The trade in relics has a long history–one that also exists independently of Christianity. As with any other trades, it grew out of a demand, but its origins are far less economic in nature than one might assume. Many early examples of reliquaries and their veneration had less to do with material objects or bartering finger bones and much more to do with the tradition of laying a holy person to rest–especially in the case of martyrs where such care was often neglected by executioners if not directly thwarted–and were actually tombs. This tradition begins with Joseph of Arimathea burying the crucified Jesus Christ. In later years, the site of such tombs, particularly in Roman catacombs, became places to congregate and worship for the early underground Church. This is, in fact, why St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is located at that spot: it was long associated with the burial site of the apostle Peter after his execution.
It is actually the case for many Christian martyrs of the Roman and Late Antique eras (and with holy personages of the medieval era, as well) that their remains were deliberately sought our for Christian burial and that churches were thus built locally in honor of these holy men and women. Thus, from early Christianity we see a tradition of churches being linked to holy remains. Later churches and monasteries would seek their own relics, ranging from the remains of local holy men and women to the remains of ancient Christians of biblical, or comparable, status.
As a result, a religious tradition fused in varying degrees with economic supply and demand. In consequence, fraudulent paraphernalia was passed off as holy relics by merchants in the trade. Ronald C. Finucane shed a great deal of light on the shenanigans in the case of English relics, although he did so, admittedly, with rather more contempt for his subjects than is really becoming in a historian’s monograph. Umberto Eco’s fictional Brother William of Baskerville rather famously tells his pupil, Adso, about a cathedral in France wherein the head of John the Baptist at age 12 was preserved. Further intellectual pursuits in this line include estimating the size of the True Cross once all the splinters attributed to it were assembled. However, it is equal folly to ignore the skepticism that many medieval personages, holy or otherwise, held for the relics trade as it would be to naively trust every tradition out of reverence. It is also irresponsible to assume that everyone interested was so out of vanity or greed. Such assumptions oversimplify a culture that is already foreign and difficult to access.
Having said that, I suggest two things: 1) While it is impossible that every relic be what it is claimed to be, it is not impossible that some relics are exactly what they are claimed to be. (This is a separate discussion from what it is claimed relics can do or have done.) 2) The historic and scientific veracity is, in fact, of secondary relevance–particularly in this day and age–to the believer. (I do not mean to imply with this last point that deception is the goal!)
It is, in fact, quite probable that many of the local relics are the remains of local saints. This has recently been tested by an Italian team and filmed by National Geographic. The most recent episode of National Geographic Explorer, “Mystery of the Murdered Saints”, showed that it is possible to corroborate or disprove such claims, concluding that the examples they worked with could not be disproved and are plausibly what and who they are claimed to be. However, that is where it ends as the historical fields are unlikely to be able to prove the majority of cases. As is so frustratingly typical of studies seeking answers in the past, scientists and other practitioners of historical studies can so often only demonstrate possibility or probability in verifying historical accounts. (It is an interesting episode, as it also shows the steps taken to secure and preserve the remains by the Christians who venerated them.)
But, why is it necessary to demonstrate that the traditions are verifiably fact and the relics are everything that it is claimed of them? From a historian’s standpoint the saints’ lives have a truth that does not require the stories to be histories or even accurate biographies. Such readings allow for historical truths to emerge, even if they do not provide historical “facts”. Even if there is not a word of “fact” in a given saints’ life, the work conveys a great deal about the time period. Of course, there are the basic realia–evidence of found things, such as a coffee grinder, for example–but there are also the mores and cultural realities that an author betrays and which often reveal a world view very foreign to our own. Furthermore, what matters to the historian first and foremost is the value the believers of his studied era placed on the relics–be it commercial or religious. As we access these foreign peoples through their texts it is impossible to prove who knew about a fraudulent relic unless it is clearly known and stated by contemporary observers. Knowing that a finger of St. John the Baptist is actually a chicken bone tells us very little about the place in which it was reverently held–especially as relics were generally concealed in reliquaries for protection and thus most people would not see it directly or would only see a chip of it.
Even aside from this, however, I am not sure that every religious story must be true to be of value to a believer. For a believer, the story can carry religious and moral veritas (truth) without requiring historical “facts” be behind it. For most people who hold a religious value for relics, they need not be “real” for they serve much the same purpose as religious art–they are pieces of sacred memory; for others, they retain the value of a talisman, in which case belief is 9/10 of the law.
In addition to the National Geographic episode (click here to see the show’s run), the Walter’s Art Gallery is also featuring two special exhibits: Treasures of Heaven, Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe and Relics and Reliquaries Reconsidered (the latter in conjunction with the students of Maryland Institute College of Art). Most of the major museums in the U.S. featuring western art include Christian reliquaries in their collection, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (and the Cloisters–associated with the Met) and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art among others–of course, not all reliquaries are Christian examples!