Calvin: Time For An Inventory (14)

The same multiplication of relics has prevailed in the case of Anthony. By pretending that he is passionate and mischievous, and inflames those who may have given him offence, they have made him an object of dread; from this dread has arisen a superstitious desire to possess his body, and so have a security against harm. Accordingly, the city of Arles had a keen and tedious litigation on the subject with the monks of St Anthony at Vienne. The result was just that which usually takes place in controversies of this description; that is, the whole matter still remains in darkness. Indeed, had any thing been actually proved on the subject, and the truth been made manifest, it would not have been to the advantage of either party. To these two bodies they have added a knee, which is in the Vivarais, in the possession of the Augustins; besides various members which exist at Bourges, Mascon, Dijon, Chalons, Ovron, and Besançon, and others, which are everywhere hawked about by travelling impostors. Of these the number is not small. See what it is to get a name for doing mischief. But for this, that good saint would still be in his tomb, or, at least, concealed in some corner.

I have omitted St Petronilla, Peter’s daughter, whose entire body is in the church dedicated to her father, besides some separate remains in the church of Saint Barbara; nevertheless, another body is in the possession of the people of La Maine, in the monastery of the Dominicans, and is held in the very highest repute, because alleged to cure fever.

As there were various saints of the name of Susanna, I cannot say whether they have thought proper to give two bodies to any one of them. There is one body of a Susanna at Rome, in the church which bears her name, and there is another at Toulouse. Helen has not been so highly favoured. The Venetians have the body, but in addition to it, she has not gained any superfluous part, with the exception of another head which exists at Cologne in the church of Grisgon. In this respect St Ursula has the advantage of her. For, first, she has her body in the church of St John the Angel; then she has one head at Cologne, and part of another with the Dominicans of La Maine, as also the Dominicans of Tours, and at Bergers. Of her companions, to whom they give the name of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, whatever may be thought, it must, at least, be admitted, that by feigning them to be so numerous, they have enabled themselves to lie with greater freedom. Beside the bones which are at Cologne, and which would be quite sufficient to load an hundred waggons, there is scarcely a city in Europe which does not possess them as the ornament of one or more of their churches.

Were I to take a survey of the common herd of saints, I should get entangled in a forest out of which I should never be able to escape. It will be sufficient, therefore, to adduce some specimens, from which a judgment may be formed in regard to the rest. There are two churches in Poictou which contend for the body of Hilary, viz., the cathedral church dedicated to him, and that of the Monks at Selle. The controversy is at present awaiting the visitation which is to take place. In the interval, the idolaters will be forced to worship two bodies as those of the same individual; whereas true believers, feeling no anxiety whatever about his body, will allow it to rest, be it where it may. The body of St Honoratus is at Arles, and is also in the Island of Lerins near Antiboul. Ægidius has one of his bodies at Toulouse, and another in a town at Aquitaine, which is named after him. William is in a monastery of Aquitaine, which is called St William in the Desert, and also in a town of Holstein, which is called Ecrichum, where also his head exists separately, although he has also another head in the suburb of Tours, among the Williamites. What shall I say of Symphorianus, whose body and bones exist in so many places? Also of Lupus, which is at Auxerre, at Sienna, at Lyons, and which they have also pretended to be at Geneva? What likewise shall I say of Ferreolus, whose whole body is at Uzes in Aquitaine, and also at Brioude in Auvergne? Not to betray their lies so openly, they ought, at least, to enter into an arrangement, as the monks of Treves have done, as to their dispute with those of Lodi about the head of Lambert. They have agreed as to the offerings, by compounding, for a certain sum of money, with this condition, however, that the body possessed by the former shall not be publicly exhibited, lest suspicion might be excited by both being seen in two cities so near each other. Thus it is, as I mentioned before at the outset; they never supposed that any observer would appear who would ever dare to open his lips in exposure of such impudence.

But any one may ask, how have these fabricators of relics omitted the many notable things connected with the Old Dispensation, since, without any regard to reason, they have heaped up all that ever came into their mind, and, as it were with a breath, called into existence whatever they pleased? To this question I can give no other answer than that they did not think it worth their while, because they had no prospect of deriving much advantage from such relics; and yet they have not forgotten them entirely, for at Rome they gave out that they have the bones of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the church of Mary supra Minerva. They also boast that in the church of Joannes Lateranensis they have the ark of the covenant and Aaron’s rod within it. The same rod, however, is at Paris in the Holy Chapel, while some fragment of it also is in St Salvator’s in Spain. I omit the inhabitants of Bourdeaux, who maintain that the rod of St Martial, which is exhibited in the church of Severinus, is the identical rod of Aaron. It would seem that they had wished to perform a new miracle as in rivalship of God; for whereas He, by his power, turned the rod into a serpent, so they have now turned it into three rods. Very probably they have many other toys of the same description, but let it suffice merely to have mentioned this, in order to make it manifest that they have been as honest here as in other matters.

