Tracking Down Lost Relics


In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204), European crusaders returned home not only with stories of battle and conquest but also with precious religious relics from the Middle East and Byzantium. These were objects as seemingly mundane as stones from Jerusalem, vials of water from the Jordan River, or grains of sand from the Holy Land. But there were also hundreds of more significant objects, such as nails and wood fragments believed to be from the True Cross, upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.

How these relics shaped religious practice and Christian ontology in Europe, and primarily in France, is the subject of an ongoing book project by Anne E. Lester, the John W. Baldwin and Jenny Jochens Associate Professor of Medieval History. The book sprung from research she had conducted on the lives of medieval Cistercian nuns in northern France. “I kept running into these references of these really opulent reliquaries that housed these relics,” she says. “And I thought, ‘What were these things doing in these little monastic communities?’ These were not communities that were patronized by the king of France. I wanted to figure that out.”

Lester has spent months visiting museums and poring over 13th-century archives in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

It was mainly chaplains and clerics accompanying the crusaders who brought these objects back to Europe. They would often give the best of them—bones supposedly from John the Baptist’s face, for instance (still on display at France’s Amiens Cathedral)—to bishops or other church officials. But they would return to their hometowns with other relics to be displayed in the local church or chapel.

What surprised Lester was how widespread the dissemination of relics was. “It’s not just that they were only in cathedrals, they were part of the devotional lives of a lot of people down to the smallest communities,” she says.

Lester estimates that roughly 10 percent of these medieval relics still remain in European churches and museums. Most of them were confiscated and destroyed during the French Revolution, since the wealth embodied by the reliquaries was exactly what the revolutionaries were revolting against. Fortunately, they recorded the details of what they did, which Lester found particularly helpful for her research.