The greatest relic collection in all of early modern Europe was assembled in Geneva, in 1543, by the Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509–64). The collection existed only on paper, in the 327 relics cataloged in Calvin's Traité des reliques (Treatise on relics). Of course, the Reformer assembled these objects not to revere them but to debase and debunk them as frauds. “In order to vilify,” writes Joseph Koerner, “it is also necessary to exhibit.”Footnote 1 This essay explores why this was so for Calvin, investigating the rhetorical and forensic work the catalogue form did for him—indeed, arguing that rhetoric and proof are, in the Traité, one and the same.Footnote 2
The Traité was Calvin's best seller, seeing twelve French editions before 1600, as well as translations into English, Dutch, German, and Latin—and, surely most satisfying to its author, two outraged Catholic rebuttals.Footnote 3 The pamphlet's mordant wit and rhetorical showmanship, however, have misdirected attention from the puzzle at its heart: why does Calvin hang his treatise on the fake relic, a problem both evangelical critics and Catholic devotees could wave away as secondary to the real theological issues of idolatry or the distinction between latria and dulia?
Answering this question requires an appreciation of the humanist bona fides of the Traité, usually taken for a mere “curiosity” or a display of polemical fireworks, and rarely as a serious piece of intellectual work.Footnote 4 Building on the meticulous efforts of Pierre Antoine Fabre and Mickaël Wilmart, I reconstruct Calvin's textual practices as he marshals print culture and erudite historiography to assemble and debunk an unparalleled catalogue of relics. Calvin's curious emphases are clarified by reference to Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536)—not to his satires on popular piety, as has been the custom, but to his rhetorical theory. Read as a weaponization of copia, Erasmus's prescriptions for an abundant literary style, the Traité's catalogue drowns the cult of relics in its own overabundance, transforming the meaning of individual objects through a massive act of juxtaposing competing claims to authenticity. The catalogue form permits Calvin to divorce the relic from layers of material, cultic, and local meaning, at once undermining the cult, inculcating a Reformed way of seeing, and reconfiguring the experience of sacred presence. The Traité thus limns key theological boundaries—not only between Protestant and Catholic, but also between different camps of Protestants, reinforcing a distinct Reformed sensibility predicated on noncontradiction. Calvin knew what E. M. Cioran knew long afterward: “It is not easy to destroy an idol: it takes as much time as is required to promote and to worship one. For it is not enough to annihilate its material symbol, which is easy; but its roots in the soul.”Footnote 5
TOWARD A HISTORY OF RELICS
I begin where Calvin begins, with Augustine of Hippo's (354–430) De opere monachorum (On the work of monks, 401), in which the saint, “complaining about certain peddlers who, even in his time, plied a sordid and dishonest trade, carrying hither and thither relics of the martyrs, adds, ‘if indeed they are martyrs’ relics.’Footnote 6 By this expression he indicates that even then this abuse and trickery was practiced in bringing the simple folk to believe that the bones gathered here and there were the bones of saints.”Footnote 7 Augustine functions here as a historical, rather than a theological, witness, attesting not to the relic as idol but to the existence of fraudulent relics “even then.” Conveniently absent is Augustine's enthusiasm for genuine relics—an omission seized upon by Calvin's Catholic critics.Footnote 8 The Reformer goes on to explain that his project in the Traité as a whole is not theological, though the pamphlet does open and close with the doctrinal argument: “If idolatry is nothing but the transfer of the honor due to God elsewhere, can we deny that this is idolatry?”Footnote 9 The emphasis, however, is on a more contingent, factual claim: “the greater part [la plus part] of the relics shown in every place are false [faulses].”Footnote 10 The Middle French word faux, or fauls, is richly polysemic: false, counterfeit, forged, artificial, deceitful, unfaithful, treacherous, hypocritical, wrong. All of these meanings concatenate in the relentless denunciation of “fausses reliques,” as error slides into deception, ignorance into wickedness. Calvin exploits the word foy, “faith,” in a similar fashion, with repeated taunts about “if one can place faith [foy] in things so absurd.” Foy here means confidence, but the word equally connotes religious faith and the trustworthiness of an individual or thing.Footnote 11 Accordingly, though Calvin principally contends with relics not as theological but as “strictly material objects,” the moral weight of his findings is never absent.Footnote 12
