Calvin: Time for An Inventory (2)

The duty of Christians was, to leave the bodies of saints in their tombs in obedience to the universal sentence by which it is declared, that man is dust, and to dust will return; not to raise them up in sumptuousness and splendour, as if they were fabricating a premature resurrection. This duty, however, was not at all understood; but, on the contrary, against the decree of God, the bodies of the faithful were dug up and exalted in splendour, when they ought to have rested in the grave as in a bed till the last day. They were sought after and confided in, and even worshipped; in short, every mark of reverence was paid to them. And what was the result? The devil perceiving the infatuation, thought it not enough to deceive men in one way, but added also the imposture of inscribing the names of relics on things altogether profane; while God, in just vengeance, deprived them of all thought and discernment, so that, without any investigation, whether the thing was white or black, they received indiscriminately whatever was offered to them.

At present, indeed, it is not my design to show what abomination there is in abusing the relics both of Christ and the Saints, in the way in which it has hitherto been done, and is common even in the present day in the greater part of Christendom, for the subject would require a volume to itself. But as it is clear that a great majority of the relics which are exhibited are spurious, being brought forward by certain deceivers, who have impudently imposed on the meanest of the people, it has occurred to me to mention some things which may furnish men of sense with an occasion of thought and reflection. For often, when preoccupied by error or opinion, we approve inconsiderately, without taking time to examine and form a right judgment, and in this way our thoughtlessness deceives us. But, when put on our guard, we begin to attend, our wonder is, how we could have been so giddy and easy in believing what had no appearance of truth. This is exactly what has happened in the present case. For men not being at all on their guard, but being preoccupied by a false opinion, when it is said, “there is the body of such a saint, there are his shoes, there his sandals,” easily persuade themselves that it is so. But when I shall have called attention to frauds which cannot be now denied, every man, of even the least prudence, will open his eyes, and employ his mind in considering what had never occurred to himself.

But in this short treatise, I am not able to accomplish what I particularly desire, for it would be necessary to obtain catalogues from all quarters, that it might be known what relics are said to exist in every separate place, so that they might be compared with each other. In this way it would be made manifest that every Apostle has more than four bodies, and every Saint two or three. The same thing would appear in other instances; in short, when the whole heap was collected, there is no man who would not be amazed at seeing how ridiculously the whole world had been blinded. The way in which I considered the matter with myself was this:—Since there is no catholic church so small as not to have an infinity of bones and such like frivolities, what would it be if we were to pile up the whole multitude contained in three or four thousand dioceses, in twenty or thirty thousand abbacies, forty thousand monasteries, nay more, in the whole multitude of parishes and chapels? Still the best thing would be to see the things, and not merely to give their names, for, indeed, they are not all known by name. It was said, that in this city there was an arm of St Anthony. While enclosed in its case, all kissed and worshipped it, but when brought forward into view, it proved to be a nameless part of a stag. On a certain great altar lay part of the brain of St Peter. So long as it was in its case no man doubted,—for it would, have been blasphemy not to credit the name,—but when the nest was shaken up, and observed more accurately, it turned out to be a pumice-stone. I might give many similar examples, but these will suffice to show what rubbish would be brought to light, if all the relics throughout Europe were carefully visited, provided it were done with prudence and discrimination. For some persons, when certain relics are exhibited, close their eyes from superstition, and so seeing, see not. I mean, they dare not examine in earnest, so as carefully to ascertain what they are. Thus many who give out that they have seen the entire body of Claud, or some other saint, never ventured to raise their eyes so as to see what it was. But any one who had the liberty of a private inspection, and would dare to use it, would speak very differently. The same may be said of the head of the Magdalene which is shown at Marseilles with a bit of pitch or wax attached to the eye. It is treasured up like some god that has dropt from heaven, but were it examined, the cheat would easily be detected.

It were to be wished, then, that we had certain information concerning all the foolish articles which, in different quarters, are regarded as relics, or, at least, that we had a regular catalogue of them, that it might appear how many are spurious. But since that cannot be, I could wish at least to obtain an inventory from ten or twelve cities, such as Paris, Toulouse, Rheims, Poitiers. For in them alone strange hives as of bees, or at least very curious manufactures, would be seen. Often do I earnestly wish I could obtain such an inventory. But as this would be too difficult for me to accomplish, I at last thought it would be better just to give this brief admonition, by which I might stir up the drowsy, to think what the whole must be when so much imposition is detected in a few. My meaning is; if in the relic chests, which I shall name, though forming not a thousandth part of the whole which are shown, so much imposition appears, what judgment should be formed of the residue? moreover, if it appears that those which are deemed most genuine are spurious, what should be thought of the doubtful? Would that Christian princes would give some little attention to this. It is part of their office not to allow their miserable subjects to be not only led astray by false doctrines, but also openly imposed upon, in being persuaded, according to the bye-word, that “bladders are lanterns;” for they will have to account to God for their dissimulation in conniving at these things while they see them, and they will be made to feel that it was, indeed, a most heinous offence to allow God to be held in derision, when they could have prevented it. However, I hope that this little book will be of use to all, and suggest to each, in his own place, the propriety of considering, as the title of this treatise intimates, viz., that if all the relics of Christendom were described, it would be manifest that all men have hitherto been blind, that great darkness has brooded over the whole globe, and the greatest stupidity been universally displayed.

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. 292–95

Calvin’s Inventory Of Relics


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One comment

  1. Do all Reformed ministers preach the same Bible passages on the same Sundays? How do they order the readings throughout the year?

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