Though I have completely grown out of it now I was something of a flibberty gibbet as a youngster and little of my education sunk in but one of the high points was seeing Oliver Plunketts Head in St. Peters Church on a school trip to Drogheda. I was not a gruesome child at least not in the sense of torturing cats and the like but I was fascinated that a mans head was on display. In a church.
Plunkett was a bishop and martyr for the Catholic cause, being hung drawn and quartered in London in 1681 and canonised in 1975.
Years later I was in Drogheda again as part of a small crew of painters working off-season in an empty Mosney holiday camp. We were far from any town, shops or bars and without a car. It was miserable so when our boss reappeared I insisted on being taken to Drogheda to once again view the head to cheer me up. To my great disappointment when I got there it was nowhere to be found. A wizened old cleaner in a flowered house-coat who emerged from under a pew told us that the head was away being cleaned.
It was another 18 years before I returned to Drogheda and this time I was in luck. The head was on display in an ornate reliquary in a corner of the refurbished cathedral.
I had remembered it as being small, brown and wizened. It was still brown but a lot bigger and less wizened than I recalled. I was sort of pleased to see him again. He looked more human somehow. The skin was brown and leathery and the eye sockets empty but his upper lip was curled in a slight sneer to reveal a set of yellow teeth very like my own. It was his teeth that drove home to me that this was indeed a human head.
I quickly became uncomfortable in the same way I become uncomfortable when seeing documentaries on the Bog men. Though I am fascinated by what science can tell us by their lives through the examining of their bodies I wonder at the need to continuously display them. Put them back, I think, put them back in the ground.
At first I ascribed this discomfort to my Christian upbringing but then it was Christians who had put Olivers head in a glass box in the first place. In fact the tradition of Christian relics goes nearly back as far as Christianity, and gained massive popularity in medieval times.
A relic can be anything from a part of a saints body to a piece of cloth he or she purportedly touched. Body parts were rife and one suspects that many Christian saints had more than their fair share of limbs. The monks of Saint-Médard displayed one of Jesus’s milkteeth while the abbeys of Charroux and Coulombs both claimed to possess his foreskin. Parts of the True Cross were hugely popular and it was said if they were all brought together an entire ship could be built of them. In fact there is a piece of it at St. Peters across the aisle from St. Oliver.
A town in possession of a relic was a tourist draw for pilgrims and a lord who controlled land with a shrine on it could expect to take dues from that shrine so there was a fearsome grabbing of relics by royalty in medieval times. Emma of Normandy, twice Queen of England had the head of St. Ouen and the arm of St. Augustine among other treasures taken from her by her faithless son Harthacanute in 1042.
Whole towns colluded in stealing relics. The Italian town of Bari commissioned some thieves in 1087 to steal the remains of Saint Nicolas (also known as Santa Claus) from a town in Turkey. The expedition was a success and Bari basked in the glory-and the revenues-of being the town that owned the stolen bones of Santa.
Of course it wasn’t only as a tourist draw that relics were valued but they were deemed to have great powers by the common folk in pre-enlightenment days. An acquaintance of Guibert of Nogent who accidentally swallowed a toad(as you do) was saved from death by the application of dust from the tomb of St. Marcel.
The fashion for relics receded but of course there are still many around. In Ireland there is Oliver’s Head of course and only recently the heart of St Laurence was stolen from Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin where it was being kept in an iron, heart-shaped casket. Cute. The Gardai belief that the relic was stolen to order produced this memorable headline from The Guardian Irish police suspect rhino horns gang in theft of saint’s heart .
So it wasn’t a religious upbringing that made me uncomfortable. Maybe its superstition or maybe it is visceral. I believe when we die our bodies go back into nature in some form and continue a cycle of physical life and maybe it’s this that makes me uncomfortable when confronted with preserved body parts:they are evidence of a natural cycle interrupted.
All this went through my mind as I sat in St. Peters Church which has been nicely done up. Oliver is not in shabby surroundings at least. I particularly liked the painting on the walls. I lit some candles for departed friends. I’m not Christian but what harm in covering all the bases. Isn’t that what we’re all doing in the end?
I sat there a while more, watching worshippers come and go. One old woman stayed for an age, and with her white skin stretched across her skull she was not unlike a negative version of the man in the reliquary. Others came, all women. One glamorous lady came and knelt for a while and cried and then left. I couldn’t help but think that we’d all feel better if we were out in the sunshine.