So the Reformer's thoughts turn to an inventory. “It would be something to be desired,” he muses, “to be certain of all the trifles that are taken here and there for relics, or even, at least, to have a register and reckoning [denombrement].”Footnote 13 He then dedicates the rest of the pamphlet's 110 pages to something that looks awfully like a “register and reckoning,” proceeding from Jesus Christ to various other biblical figures, to the martyrs of the early church, and, finally, to a few later “common” (“vulgaire”) saints.Footnote 14 Fabre and Wilmart tabulate some 327 objects, unevenly dispersed throughout Western Europe.Footnote 15
The first relics the Traité names are not those of Christ but an arm of Anthony of Padua (1195–1231) and the brain of Peter the apostle, both formerly housed in Geneva. These, Calvin crows, were revealed as the “membre” (less delicate authors clarified that it was the “membre viril”) and a pumice stone, respectively, when the altars of the city's cathedral were stripped in 1535.Footnote 16 The events in Geneva were but one of the many sixteenth-century outbreaks of iconoclasm, some led from above and some from below, some riotous and some orderly, some accompanied by wholesale transformation and some ultimately reversed. Most shared a common dramaturgy: the exposure of Catholic fraud and the disabusing of the deceived.Footnote 17
Not every relic turned out to be so picturesque a fraud, but the Traité is a systematic textual replication of that iconoclastic gesture. A passage on the Titulus—the inscription the Gospels record as displayed at the Crucifixion, mocking Christ as King of the Jews—is representative.Footnote 18 When, where, and how was it found?
Someone will say to me that the church historian Socrates [Scholasticus (ca. 380–ca. 439)] records it.Footnote 19 I confess it. But he says nothing at all of what became of it. So this testimony is not worth much. Furthermore, this was something written in haste and on the spot, after Jesus Christ was crucified. Therefore, to display a tablet elaborately crafted, as though to be kept for display, has no purpose. Thus, even were there only one, we could regard it as a fake and a fiction. But when the city of Toulouse boasts of having it, and the people of Rome contradict them, displaying it in the church of Santa Croce, each refutes the other. Let them battle it out as much as they like. In the end, both parties will be convicted of lying as soon as one chooses to examine the thing itself.Footnote 20
As in the citation of De opere monachorum, the analysis is historical and materialist: Calvin is concerned with the Titulus as object, not idol. Within this passage, and the Traité as a whole, three overlapping canons for examining relics can be identified: these I have termed the critique from provenance, the critique from historicity, and the critique from multiplicity. All three are rooted in the relic as “strictly material object” and in the established tools of humanist historiography.
According to Fabre and Wilmart, provenance constitutes the “central issue” of the Traité, developed along spatial (transportation) and temporal (conservation) axes.Footnote 21 How did the relic survive as long as it has, and how did it get from its point of origin to its point of display? Or, more simply, is it credible that the relic exists when and where it does? Would Pontius Pilate have allowed someone to make off with the costly robe in which Christ was clothed? Who was so obliging as to give the Christians the sword with which John the Baptist was decapitated?Footnote 22
Calvin thus inverts the usual privileging of antiquity; age becomes a liability: the older the relic, the less credible.Footnote 23 Where a church might take pride in possessing a relic from distant lands, in the Traité such a provenance is inherently suspect.Footnote 24 How indeed had the tablecloth from the Last Supper wound up in Italy and/or Germany?Footnote 25 The Traité forces each object to bear the full weight of late antique and medieval history: how could the true cross have been discovered by Saint Helena (ca. 255–ca. 330) when Jerusalem was sacked and razed to the ground fifty years after Christ's death?Footnote 26 Natural, as well as historical, processes—principally, the decay of organic matter—also threaten provenance: the relic of a fish from Christ's post-resurrection meal at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21) must have been exceedingly well seasoned to have lasted so long.Footnote 27 Of course, Calvin was being deliberately obtuse, as the miracle consisted precisely in the fish's survival, but the effect is to call into question the great dance of objects, the centuries-old system of exchanges, discoveries, gifts, and thefts, that constituted the cult of relics and that had been accelerating as late medieval Catholics amassed ever-larger collections.Footnote 28 As every cataloguer knows, provenance is built on the back of attestation, and Calvin's “constant refrain” is the lack of scriptural, patristic, and historical warrants.Footnote 29 Though Exodus 16 states that the Israelites preserved a jar of manna in commemoration of the miracle, “of the leftovers remaining from the five loaves, the Gospel says nothing about them being kept for such a purpose, and there is no ancient history that speaks of them, nor any Doctor of the Church.”Footnote 30
