Inventory of a saint’s shrine, 1307

I mentioned votive ships in a post some time back and while I was weeding my collection of notes and xeroxed articles from my college days, I came across a couple of pages I’d copied from Miracles and pilgrims: popular beliefs in Medieval England by Ronald C. Finucane.  I don’t remember a lot of detail from that book, certainly not enough for a review, but I do recall that it was filled with statistics and numbers.

Thomas Cantilupe — bishop of Hereford and later canonized as a saint in 1320 — had a shrine erected after his death.  In 1307, a papal delegation inventoried the shrine to see what offerings had been left by those seeking cures or other favors, or offering thanks for prayers answered, and they counted the following list of items.

  1. 170 silver ships
  2. 41 wax ships
  3. 129 silver images of various limbs
  4. 436 wax images of people
  5. 1200 wax images of body parts and limbs
  6. 77 figures of horses, animals, and birds
  7. an uncountable number of (wax?) eyes, breasts, teeth, and ears
  8. 95 silk or linen children’s shifts
  9. 108 walking sticks for cripples (presumably left by the cured?)
  10. three carts
  11. one wax cart
  12. 10 large square candles
  13. 38 cloths of silk and gold
  14. many belts
  15. 450 gold rings
  16. 70 silver rings
  17. 65 gold brooches and pins
  18. 31 silver brooches and pins
  19. diverse precious stones and other uncounted pieces of ladies’ jewelry
  20. iron chains left by prisoners
  21. anchors of ships
  22. lances, spears, swords, and knives
  23. uncounted coins

Silver & wax items are typically “votive” offerings that illustrate the favor asked or granted.  A ship would indicate protection for a journey or more literally for merchant’s ship/shipment; body parts were those afflicted or cured.  Such shrines also kept record books where miraculous cures and so forth were recorded, and these might be read by the skeptical or those hesitant to leave a valuable offering.

The candles would be used in the course of church services at the shrine, and wax items might be remelted to make more candles, or even to make new offerings that could be sold to empty-handed pilgrims.  Precious metals were usually melted down after a while to fund further construction, pay the caretakers, and of course to line the coffers of the Church, although some items would be kept in perpetuity as tokens of famous cures or to advertise the potency of the holy dead.  One must imagine such shrines were occasionally targeted by ruthless or desperate thieves.

The above inventory would certainly be quite a haul.  And the bishop was not even a recognized saint at the time!  The shrines of canonized saints must have been fabulously wealthy.

Challenge:  who can add up the value of the above hoard in Gold Pieces (ignore the uncounted items!)

Published in: on July 20, 2013 at 10:37 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks very much for mentioning this. I’m currently preparing a paper on medieval Pagan survivals (which unfortunately means I am also reading Augustine’s “The City of God”… ugh!), and this sort of stuff will be invaluable. The votive ship offerings in particular are usually evocative of the Norse God Njord. It looks like his shrine was inside Hereford Cathedral, the site of which is connected with Saint Aethelberht. Any idea where the offerings were left relative to the cathedral site?

  2. From what I remember of my reading, they could be left on or near the statue/reliquary, or hung rom the rafters of the church or shrine. Small figures and jewelry might be pinned onto the clothes worn by the statue (a common practice in the mediterranean world was to place garments on stone statues). Candles would be lit or left unlit on the altar. There’s a few pictures here:

    I imagine the clutter was one reason the caretakers collected the offerings every now and then to sell, melt down, etc.

    I assume that a shrine in a cathedral would occupy its own niche and any offerings would be left there, but I’m not sure how the cart was brought in this case! (I think the cathedral was erected by the time Thomas C. died, but am not sure.)

    Really the cult of the saints has lots of ties to pagan practices. Leaving votive offerings is probably the tip of the iceberg. Not sure if the line is direct or both just tap into the same structures of the human psyche or whatever, but the Greeks kept some relics (sandals of Hercules, arms of heroes) and later on Christians also kept items and clothing associated with saints, not just pieces parts of them. There must be whole books on how various saints are really pagan gods and goddesses. A number of saints are now known to be entirely legendary and bear conspicuous similiarities to local gods.

  3. The GP value of the shrine’s offerings would depend heavily on the size, quality of workmanship, quality of materials, and decay.

    As I recall, some votive offerings seem professionally-made while others seem crude – the work of amateurs. Were they all made by the petitioner, a cultural requirement? Does that mean you just had to offer the best thing you could make? Or was the cultural requirement to never make it yourself, meaning the feeble attempts were purchased from apprentice or unskilled artisans? Did the more beautiful items come from a time of peace and prosperity, while the amateur goods come from a disorganized time or in an artistic recession? Is poor quality a sign of humility by the wealthy while good quality a sign of great sacrifice by the poor?

    The most boring explanation would be that some people made their own, some artisans were good and some bad, and stuff just piled up there.

    I’m imagining a bunch of itinerant artisans with blankets covered in little wax icons and wooden figurines, all along the trail to the shrine. I saw people selling various offerings in Kyoto, Japan when I was there years ago, but it was only a few and they had normal wooden shops.

    • Yeah, I’d think there were all kinds of entrepreneurs ready to “help” the pilgrims. I would not be surprised if clergy also sold images suitable for offering at the shrine. I don’t know if any detailed studies of the quality of votive offerings have been done, but since they were routinely collected and “cashed in” by the local clerics, there is probably not a lot of evidence left.

      I did read recently that when St. Cuthbert was dug up in the 19th century, they found items/relics of his possessions in the tomb (as you’d expect) as well as goods that were clearly from later periods and even far away (like Byzantine textiles and silks) which were interpreted as offerings left at his shrine and placed in the tomb at some point when they were reburying him. Saints often got relocated after death.

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