Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rag And Bone A Journey Among The World's Holy Dead by Peter Manseau

For centuries odds and ends of human remains--shards and splinters of bones, leathery scraps of tongues and foreskins, strands of hair, dismembered toes and finger-bones--have been venerated as holy relics; they represent a way for ordinary people to touch the divine. In "Rag and Bone" author Peter Manseau takes readers on a fun and enlightening journey through the history of these sacred remains, imparting the legends and lore, miracles, and history associated with them and the lives and deaths of the saints and holy figures they are reputed to be pieces of, as well as introducing us to the people who, down through the centuries to the present day, have coveted, collected, studied, sold, and revered them--a motley group that includes believers, skeptics, scientists, clergymen, and con artists.

As readers accompany Manseau on his journey we learn how the Holy Land was plundered of most of its relics during the Crusades; it was a popular and very true saying during the Middle Ages that Jerusalem had made many a poor man rich. The 11th to 16th centuries were the heyday of the relics trade, when unscrupulous relic merchants catered to a demand that far exceeded the genuine articles and flooded Europe with heads of John the Baptist and foreskins of Jesus, all vying for authenticity, and nary a monastery or nunnery, large or small, did not have some of the Virgin Mary's breast milk for the faithful to kneel before in worshipful adoration. As staunch Protestant John Calvin scornfully but truthfully said "Had Mary been a cow all her life she could not have produced such a quantity."
And not just Christian relics, Manseau also shines the spotlight on Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim relics as well, including the controversial tooth of Buddha and hair from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad.

Whether you are religious or not, as long as you have an interest in history and the remains of the dead, such as mummies and the so-called "Incorruptibles," the corpses of holy women and men seemingly immune to decay, I doubt anyone will be bored with this book. There is even a chapter about a fragment of rib reputedly from Joan of Arc.

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