As odd as it may sound, I was extremely excited when I learned that the British Museum was to hold an exhibition on religion in Medieval Europe. Having attained my postgraduate degree in Medieval History, it seems to me that no portion of history is more misunderstood than the Medieval period. Therefore, setting foot into the exhibit, which was set up to make you feel you had been transported into a medieval shrine, seemed ideal for understanding the objects in their proper context. With a large church dome above and the sound of religious chanting in the distance, the objects could be experienced in a semi-natural setting which goes some way in helping us understand their significance a little better.
This attempt on the part of the British Museum to place the objects in a suitable setting was refreshing given the many misunderstandings which surround the period. The very term ‘Medieval’ is problematic since it attempts to reduce almost a thousand years worth of history (roughly 500 C.E. – 1500 C.E.) into one simple understandable “period.” When referred to in the media, the “medieval” often conjures up images of barbarism, intolerance, ignorance and irrationality. The Medieval is often moulded into the “other” which stands in opposition to our supposedly reasonable, just and enlightened society today.
In reality, it cannot be simplified in this way. In order to make sense of it, it must be approached from many angles. There were definitely times of war and brutality, however such phenomena can easily be found in the present day. Nor did medieval peoples maintain an unquestioning and exaggerated approach to religion. For example, scholarship has shown that medieval peoples in Europe were sceptical of miracles and did not accept the sainthood of a certain figure with ease. Expressions of religious devotion in medieval Europe had many meanings and aims; hagiographies often championed women who took up extreme forms of fasting and monasticism, these functioning as a social critique. Nunneries also provided refuge for women who wished to flee the strict confines of their social surroundings. Religion in medieval Europe is a fascinatingly diverse aspect of our history.
The British Museum’s help in shedding light on medieval religion is therefore most welcome. Religion is often regarded as a stifling element in the modern world. In today’s European society, religion is often used as shorthand for a set of stringent and irrational rules and ideologies. Dogma and narrow-mindedness are easily ascribed to the religious as well as the medieval, and the two concepts almost share the same characteristics in many prevalent discourses. What this exhibition on saints and relics shows however is a far more multifarious side to medieval religion. The exhibition demonstrates how the cults of saints and the trade and even theft of relics brought people from all over Europe and the Middle East into close contact and facilitated cultural exchange. We can note for example how some Christian relics were either produced by Muslims, or created in mock Arabic styles.
In other cases we are shown how Christian graves and architecture maintained ancient Pagan-Roman artistic styles, providing an often disregarded cultural bridge between modernity and antiquity. Furthermore, the exhibition’s mascot, a remarkably expressive reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, serves to show that medieval religious culture is very much connected to modern Europe in more than one way.
Of course the exhibition would not be a truly Medieval affair if we were not treated to a healthy dose of gruesomeness. Luckily there are plenty of gold encased body parts including teeth, part of a skull, and even a foot. While we may be repulsed by the idea, it is probably not so surprising that such things were preserved since saints were seen as intermediaries and intercessors between the believer and God.
The uneasy presence of such objects is furthermore a matter of context; it is seen as completely natural to observe human remains in a museum setting, so why should the fact that such objects were kept in monasteries (probably out of sight) be so unthinkable to us? This perhaps summarises the reason why I appreciated the exhibition so much. It is because it challenges our conceptions of “modern” selfhood by pointing out the complexities of the past. I highly recommend the exhibition to anyone who is interested in exploring a fascinating aspect of European religious history. For a deeper glance, and a lasting relic of the exhibition, or if you miss the chance to visit, I would also recommend the accompanying book which retails at £30.
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