Widely regarded as touchstones of supernatural power, relics of Christ, Mary and the saints were a major component of the memory culture of medieval Christianity. Protestants, however, fiercely repudiated the veneration of corporeal remnants and other hallowed objects as a species of idolatry and ‘heathenish’ superstition. The author of the most scurrilous sixteenth-century satirical tract on this topic was the Genevan reformer Jean Calvin. Taking the form of a mock register of the famous relics of Europe, the chief aim of his acerbic little book was to demonstrate that the vast majority were fake and counterfeit. The quantity of surviving fragments of the true cross, he declared witheringly, was ‘inough to fraighte a great ship’ and only a dairy cow could have produced the volume of milk allegedly left behind by the Virgin. Far from timeless conduits of the divine, most such items were rubbish unworthy of remembrance: the mere ‘trash’, ‘merchandise’, ‘baggage’, and ‘gear’ the Church of Rome peddled to pervert the credulous masses. Filled with palpable disgust at the bits of blood, bones, and soiled clothes it catalogues, Calvin’s tract was first published in 1553. It was translated into English by Stephen Withers in 1561. The pocket-sized, sextodecimo French edition reproduced alongside it was printed in Geneva in 1601. AW
A Very Profitable Treatise made by M. Ihon Caluyne, Declarynge what Great Profit Might Come to al Christendome, if there were a Regester Made of all Sainctes Bodies and other Reliques, trans. Stephen Withers (London: Rowland Hall, 1561).
Jean Calvin, Traite des reliques. Ou, Advertissement tres-utile du gra[n]d profit qui revient à la chrestienté, s’il se faisoit inventaire de tous les corps saincts & reliques: qui sont ta[n]t en Italie, qu’en France, Alemagne, Espagne, & autres royaumes & pais (Geneva: Pierre de la Roviere, 1601).
Alexandra Walsham, ‘The Pope’s Merchandise and the Jesuits’ Trumpery: Catholic Relics and Protestant Polemic in Early Modern England’, in Jennifer Spinks and Dagmar Eichberger (eds), Religion, the Supernatural and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe: An Album Amicorum for Charles Zika, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Leiden, 2015), pp. 370–409.
Alexandra Walsham, ‘Skeletons in the Cupboard: Relics after the English Reformation’, in Alexandra Walsham (ed.), Relics and Remains, Past and Present Supplement 5 (Oxford, 2010), pp. 121–43.