For a distinguished academic, Professor Julia Smith is interested in surprisingly ordinary things – twigs, stones, flasks of water, baked clay cakes. But they are not just any old natural and man-made objects. They are, or were, sacred.
Chichele Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford, Professor Smith is interested in how these items acquired religious significance and, in turn, how that process changed their influence and power, not only for Christians in the Middle Ages, but also for subsequent generations.
‘I am concerned with ‘things which do things’, and use an ethnographic approach to exploring how, why and in what social contexts a wide range of material substances acquired a sacred aura, serving as mediators between humans and the Christian divinity,’ she said.
Professor Smith is giving the 2018 Birkbeck Lectures, a series founded at Trinity in 1886, and given every other year ‘on some portion of ecclesiastical history.’ Professor Smith’s ‘portion’ is the materiality of early Christian experience: ‘Christianity in Fragments: the Formation of the Cult of Relics, c. 300-800’, in which she presents her unpublished research to a Cambridge audience.
At her first lecture, ‘Refashioning the Holy Land,’ she presented an intriguing mix of tiny bundles, labelled in faded handwriting, and a tableau of pilgrims, royal envoys, and early converts travelling the Holy Land, building churches or collecting samples of natural things they felt were sacred. These included the palms that Jesus walked upon, trees he planted, the waters in which he was washed at his baptism, the sand where he stood – things that could be tasted, smelt, drunk or touched, as well as seen.
‘The sensory experience of these objects was all-important, conveying direct and intuitive contact with the supernatural,’ said Professor Smith.
Her research in the treasuries of some of Europe’s oldest church has unearthed a wealth of apparently ordinary things, preserved as holy relics, from the seventh and eighth centuries. Their religious significance is confirmed by the survival of labels and comprehensive lists. One such inventory lists ‘the soil on Jesus stood when he fed the five thousand along with the soil on which he stood when he ascended to heaven.’
Literally lifting the lid on old chests and opening cupboards, often forgotten, in church treasuries has confirmed Professor Smith’s conviction that holy relics are not only the saints’ bones deemed so in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her argument is that relic practices evolved slowly over the centuries, and that to understand them, we must stop relying on hand-me-down definitions of previous scholarship.
‘There has been an evolution of these relic-related practices. The cult of relics can’t be understood if we rely only on previous scholarship,’ she said.
She adopts a more anthropological approach than some historians, which brings a different vocabulary and aids understanding of what people did with things of religious significance in the pre-modern era. In the Middle Ages, the material and the spiritual flowed into each other in ways that are often surprising to the modern observer. To make sense of them means understanding them within the worldview of their own day, not ours.
The Birkbeck Lectures continue in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre, Trinity College, at 5pm:
12 February, ‘From Blessings to Pledges’
19 February, ‘Protecting Body and Soul’
26 February, ‘Martyrs, Bones and Bodies’
The lectures are free and open to all. No booking is required.