The historical record was still more central to the critique from historicity, whose target is the anachronistic relic, the object that does not match the time and place whence it claims to come. In the words of Carlo Ginzburg, “the knowledgeable use of context causes the anachronism, written in invisible ink, to emerge.”Footnote 31 Calvin debunks the robes of Christ displayed at Argenteuil and Trier because they are “in the fashion of a folded chasuble,” rather than the Greek chiton that would have been worn in first-century Jerusalem.Footnote 32 Equally problematic is the chasuble of Saint Peter at Rome: “the custom had not yet come to playing dress-up, for they mounted no such farces in the Church as we have now.”Footnote 33 The critique recoils on the accumulation of relics itself, for “it was not the custom to gather up breeches and slippers in this fashion in order to make relics.”Footnote 34 Neither the Gospels nor the best texts of Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–ca. 340) attest to such behavior. If the early Christians collected the bones of the martyrs, Calvin explains, it was to save the remains from desecration and to give them an honorable burial.Footnote 35 Providing a terminus post quem for the cult of relics shattered any aura of timelessness, whether in the saint's ability to intervene posthumously or in the access their remains might offer to the history of the church.Footnote 36
Finally, Calvin's third and favorite avenue of attack is the critique from multiplicity, the juxtaposition of multiple churches’ competing claims to possess a single item. Calvin counts some fourteen nails supposedly from the Crucifixion. The head of John the Baptist can be seen, in whole or in part, at Amiens, Saint-Jean d'Angély, Malta, Nogent-le-Rotrou, Saint-Jean-de-Mauriene, Besançon, Rome, Paris, Saint-Flour, Oviedo, Noyon, and Rome, once more for good measure.Footnote 37 However cunning a polemicist Calvin was, as historical criticism this is all thoroughly traditional. Medieval churchmen had noted with dismay the proliferation of the Baptist's heads, while the oddities of the cult of relics had been fodder for generations of satirists.Footnote 38 Methodologically, there is nothing in the Traité's historical critiques that cannot be found in Polydore Virgil (ca. 1470–1555) or Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72).Footnote 39 But that is precisely the point: Calvin is thinking about relics like a good Renaissance humanist.
A good humanist Calvin certainly was, as at least a century of scholarship has established (though not without dissent).Footnote 40 Educated at Paris, Orléans, and Bourges, he studied under luminaries of sixteenth-century letters like Mathurin Cordier (ca. 1479–1564) and Andrea Alciati (1492–1550).Footnote 41 He made his print debut with a commentary on Seneca the Younger's (ca. 4 BCE–65 CE) De clementia (On mercy, ca. 55 CE)—unimpeachably humanist fare—and his last major institutional achievement was the 1559 foundation of the Genevan Academy, whose curriculum reflected the cutting edge of sixteenth-century pedagogy.Footnote 42 In between, he penned the Traité, only recently accorded the status of a “work of erudition,” but thoroughly humanist in its genesis, its content, and its methods.Footnote 43
The sine qua non for composing the Traité was an adequate store of relics, the assembling of which Fabre and Wilmart have compellingly reconstructed. In a sweeping survey of early modern sources of information on relics, they posit that Calvin relied upon a mix of print and manuscript texts, as well as his own experiences, those of his entourage, and general knowledge.Footnote 44 This is confirmed by a comment of Nicolas des Gallars (ca. 1520–81), Calvin's amanuensis, that the Traité was not “the labor of a single man. . . . Truly, our Calvin could not find out everything. He recorded as many as he was able to see, and those he knew of from trustworthy evidence.”Footnote 45
The textual sources would have included inventories of collections, “the general catalogue[s] of the relics of a city and of the indulgences appointed for its churches,” “the letters of indulgences for a specific church,” and tips gathered from correspondents.Footnote 46 It is difficult to be more exact, but Calvin's awareness of obscure Roman churches and yet-obscurer Roman relics indicates the use of at least one of the dozens of pilgrim's guides to the Eternal City; the same can almost certainly be said of a printed letter of indulgence for the Cathedral of San Salvador, in Oviedo. On the other hand, various errors, Calvin's usual working methods, and the sale of his library in the early 1540s imply considerable reliance on memory.Footnote 47
