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Bishop Amulo of Lyon: A Letter on the Use of Relics, mid 9th century

In this letter, written in the middle decades of the ninth century, Bishop Amulo of Lyon addressed his fellow Bishop Theodbold of Langres, warning him about and advising him on the veneration of a set of relics which had recently begun in the church of Saint-Benigne in Dijon, a town under Theodbold's jurisdiction. This letter provides precious information about lay religious practice in the Carolingian empire as well as about the reaction of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to it.

To the most revered and purely beloved Theodbold, bishop of the church of Langres, Amulo the humble bishop of the church of Lyon wishes eternal salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. It has come to our attention through your beloved brother and coadjudtor that certain things have begun to take place in the city of Dijon at the chuch of the blessed martyr Benignus. It seems that many people come there--predominantly, as most would expect in such a matter, women--for the sake of prayer and veneration. Your soul is troubled by some doubt and you deem it necessary to seek our advice, as a brother. Your coadjutor said that last year two men, who claimed to be monks, brought to the aforesaid church of the holy martyr some bones said to be of some saint, which they claimed to have carried off either from Rome or from who knows what part of Italy. With splendid impudence they said that they had even forgotten the name of the saint. . .

Just as our above-mentioned brother has said, you must act prudently and religiously so that you do not judge these relics-for which no authority exists and whose name even is unknown-to be acceptable in any way. The relics would not be condemned out of hand should those who brought them are able, as they promised, clearly to show under diligent examination some proof of their origin. Your coadjutor, however, told us that one of the monks, who had remained in Dijon, is nor dead, while the other, who left in order to look into the matter and to report back, has never returned. What is more these bones have been brought by men of low standing, they have not been vouchsafed by any assertion of truth, and they are removed from the oversight of the church. To give them honor they are reverently kept next to the tomb of the glorious martyr Benignus. Some miracles have begun to occur in the church. These are not, however, cures and healings, by which some indication of divine compassion and approval would be shown, but rather blows and pressures, from which in this house of prayer pitiable little women suddenly fall down, thrash about, and are seen to shake violently. No bruises appear on any part of their bodies nor are they able to show any other signs of these blows. Crowds gather wishing to see such events-we know this not only from our brother, whom you sent, but from other people whom we know. There are at times reported to be three or four hundred women, or even more, present. These women fall down and thrash about in the manner described and then return to their senses. They are not able to be convinced to leave that place, for if they try to return to their homes, suddenly some new-I know not what-type of blows are struck and they are incited to return to the church which they had just left. Among these there are said to be not only girls, but also youthful wives, and even some of older age, reputable people as well as those of low standing.

You suggest that these have begun to happen not only in the church of St. Benignus, but also in another church in the same town, and in yet other places among your parishes. We have discovered that similar things have occured--or, rather, have been simulated--in the region of Autun, at Sedelocus in the church where the martyrs Andochius, Thyrsus, and Felix are buried. . . [Concerning such things] the Lord has advised, "Be as wise as serpents and as simple as doves" (Matthew 10:16). In this matter we may learn from the great and revered example of piety in the deeds of blessed Martin of Tours that we should in no way give into fear of uncertain faith. That blessed bishop and glorious confessor of Christ knew a certain place where an altar had been consecrated by his predecessors and which was frequented by throngs of people who gathered there. Since neither the name of the so-called martyr who was buried nor the age when his passion had occurred was known, Martin always refrained from going to that place, for he did not wish in some way to grant his authority to popular opinion. But when the truth of the matter was divinely disclosed to him, he absolved the people from the error of their superstition.

We find in the decretals of the blessed Pope Gelasius that bishops are specifically noted and designated as being virtually apart from the emotions of Christianity. They have control over the building of churches with sacred rites in the name of the dead or, what is more, of any of the faithful. We cannot know that the bodies of certain venerable and very holy people have lain for many years among the graves in the fields or in some secret corner of a church unless they manifest themselves through proper revelations. According to apostolic and evangelical authority and to the venerable examples and deeds of the holy fathers, [such a process] is to be removed from the people and conducted in the proper manner, lest excuses for superstition swarm up and no utility of salvation be judged to exist. In the present case, if one or two or three of those cures and healings which have occurred in the church of the martyr St. Benignus have been proclaimed truly and with probable cause, those miracles should be attributed, with all joy and veneration and due rendering of thanks, to the glory of God and the merits of the most blessed and most glorious martyr Benignus. The other things which have been said to occur in the church of that martyr and in other places should in no way be approved. . .

If there is a wish and a desire among the faithful to visit in supplication the shrines of diverse martyrs and varied saints, there are certain days set aside on which such visits may devoutly be made according to the ancient observance of the church, that is in the time of general rogation or-for certain problems and the necessities of specific litanies--during the lenten fasts or on the vigils and feastdays of the martyrs. These practices come from the law of the universal church. They are commended in the preaching and the advice of the priests and are attentively observed with obediance and piety by all the faithful. The sacred places may acceptably be visited on set days in silence and pure devotion, not with ostentation and tumult . . . I have zealously desired to respond to your questions, as the Lord would allow, according to divine authority and established custom. . . . We are sending to you a copy of the letter sent by our above-mentioned pious predecessor and father to the bishop of Narbonne in order that, should you wish to become more fully and subtly acquainted with those matters, you may be instructed by reading it fruitfully and completely. May the omnipotent God see fit to protect and guide your reverend love in the building of his church.

Source: Source: Amulo of Lyons, Epistolae, no. 1 in Patrologia latina, ed. Jean-Paul Migne, 221 vols. (Paris, 1844-1864), 116:77-84. For further discussion of this incident, see Patrick Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (Princeton, second edition, 1990), pp. 28-9.

This translation by Thomas Head has been made available to fellow students and researchers for private or classroom use. All other rights are reserved. Duplication for any other purpose, including publication, is prohibited. This translation was last updated on June 10, 1997.

From Thomas F. Head, An Anthology of Translated Texts Illustrative of the History of the Cult of the Saints (c 2000). [Link is to Internet Archive]. Thomas Head prepared these texts as part of the now defunct ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies [Link is to an archived and non-maintained version]. Dr. Head died on Nov 12, 2014 after an extended illness. I believe that he would have wanted his translated texts, marked for free personal use, and bibliographies to continue to be available and not just through the sometimes slow operation of the Internet Archive. They were marked "They may be reproduced for private use, but may not be reproduced for publication."


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, January 2023
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