Calvin: Time For An Inventory (12)

The other things must be briefly dispatched; for otherwise we should never be able to get out of this forest. We shall merely mention a few of the alleged relics of saints who lived in the days of our Saviour, and then mention a few of those of the ancient martyrs and others. In this way my readers will be able to judge for themselves. Anna, mother of the Virgin Mary, has one of her bodies at Apte in Provence, and another in the church of Mary Insulan at Lyons. Besides, she has one of her hands at Treves, another at Turin, and a third in a town of Thuringia, which takes its name from it. I say nothing of the fragments which exist in more than a hundred places. Among others, I remember having myself, long ago, kissed a portion of it at Ursicampus, a monastery in the vicinity of Noyon, where it is held in great reverence. Lastly, another of her arms is in St Paul’s at Rome. Here, if it be possible, let some certainty be shown.

We now come to Lazarus, and his sister the Magdalene. He, as far as I know, has only three bodies; one at Marseilles, another at Austum, a third at Avallon. Between these towns there was a great controversy, but after large sums were expended on both sides, they left the matter as it was, each continuing to maintain its claims. Magdalene being a female, it was necessary to make her inferior to her brother, and, therefore, she has only two bodies, one of which is at Vesoul, near Auxerre, and another, which is of greater renown, at San Maximin, a town of Provence, where also her head exists separately, together with what is called the Noli me tangere, which is a bit of wax, but is said to be the mark of a blow which our Saviour gave her in anger when she wished to touch him. I need not advert to the relics of her bones and hair, which are scattered over the world. Those who wish to know the certainty of all these things, should first inquire whether Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Magdalene, ever came to France for the purpose of preaching the gospel. For if ancient history be read and examined with judgment, it will be seen that this is the most stupid of all fables, and has not the least shadow of plausibility. Yet the relics of Lazarus and Mary are the best authenticated relics of all. Be this as it may, was it not enough to pervert one body to idolatry, instead of proceeding, according to the common saying, to make three devils out of one?

In like manner, they have given a place among their deities to him who pierced the side of our Lord when on the cross, and have called him Longinus, a puerile blunder certainly. This name in Greek signifies a spearman, but they have laid hold of it and converted it into the proper name of an individual. After thus naming him, they have given him two bodies, one of which is at Mantua, and the other at the church of Mary Insulan at Lyons. They have done the same with the Magians who came to worship Christ after his birth. And first they have fixed the number of them, maintaining that there were three only. The Gospel nowhere says how many there were, while some of the ancient doctors, for instance, the writer of an unfinished Commentary on Matthew, which is sometimes attributed to Chrysostom, affirms that there were fourteen. The Evangelist calls them Magians, that is, philosophers, but they have taken it upon them to give them royal dignity, though without kingdom or subjects. And lastly, they have given them names, calling the one Belthasar, the other Melchior, and the other Gaspar. However, if we may be permitted to interfere with their fables, it is most certain that these philosophers returned to the East. This the Scripture expressly declares; and there is no ground at all for any other belief than that they died there. Who was it that afterwards transferred them from those regions? Who knew them so well, that he could identify their bodies, for the purpose of being converted into relics? But I desist. It is foolish to engage in refuting such absurdities. All I say is, that the inhabitants of Cologne and of Milan should be left to litigate among themselves as to which of the two is to possess them. Both claim them, and it is impossible that both can be right. When once they bring their law-suit to a close, it will be time to see what should be done.

Among ancient martyrs, Dionysius is particularly celebrated; for he is held to be a disciple of the Apostles, and the first evangelist of the French. On this account relics of him are preserved in many places, while his body exists entire in two places only, viz., St Denis and Ratisbon. Because the French claimed him exclusively to themselves, the people of Ratisbon raised an action against them at Rome about a hundred years ago, and the body was adjudged to them by a definitive sentence, while the Legate of France was personally present, and a very fine Bull to this effect was given to them. But should any person go to St Denis, which is in the neighbourhood of Paris, and deny that the body is there, he would be stoned. At the same time, should any one deny that it is at Ratisbon, he would be counted a heretic; for his denial would be rebellion against the Apostolic See. The prudent plan, therefore, will be not to meddle with their disputes. Let them tear out each other’s eyes if they will; the utmost they will gain will be to prove that the whole matter is a lie.

The body of Stephen they have so dissected, that, though it is entire at Rome, in the church which bears his name, the head is at Arles, and bones are in more than two hundred places; while, as if to show their approval of those who put him to death, they have consecrated even the stones by which he was murdered. It will, perhaps, be asked how they could be identified, where they were found, and out of whose hands they were recovered? I give this short reply, that it is a foolish question. There could be no difficulty in finding them, wherever stones are found, and the carriage is not costly, as at Florence, at Arles, in the monastery of the Augustins, and at Vigeon, in Aquitaine. Any one who chooses to shut his eyes, and deprive himself of all understanding, will believe that they are the very stones that stoned Stephen; while he, again, who will give some little heed to the matter, will laugh. But assuredly the Carmelites of Poictiers, within the last fourteen years, possessed one to which they assigned the office of assisting women in labour, and easing their pains. The Dominicans, from whom one, destined like a pearl for the same purpose, had been stolen, had a mighty quarrel with them, and bawled out imposture; but the Carmelites, by fighting stoutly, came off victorious.

John Calvin | “An Admonition Showing the Advantages Which Christendom Might Derive From an Inventory of Relics” in Tracts Relating to the Reformation, Vol. 1 | Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844, pp. 329–32

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


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