As for experience, Fabre and Wilmart try to match the pattern of the relics mentioned to the known itineraries of Calvin and his associates. The most suggestive result concerns Poitiers, where Calvin lived for some time in the 1530s: “The schema looks like a by-the-book [en règle] tour of the city's institutions . . . of the ten Poitevin relics cited, only three are not precisely located. The other seven are found in seven different churches.” As there is no trace of an available guide to Poitiers's relics, Fabre and Wilmart conclude that “therefore we ought to see this catalogue as the product of lived experience, as a direct witness by Calvin to what he had been able to see in Poitiers.”Footnote 48 Of course, it is conceivable that such a guide simply has not survived, but it is not hard to imagine the young Calvin wandering the city, observing Catholic piety with morbid fascination.Footnote 49
Calvin does not hide the personal experiences that undergird the Traité, and the text includes two explicitly autobiographical moments (quite rare in the Reformer's corpus). He recalls festivals in the Noyon of his boyhood, including the pious ladies who lit candles in front of the image of Saint Stephen as well as the images of his persecutors, for Saint Michael as well as for the devil falling before his sword.Footnote 50 More startlingly, Calvin confesses his own idolatrous past: enumerating the relics of Saint Anne, he reveals, “I kissed a piece [of her relics] in the abbey of Ourscamp near Noyon.”Footnote 51 Fabre and Wilmart conclude that, “more than the reflection of notes taken while reading, the Traité des reliques appears to be the fruit of a collective experience: that of a universal [catholique] culture of relics.”Footnote 52
I have only admiration for this bibliographic detective work, but I would question whether “notes taken while reading” necessarily stand in opposition to “collective experience.” To the contrary, note-taking, commonplacing, and other textual strategies were fundamental to the “collective experience” of early modern European thinkers, not least with regard to their travels and their conversations, and to the texts they produced, especially sacred histories.Footnote 53 The acts of hearing of a relic from a friend's recollections, learning of it from a childhood journey, and reading about it in a printed pamphlet were not obviously distinct. Here, as in the larger picture of an intellectually omnivorous Calvin, is a man absolutely typical of the learned culture of his time—the most materially inclined antiquarians not excepted.Footnote 54
To take a single, well-studied example, Calvin's Zurich contemporary Conrad Gessner (1516–65) worked by cannibalizing “all kinds of sources: books already in print, manuscripts never printed before, his own observations, letters from correspondents far and near, people he knew well, and scholars whom he never met,” in addition to paratexts like tables of contents and booksellers’ catalogues.Footnote 55 Crucially, “there is apparently little distinction to be made between Gessner the author and Gessner the reader. For both, scissors ever at the ready, books were annotated, indexed, summarized, copied, cut up, and re-arranged.” Calvin, too, “was at once author and reader,” constantly revising the Institutes of the Christian Religion (first ed. 1536) in light of his studies, his critics, and the issues of the day.Footnote 56
Both Calvin the reader and Calvin the author were fascinated by history. All his life, he devoured the writings of historians ancient and modern, attaining a sophisticated knowledge of the past that informed his theological work. His biblical commentaries, for example, play out within a richly contoured vision of the Holy Land and strive mightily to resolve contradictions among historical and scriptural witnesses.Footnote 57 Even the Institutes makes frequent detours through historical argument, as when Calvin adduces the example of Nectarios of Constantinople (d. 397) against auricular confession, or quibbles over the liturgical evolution of confirmation.Footnote 58 As Kirk Essary has shown, Calvin was “an able and discerning critic” of history, and if he subordinated scholarly rigor to doctrinal considerations, he never did so blindly or uncritically. He “never reverted to the argument that the biblical authority simply trumps the non-biblical one,” at least with authors of some weight; quite the reverse: extrabiblical sources could push him toward more convoluted interpretations of scripture.Footnote 59 It should come as no surprise, then, that Calvin's handling of his relic collection reflected the best practices of humanist historiography.
