Not so long ago, on Age of Empires 2, my father and I were holding our ground against waves and waves of conquistadors. My halberdiers were butchered by the dozens and I noticed my father lacked gold to sustain his military production. Faithful son that I am, I tasked a monk with the perilous duty to deliver my relics to my father’s monastery despite enemy raids between both our bases.
Most of the time, however, we see players snatching relics from each other. On Arena maps, light cavalry and monks rush into the no man’s land as soon as players hit Castle Age and it leads to epic micro-fight. Those well versed into the arcane arts can even teleport their monks to snatch relics in the blink of an eye. A blood pact with the Devil is required to gain this wizardly skill, though, since you need two of your monks to shag in a dark alley, which is not very Christian.
Now, I’d like to talk to you about some historic relic gifting and snatching. Since I introduced the early Christian Dukes of Bohemia in a former post, I’ll keep my focus on them for this one.
As you may have read, Václav was the first Christian Duke of Bohemia despite his mother’s Pagan faith. The Přemyslid family strife got to some Game of Thrones proportion, though, when Drahomira, the mother, allegedly had her son Václav murdered by his own brother when he dared to found a rotunda church in Prague. Boleslav, Drahomira’s younger son, was maybe every inch a dutiful son but foremost he was quite the power grabber. With or without his mother’s scheming, he killed his brother without a flinch and took the Duchy for himself. While doing so, however, he also embraced Christianity then he didn’t wait a second to elevate his murdered brother to sainthood.
All this seems weird and fairly unreasonable to us. Yet, there might be a sound political reasoning behind Boleslav’s actions. Not only did he promote Václav to sainthood, he also made him the patron of Bohemia. Every Duke would promote Václav’s cult after Boleslav’s reign and use it as a propaganda of power. However, guilt may not have been the only thing to move Boleslav. Though he abode to Christianity, and therefore had to bow to the Holy Roman Empire, he tried to make Bohemia an independent polity. Sneaky and shrewd as he was, when the Magyars came westwards, Boleslav let them pass through his lands and it took the Duke of Saxony some fierce convincing to bend Boleslav to his will and join him to the Battle of Lechfeld, in 955.
Why does any of this matter? Let’s look at the bigger picture. Capture Age is our friend.
When Václav founded his rotunda church, he acquired a holy relic to dwell it from the Duke of Saxony. That relic was St Vitus’ arm and St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings. What can I say? Two and two make four. The Ludolfings were the Dukes of Saxony themselves. It meant that Prague religious life was enfeoffed to Saxony’s holy patron! Add water to the burned area, the Duke of Saxony was well placed to sit on the vacant throne of the Emperor and that is exactly what Otto I did, eventually, when he was crowned in 962.
Before that fateful year, still in the absence of an emperor in power, and before the Ludolfings claimed and took over the title, Boleslav wished to sunder Bohemia from Saxony’s religious oversight. He murdered his brother to seize the duchy then he made him a local saint so that St Vitus’ cult would not obstruct his personal display of power. This was a very clever move! When Boleslav turned his brother’s cold corpse into holy relics, he insured Bohemia religious life wasn’t overshadowed by a foreign patron. The next step was to elevate Prague into a bishopric and make it as free as possible from Imperial supervision.
Bohemia’s Christianization was first kicked off by missionaries sent from the bishopric of Passau. Nonetheless, as soon as 895, the bishopric of Regensburg took over the missionary agenda of Bohemia and all substantial religious matters regarding the Přemyslid duchy were settled in Bavaria, Bavaria being nothing but a friend to Saxony.
According to some dubious record in a 12th century chronicle, Boleslav managed to give Prague its own bishopric thanks to the good influence of his daughter, Mlada-Maria, as soon as 967. Nevertheless, it is certain that Prague had its own bishopric in 976 and was freed from Regensburg’s oversight. It was not yet an archbishopric, though, and still answered Mainz. Bohemia would have to wait the Luxembourg dynasty and John the Blind’s reign to see Prague become its own archbishopric. All the credit falls to John the Blind’s son, however, Charles IV.
It would be time now to talk about Boleslav II and his epic relic snatching skills. However, I’ll first gloss over the former sentence I wrote, ‘St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings,’ because there are more relics gifting to deal with on that matter!
Little did I know when I started to write this post that St Vitus relics dwelled in ‘France’ before they made their way into Saxony and, from there, found a path to Bohemia’s capital. Even before that, St Vitus’ relics were in Rome! They were moved to St Denis abbey in the 8th century.
Then, what happened?
During the 9th century, the Vikings forced many monks to move out relics from their sanctuary. However, this is not what happened to St Vicus relics. Hilduin, the abbot of Saint-Denis, found himself exiled to the German abbey of Corvey, in Saxony, because he’d allied an enemy of the Emperor, Louis the Pious. Hilduin was quickly reinstated but he made a friend along the way: the abbot of Corvey, Warin. The bound of friendship that united the two abbots is what made the relics transfer possible and moved St Vitus remains from Saint-Denis to Saxony.
First off, this relics transfer hastened the Christianization of Saxony. The German duchy had known very few martyrs: relics mostly had to be imported and St Vitus’ case set up a trend that would only grow stronger. Furthermore, the importation of relics into Saxony tethered its links to the Frankish Empire and helped its integration. Moreover, the chronicler Widukind interpreted the transfer from St Vitus’ relics to Saxony as a translation imperii: the Saxons symbolically inherited the imperial power that the Franks had held for so long when the holy remains entered the Corvey abbey.
A relic transfer was therefore much more than just a symbolic gesture. It could also have deep economic repercussion. Albeit I’ll discuss that in the next installment of this post series.
See you next time for some more relic trivia!
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Anne Van Landschoot, “La translation des reliques de saint Vit de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis à celle de Corvey en 836”, in Revue belge de philology et d’histoire (1996), 74/3-4, p. 593-632.