what they were and with whom they were associated.
  • Reason and rationality are socially, not absolutely, determined.
  • Blood cults, focused on venerating the blood of Jesus, appeared in the 1300s and 1400s.



Freeman’s work is truly an excellent introduction to relics in medieval Europe and to medieval Christianity as a whole. Freeman also offers some interesting sections of medieval thought, including a discussion on what constitutes reason at a given period in history (to whit, the subjectivity of reason). He engages in a healthy dose of skepticism towards his topic, at times using rather judgmental phrasing.

From a phenomenological viewpoint, the origin of a relic and whether or not it actually came from the individual in question has little to do with the “trueness” of the relic as perceived by those who venerated it and believed that the relic offered them a means of contacting a saintly intercessor. Freeman at times brackets saints’ names in quotes which, given the nature of religion as a whole, seems to make a rather arbitrary statement of what is to be considered true and what is to be considered false.

From a psychological standpoint, it seems difficult to argue that relic cults based on “false” relics were negative for the common person involved when that article brought some measure of comfort to people who lived in fear of hell. To a certain extent, when Freeman discusses Luther’s failure to dismiss Augustine’s doctrine of original sin and inherent sinfulness, the author makes that argument by indicating that Luther kept the damnation and took away a person’s ability to work to counter the fear through doctrinal removal of relics, saints, the Virgin Mary, and purgatory from what would become Protestantism.  

From a theological standpoint or a Marxist interpretation of history, it is understandable that the origin of a relic might be of great importance.

Freeman also seems to struggle with the old specter relic worship. Although he acknowledges that relics are meant to be venerated as connections to the saints, not worshipped in their own right, he seems to slip inadvertently into assuming they were worshipped. It is possible that some people did. It cannot be assumed, however, that people worship objects and not what the object signifies, simply because people are uneducated in the traditional sense, theologically or otherwise.

In sum, though, Freeman’s book is infinitely readable, comprehensive in scope, and entirely fascinating. It is to be highly recommended to students of religion, medieval history, or the lay-practice of religions. In the end, the work suffers from the same problem as much discussion of faith and religion: what is true, and how much does scientific “trueness” really matter? 


4 thoughts on “Book Review: Charles Freeman’s Holy Bones, Holy Dust

  1. I appreciated the review for this book. I almost read it this past summer, but I read something else instead. I’ll add it back to my list.

  2. gildedcrow says:

    I will definitely read this. Thanks.

  3. magpiemenina says:

    Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you found the review informative, and I hope you enjoy the book!

  4. magpiemenina says:

    Glad you found it elucidating! I hope you enjoy the read!

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