To prosecute a critique of relics as material objects in history, Calvin immersed himself in ancient texts, “so as to give his demonstration a solid foundation according to humanist standards.”Footnote 60 He could thus weigh the relics’ claims against the combined witnesses of the Bible and an array of church fathers and ecclesiastical historians (fig. 1). Here Calvin rides the impetus of what has been called the “patristic Renaissance” of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an avalanche of new editions of early Christian literature, including each of the texts cited in the Traité.Footnote 61
These erudite editions shared bookshelves with a far larger universe of compilations, abridgements, printed commonplace books, and other reference works that attempted to manage early modern “information overload.”Footnote 62 Calvin was no less willing to make use of secondhand erudition (or to disguise that expedient) than his contemporaries. In citing Eusebius of Caesarea's Historia ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical history, 324–35), for example, he made use of Rufinus of Aquileia's (ca. 345–411) Latin translation, Haymo of Halberstadt's (d. 853) Epitome, and Jerome's (ca. 345–420) adaptation of the Chronicon (Chronicle, ca. 325), yet his citations still read “Eusebius.”Footnote 63 Two such slippages occur in the Traité: once when Calvin is actually using Rufinus and again when he attributes to Eusebius the story of the Mandylion—the portrait of himself that Christ legendarily sent to King Abgar of Edessa—though this episode was already well established as a later addition (or perhaps a mistake).Footnote 64 More forthrightly, when he cites Theodoret of Cyrus (ca. 393–ca. 460), a marginal annotation directs readers to the Historiae ecclesiasticae tripartitae epitome (Epitome of the tripartite ecclesiastical history, ca. 510), an abridged Latin collation of Theodoret, Socrates Scholasticus, and Sozomen (ca. 400–ca. 450).Footnote 65 The twin phenomena of new, deluxe scholarly editions and textual shortcuts were constitutive of early modern learned culture and of the Traité's historical panorama.
That panorama was stocked with tangible objects: bones and brains, chairs and chasubles. These Calvin scrutinizes for their material credibility, for their “archaeological” verisimilitude, as Marie Barral-Baron incisively terms it.Footnote 66 In early modern parlance, Calvin adopts the methods of the antiquarian here. The antiquarians were rewriting the rules of historiography: “They wrote from material as well as textual evidence. They abandoned the narration of battles and treaties for the reconstruction of rituals and customs.”Footnote 67 One of the pioneers of this trend had been the Italian polymath Lorenzo Valla (ca. 1406–57), whose De Falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione Declamatio (On the donation of Constantine, 1439–40) also exposed some of the material absurdities fêted in Renaissance Rome. For instance, Valla subjects the manuscript vaunted at San Paolo fuori le Mura—“like the remains of saints”—as Jerome's autograph copy of the Vulgate Bible to a critique strikingly like the one Calvin applies to the Titulus. For one thing, “there is considerable painted cloth and gold, as Virgil saysFootnote 68—something which would rather suggest that it was not written by the hand of Jerome.” More damningly, Valla had inspected the document and found the scribe's signature: “it had been written by order of a king, Robert, I think, in the handwriting of an inexperienced person.”Footnote 69
Along with attending to the physical stuff of history, antiquarians innovated by reconstructing customs and forms of life of earlier eras. Calvin, for instance, explicates marriage and burial practices “in the manner of the Jews” to expose the error in giving the Virgin Mary a wedding ring (“because now it is the custom”) or Jesus a full-body shroud.Footnote 70 Indeed, the Traité redeployed long-standing points of dispute within antiquarian discourse. To ridicule the supposed table from the Last Supper at St. John Lateran on the grounds that “the form of tables was then quite different from what it is now . . . they reclined, rather than sitting, at meals,” was to join a debate that had been running among scholars, artists, and clergymen for nearly a century.Footnote 71
Calvin owed much to Valla, whom he elsewhere calls “a learned and keen-witted man,” and the Reformer's formative years coincided with the rediscovery of the Italian's declamatio after its 1518 reprinting by Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523).Footnote 72 When Calvin demands to know why the evangelists never mentioned Veronica, or how to reconcile relics of John the Baptist with historians who maintained that his body was burned,Footnote 73 he was following Valla's lead. The declamatio catalogues such awkward gaps both in the existing record (“Livy, an earlier and more serious author, knows neither of these stories”) and in the record that ought to exist (“I should have expected you to show gold seals, marble inscriptions, a thousand authors”).Footnote 74 When Calvin savages those who retrojected the garb of early modern deacons onto Saint Laurence (d. 258),Footnote 75 he is borrowing from Valla's merciless examination of the Donation. Imperial diadems, the Italian sniffs, were made of cloth or silk. But “this forger of ours cannot conceive that what kings now normally supplement with a gold band and gems was made of anything other than gold.”Footnote 76 And when Calvin builds the Traité around the scrutiny of physical objects, he reprises Valla's careful attention to material evidence: coins, manuscripts, buildings, inscriptions, tools.
