THE DISCOVERY OF THE RELICS OF SAINT CYNNABARIUS
This piece is based on the tales of relics that were commonplace in the Middle Ages from the 9th century. It seems reasonable to call these “mythology,” since stories of relics were generally written either to explain the origin of a religious practice or to make a statement about the status or role of a particular community. Furthermore, even while new tales were still being written, skeptics pointed out that many of the tales could not possibly be factual accounts—a point that did little to slow the growth in the number of relics displayed or the tales told about them. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it is helpful to view the relic tale as a form of mythology for medieval Europe.
Relics are pieces of the body of a saint—a person famed for holiness and a close relationship with God who has died and is certainly in heaven. (The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus” or holy, and the term was originally a descriptor rather than a title.) The first saints were martyrs, people who were killed for their refusal to renounce Christianity in public. There was never debate that a person who preferred death to apostasy must certainly be accepted by God.
From an early date, Christians gathered at the burial place of a martyr to remember them on the anniversary of their death, a practice with links to Roman practice. The special role of the body of a holy person was also connected to the specifically Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Unlike most other religions of its time, Christianity taught that not only the soul, but the physical body, was eternal. The body was not a vessel for the soul but an integral part of the immortal person. The body of a holy person was a conduit for God’s power in life, and even more so after death, when they were even closer to God. Belief in the power of relics was a firm part of Christian belief in the Roman Empire. The bodies of saints were prized possessions that were fought over, sometimes violently, by communities who felt they had a right to the relics. Relics were also an important commodity in the Carolingian era, when monasteries in northern Europe sent monks to meet guides with expert knowledge of the Roman catacombs to recover the bodies of holy people and take them home.
Disputes over relics were complicated by the fact that a relic represented a human being with agency. A saint’s relic was powerful only when the saint chose to make it powerful—and although the saint’s decisions were ultimately under God’s control, medieval people placed far more emphasis placed on the saint’s ability to influence God than the other way around. An institution that acquired a relic had to demonstrate that they had done so with the approval of the saint. This produced a sub-genre of translation stories, describing the process by which the body of a saint had moved to the monastery from its original burial place. These tales had two purposes: first to bolster the credibility of the relics, and second to show that the saint favored their new community and intended to bless people who honored him or her. These tales were particularly important because the stories raised skepticism even in their own time. The pioneer of these tales was Theodomar of Iria, a bishop who announced that heavenly lights led him to find the tomb of St. James the Apostle in northwest Spain. This transformed his small town into an international pilgrimage center, creating the Camino de Santiago which is still a major source of attention and revenue for the region. Numerous imitators followed. Over time, tales of relics became part of history even while new tales continued to write or rewrite history to exalt the claim of a particular community.
All this means that Saint Cynnabarius, the patron of Cynnabar, has more in common with medieval saints than his discoverers knew or intended. Stories and relics of the saint have been requested and collected with the intention of strengthening the identity of a particular community and giving them a common history.
This tale, about the discovery of the relics of Saint Cynnabarius, is presented with more than a little humor, but it based firmly on numerous tales of “discoveries” of relics in unlikely ways. By the period I’m representing, the late 1300s, the tales of relics had existed for hundreds of years and were part of history—although new ones were still being written. By that point, authors collected stories of saints and collected them in volumes for distribution. Most of these collections were originally intended as anecdotes or exempla for clergy to use in their preaching, but they generated interest well beyond that circle. The most famous, the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voraigne, was written around 1260. It was translated by William Caxton, who added numerous stories of English saints to the collection and added commentary related to England to the collection.
This tale, being told in the late 1300s, would be presented in an English that is on the cusp of being modern. To simplify the presentation, I am using a style based on Caxton, who writes less than 100 years after my presentation although in a very different language. This tale is set to a significant extent in the distant past, and draws on pre-existing stories and lore about Saint Cynnabarius. In honor of Saint Cynnabarius, I am adding a level of humor that would not generally appear in a story of this sort but which is present in the existing hagiographies.