Edina Bozoky: L'imaginaire de la sainteté. De la fabrique des reliques à la fabrique des légendes (= Du méme auteur), Paris: Éditions du Cerf 2021, 276 S., 34 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-2-204-14726-2, EUR 24,00
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Edina Bozoky provides a captivating perspective on the relics of saints. She is undoubtedly one of the pioneers in the field of historical research on relics and their specific features. The work in question is a synthesis by a distinguished scholar whose previous work has focused primarily on specific research questions in more limited contexts. She guides the reader through a wide array of Christian relics, mainly bones, focusing specifically on written source material, from late antiquity to the Counter-Reformation.
The idea of the work is to explore the particular image of holiness created by the inventio and translatio texts of relics. These types of texts form a rich source material from early Christianity onwards. Relics were - and in some cases probably still are - sources of great passions and desires, both from religious and political perspectives. As Bozoky points out, by deconstructing the hagiographic narratives of the (re)discoveries and transfers of relics, it is also possible to unravel the powerful alliances or conflicts that underpinned these actions, or to see how different religious institutions constructed their spiritual and secular power. The "golden age" of these text types is usually considered to be the High Middle Ages, and it has sometimes been argued (e.g. Heinzelmann) that these literary genres waned markedly between the high and late Middle Ages and did not reignite later. From this point of view, the perspective of longue durée to the thematic offered by Edina Bozoky is particularly welcome in the field of scholarship.
The volume L'imaginaire de la sainteté begins with a brief introduction in which the author clearly sets out the motives that have driven her and which have resulted in the book: images, both present and past, of sanctity and, above all, of relics as material remains that constructed sanctity. The tone of the introduction is general, and the reader would have been gratified if offered more information, above all, about the choices the author has had to make in deciding whose relics are to have a "voice" in the research. The clear leitmotif, albeit unspoken, seems to have been, in most cases, rich and detailed narratives in which the relics, and not so much the saints themselves, played a significant role.
Bozoky then takes the reader chronologically through the relic practices of the Western Church, focusing on a series of examples from each period or from some time specific themes. The first chapter deals quite naturally with the origins of the relic cults, focusing first on the tomb of Christ and its monumentalization and then moving westwards from Jerusalem with the relic discoveries of Empress Helena. The chapter also discusses the inventio narratives of key martyrs in Rome and Milan, but also opens up the more obscure Middle Eastern relic cults, a welcome feature of this section. The rewriting of early Christian relic texts and the history of their reception are considered, perhaps somewhat sporadically but rousingly, in the light of the mid-thirteenth century text Legenda aurea.
The second chapter deals with the early Middle Ages, while the third covers relics in relation to the reform of the monastic orders, and the fourth visionary saints and their relics, focusing on the 1100s. Chapter five deals with the Crusade period, but very briefly. The Crusades and the sack of Constantinople - including the robbery of relics - are often seen as a turning point in terms of how relics were treated in the Late Middle Ages and how, for example, papal regulations on relics became stricter. Bozoky does not address this topic, nor does she go into any further detail on a subject that would have been of great interest to hear her views on, namely how the Crusades may have influenced the "production" of relics as a result of the Crusades. The chapters in question cover the lion's share of so-called French-speaking Europe. The treatment is sometimes grouped mainly under subheadings bearing the saint's name, creating the image of a directory, but even in these circumstances the author does not fail in giving up the intriguing appeal to the relic stories.
In the sixth and seventh chapters, Edina Bozoky deals above all with the martyrs, whose rediscovery and the texts celebrating the rediscovery had a strong religio-political significance in the Middle Ages. Interesting examples include the legend of the 11.000 virgins as a kind of "mass sanctity", as well as the elevation of the first Italian bishops to the status of patron saints of the new city-states, emphasizing their major role in creating the identity of the communes.
Only in chapter eight does the chronology move clearly forward. It deals with the late Middle Ages and the precisely programmed relic cults by different authorities. A particular example here is the multi-stage relic dispute of Mary Magdalene between Vézelay and Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume and the stories of discovery. Chapter nine gives a very brief introduction to the Counter-Reformation and the relic cults associated with the defense of Catholic faith, when it discusses the relics of the martyrs rediscovered in the catacombs.
L'imaginaire de la sainteté successfully places relics at the centre of sanctity. Narratively interesting, smooth, easy to follow and thus a recommended book for a general public or students with little previous knowledge of the centuries-long history of relics as part of religious politics and devotional life. Analysis and research are sometimes neglected, at the expense of a rather descriptive, sometimes even reference book-style presentation. Another unfortunate fact is that the images are printed without particular care, being surprisingly blurred.
As a broad chronological synthesis of the subject matter, the book is enlightening. It conveys a vivid picture of relics past and present, especially when presenting the village festivals that have sprung up around the relics. Here we understand how relics can be a pulsating source not only of studies of religion but of local community self-understanding, as well as of both material and immaterial cultural heritage.