Now, I would entreat my readers to remember what I said at the outset, viz., that I have not searchers at hand to examine the sacraria of all the regions which I have here mentioned. Wherefore, what I have said of relics must not be taken as if it were a perfect inventory of all the things which might be discovered. I have mentioned only six German cities, or thereabouts, three, as far as I know, of Spain, fifteen of Italy, and between thirty or forty of France; nor am I even acquainted with all the relics that are in them. Let every one, therefore, consider with himself what a farrago there would be if we saw the multitude of relics existing throughout the world described in order, or only in the regions which are known to us, or in which we live. For it is to be particularly observed, that all the relics of Christ and the Apostles exhibited in Europe exist also in Greece, Asia, and other countries where Christian churches are found. Now, I ask, when the Christians of the Eastern Church say that all these things which we pretend to have are in their possession, what decision can we come to upon the subject? If, in answer to them, we aver that this body was brought thither by merchants—that one by monks—and that other by a bishop—that part of the crown of thorns was sent by the Emperor of Constantinople to the King of France—that another was obtained in war—and so on of each, they will laugh and shake their heads. How will the controversy be decided? In doubtful matters we must trust to conjecture, and, therefore, in this respect, they will always get the better of us. For what they produce in their behalf is much more probable than what we can produce in ours. Those who defend relics have certainly a very difficult knot to loose.

To draw to a conclusion, I beseech my readers, in the name of God, to give heed to the truth while it lies plainly before them, and recognise how Divine Providence has wonderfully provided, that those who thus wished to mislead the meanest of the people have been so blind that they never thought of using a cloak for their lies, but moving blindfolded, like the Midianites, have set about slaughtering one another. As we see how they are still warring among themselves, and charging each other with falsehood, every man, who is not obstinately determined against the truth, though he may not yet clearly perceive that the worship of any relics, of whatever kind they be, whether genuine or spurious, is execrable idolatry, yet seeing how clear their falsehood is, will have no desire to kiss them any more, and whatever reverence they may have previously inspired, will cease to have any relish for them.

The best thing, indeed, would be, as I mentioned at the outset, if, among us who profess the name of Christ, this heathenish custom were abolished, whether they be relics of Christ or of the saints. In as much as they do degenerate into idols, the pollution and defilement which they occasion ought not on any account to be tolerated in the Church. This we have already demonstrated, both by argument and by the testimony of Scripture. If any one is not satisfied with this, let him look to the manner and practice of the ancient fathers, and conform to their example. Many patriarchs, prophets, kings, and other faithful worshippers, existed under the Old Testament. More ceremonies were then appointed by God than it becomes us to observe in the present day. Nay, even burial itself required more show than it now does, because by its figures it represented the resurrection, which was not so clearly revealed to them as it has been to us. But do we read that the saints were ever dug out of their graves, in order that they might be converted into a kind of puppets for children? Was Abraham, the father of all the faithful, thus carried in state, or was Sarah, a princess in the Church of God, taken out of her coffin? Were they not left in quiet along with the other saints, and was not the body of Moses so concealed, by the express will of God, that it never could be discovered? Did not Satan, as Jude tells us, contend for it with the angels? The Lord then withdrew it from the sight of men, and the devil tried to bring it back. God confessedly took it away, in order that it might not become an occasion of idolatry to the Jewish people; and the devil would have brought it back, that he might make it an occasion of idolatry. But that people, it will perhaps be said, was prone to superstition; and what, pray, are we? Is there not in this respect greater perversity among Christians than there was among the Jews? And what do we find to have been the practice of the ancient Church? The faithful, it is true, always exerted themselves to rescue the bodies of martyrs, and prevent their being torn by wild beasts and ravenous birds, so as to secure for them an honourable burial. This they did in the case of John the Baptist and Stephen. They did it, however, for the purpose of committing them to the earth, that they might there rest till the resurrection—not that they might be brought forward into public view in order that all might prostrate themselves before them. This unhappy pomp of consecrating was never introduced into the Church until all things were subverted, and, as it were, profaned, partly by the stupidity or avarice of some prelates and pastors, and partly by the inability of others to withstand a practice which had already begun to prevail. Nay, even the people themselves courted deception, by giving their mind to mere frivolities rather than to the pure worship of God.

Wherefore, if a complete reformation of this corrupt practice is desired, it will be necessary to begin at the very foundation, and abolish a practice which was at first instituted improperly, and against all reason. But if any one is not able at one step to make such an advance towards true understanding, let him at least proceed gradually. And, in the first place, let him open his eyes, and exercise his judgment upon any relics which may be presented to him. No one inclined to make the attempt will find it at all difficult; for among the many transparent lies, such as those to which I have already adverted, where will any relics be found whose genuineness amounts to anything like certainty? Nay, at the very time when this little book was passing through the press, I was informed of a third prepuce, which I had not mentioned, and which is shown at Hildesheim. The number of similar follies is indeed infinite, and a careful inspection would discover more than it is possible to enumerate. Let every one, then, be on his guard, and not allow himself to be led along like an irrational animal, and as if he were incapable of discerning any way or path by which he might be guided safely. I recollect when I was a boy how they were wont to do with the images of our parish. When the feast of Stephen drew near, they adorned them all alike with garlands and necklaces, just decking the murderers who stoned Stephen in the same way as they decked Stephen himself. When the old women saw the murderers thus adorned, they imagined that they were Stephen’s companions. Accordingly, every one was presented with his candle. Nay, the same honour was conferred on the devil who contended with Michael, and so on with the rest. And so completely, are they all mixed up and huddled together, that it is impossible to have the bones of any martyr without running the risk of worshipping the bones of some thief or robber, or, it may be, the bones of a dog, or a horse, or an ass. Nor can the Virgin Mary’s ring, or comb, or girdle, be venerated without the risk of venerating some part of the dress of a strumpet. Let every one, therefore, who is inclined, guard against this risk. Henceforth no man will be able to excuse himself by pretending ignorance.

 John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 334–341.

 John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 332–334.

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. 334–41

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


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