In my research for a story during biblical times I have come across the bizarre business of what I call pilgrimage tourism. By the Middle Ages, parts or bodies of saints had begun to surface, literally. They were found in sepulchers, under churches, in the naves, perhaps a grave yard, and various other places. Some of these saints may have done a lot more traveling after their deaths than they did before they died.
Some traveled far and wide and one was likely to find the remains of every saint at some point or another. The only person whose remains were never found were those of Jesus because he was supposed to have ascended bodily to heaven and to find his body would have whacked a giant hole in the tenets of early Christianity. So only his image on shrouds and capes, and parts of the true cross came into bearing.
After the first few saintly parts appeared and were ensconced in a church, or in the foundations or a reliquary box, the faithful visited these churches to venerate the saintly body, even though supposedly Christians believe in the transmigration of the soul, which means there is no spirit in the remains. And then, of course, cures or other miracles began to happen in the presence of a dead saint’s remains. In a way you could say that early Christians venerated a certain zombie aura to the dead, considering saints’ flesh or bones reanimated enough vitality to touch the living.
When the faithful flocked to these churches they needed places to sleep and food to eat, which not only buoyed and increased the wealth of the town but also filled out the coffers of the church. A richer church meant a bigger church and more items of gold and jewels, illuminated manuscripts, attention from Rome, larger flocks, etc. Soon, saintly remains were showing up everywhere.
A great many saints seemed to have left the environs of the Holy Land after Christ’s resurrection and traveled to Gaul or southern France. Why, I’m not sure since Italy was closer but it may have been to escape the Romans. And as the business of spiritually imbued remains grew more popular, grave robbing became a pretty regular business. If you were a saint you could bet that there would be no mortal rest for your body, nor for your soul as you would be dug up, dismembered, sold to various churches and pilgrims and then called upon for daily miracles. Busy life, busier afterlife. But of course, Christianity has only maintained that it is monotheistic, worshiping one god. Oops, but then there are saints galore.
Suddenly, or perhaps not that sudden, the early Middle Ages saw grave robbing as almost respectable. The fine line between good and bad was stretched a bit thin. On top of the grave robbing, churches started stealing the venerated saints from neighboring parishes and monks/priests were praised for such actions as obviously the saints had let them know they wanted to be moved.
But a problem started to arise, which neither Christ nor God could control, and it exposed a shady side to religion that was the ultimate downfall of a few churches’ prosperity. The dead saints seemed to multiply. Mary Magdalene had five bodies and numerous legs and arms. There was more than one head for other saints, or enough finger bones to populate a centipede’s legs. In truth the saints became legion and pretty much any suitable grave would be pillaged for body parts for nearby churches. There was no DNA testing then and the distance between towns and cities was much greater, with the only common modes of transportation being by foot or horse/mule. Often it was easy to have the same saint in a few places, until the mother church started to hear about it.
At first complicit in venerating saintly bits, the church had to curb the ghoulish trend. Just imagine a zombie army of saintly limbs and torsos and heads able to not necessarily animate, but to cure a host of ills. And all of this for the longest time brought hordes of faithful to various towns and cities. Popularity of saints waxed and waned but Saints Peter, Paul, John, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary were popular at different times.
However, the multiple parts that each saint owned, and the full bodies or extra heads started to mar the validity of not only the Catholic church but also the belief that these were the holy remains, which could cure the ill and perform miracles. There was probably a couple of centuries worth of great tourism for pilgrims and Santiago de Compostela in Spain (a pilgrimage route to St. James) is popular to this day by tourists, hikers and the faithful.
It’s obvious that in two millennia of Christianity its role and rules changed and evolved, and perhaps the original teachings of Jesus got skewed quite a few times. What this says about humanity is fascinating: that for the sake of religion (and fame and fortune within that) even if you’ve taken a vow of poverty but you live in a monastery, you’ll do anything, even the illegal things, to bring glory to God, Jesus or the saints. You’ll cheat, swindle and create fake holy items. And if you’re just a worshiper, you’ll forget that it’s the soul that’s supposed to matter, and venerate desiccated body parts, that if ever tested might show the wrong gender or someone of origins other than Jewish for those first Jewish-Christian saints. Makes for an interesting evolution of a man-made religion with creative intervention.