Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Translation of St. Thomas a Becket's Relics

I posted the last letter St. Thomas More wrote to his dear daughter Margaret Roper the day before the anniversary of his martyrdom. In the letter he mentions that he hopes his execution is scheduled for the morrow, before the Feast of St. Thomas on July 7. A Clerk of Oxford explored that feast more fully here yesterday and then discusses some aspects of medieval feasts and devotion to saints:

Translation feasts like today's are particularly tricky to explain to a modern audience. It's easy to be cynical about their original motivation, since the practical benefits are usually so obvious as to make the whole idea seem like nothing more than a money-grab: building a bigger or more prominent tomb to attract and accommodate pilgrims, providing a saint with an extra feast to celebrate (often at a more convenient time of year for travel or liturgical commemoration - as clearly illustrated in the case of Becket, whose December feast, awkwardly close to Christmas, was supplemented by a summer translation one), claiming a saint as belonging to one church rather than a rival, and so on. Some medievalists get very sniffy about the pragmatism of it all, their high-minded idealism clearly offended by the idea of churches trying to make money off their saints. There's a lingering Puritanism in some circles (even within academia, but certainly outside it) which can't quite allow that medieval cults of saints were ever anything but a big con - that the saints of the Middle Ages were mostly a bunch of obscure people who were praised far beyond their merits, credited with patently invented miracles, and lauded in tiresome hagiography, with the aim of extracting money from gullible pilgrims. . . .

But if we take translation feasts as an example, trying to understand rather than to condemn or mock, they can tell us fascinating things about the communities who organised them. They can help us trace, for instance, which parts of a community's history were most important to its identity at any point in time, or how a community defined itself against other nearby houses - the translation of Thomas Becket marked the moment when he became Canterbury's most famous saint (as he remains today), surpassing the Anglo-Saxon archbishop-saints, who were still venerated but no longer as culturally useful as they had been for the community in the period immediately following the Norman Conquest (on which see this post on Dunstan and this on Ælfheah). A translation tells us not all that much about the saint whose physical body is its focus, but a great deal about what a saint's memory meant to the people who venerated him or her. What is really commemorated today, then, is not just Thomas Becket but his importance to Canterbury and to the wider world: the fame which brought pilgrims to his shrine, the political charge which made him important enough for his name to be scratched out and his carols cancelled in the sixteenth century, and, yes, the income which built Canterbury Cathedral, a treasure-house of medieval art which still draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year. All this deserves to be remembered - and even blogged about.

Read the rest--and enjoy all the great pictures--there.

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