Above all, the two men share a certain rationalism, an insistence that “the nature of things [rerum natura]” is governed by logical rules. Constantine (r. 306–37) cannot refer to Constantinople before he has founded the city;Footnote 77 Mary Magdalene cannot have more than one body.Footnote 78 Just as Calvin demands a world in which fish rots with time, so Valla demands one where leprosy develops as medical knowledge says it should. The relic must exist within time, and it must follow time's rules.
To show that Calvin went about collecting fake relics in a thoroughly humanist fashion does not explain why he did so in the first place. That this should need explaining is perhaps not immediately obvious, but a brief theological excursus reveals why this is problematic.
CRITIQUES AT CROSS-PURPOSES
Theologically speaking, Calvin's thesis—“the better part of the relics displayed in every place are false”—is neither especially useful to the Protestant nor especially threatening to the Catholic. If, as Fabre and Wilmart claim, the “question centrale” of the Traité is Calvin's demand of each relic, “Whence come you?,” the inquiry will remain theologically impotent.Footnote 79 For the Reformed Protestant, authenticity is irrelevant: even a relic of flawless provenance, uncontested singularity, and unexceptionable historical consistency remains a material object. To revere such a thing is to divert to the created the honor due to the Creator—in short, idolatry: “Honor cannot be rendered unto the creature in worship [religionis causa] without unworthily and sacrilegiously appropriating it from God.”Footnote 80 At one point, Calvin comments, “it would have been enough to abuse a body through idolatry without making one devil into two or three.”Footnote 81 Why go further? The standard Protestant position was simply to cleave doggedly to the scriptural prohibitions on idols.Footnote 82 To ask the relic, “Whence come you?” is to allow that the answer matters—and to leave open the possibility of a correct answer (the genuine article).
On the other hand, the iconoclast's gleeful exposé of the idol's made-ness is considerably less impressive to the idolater. The problem of fake relics was, as Calvin suggests, as old as the cult itself, and was lamentable but hardly calamitous. To acknowledge the abuses was not to indict reverence for the saints or their relics.Footnote 83 In his reply to the Traité, the Belgian Carmelite Nikolaas Blanckaert (d. 1555) frankly admits, “Some fraudulent and cunning merchants are accustomed to adulterate their wares, offering the false for the true, the contrived for the pure, and the spurious for the genuine; that the shameless hierophants of our age do this is too obvious to be denied.” But, he continues, should “the relics of the saints be neglected on that account, their graves disrespected, their memories consigned to oblivion, their veneration halted, all to deal with this evil?”Footnote 84 Another Catholic critic, Johann Cochlaeus (1479–1552), actually cites Martin Luther (1483–1546) against Calvin, to the effect that “the abuse does not impugn [tollit] the substance.”Footnote 85 And since true devotion “is directed toward Christ through the relic, and not toward the saint,” “the question of the authenticity of the relics does not arise.”Footnote 86 The involuntary, unwitting sin of revering a false relic, Cochlaeus reasons, would not really be a sin at all. “Truly, God regards the heart, and judges the intention.”Footnote 87
Doubts over the identity of this or that relic were endemic, with few ever enjoying “unbroken veneration from the time of the saint's death.”Footnote 88 Authenticity could be settled with admirable straightforwardness: “If the relics worked—that is, if they were channels for supernatural intervention—then they were genuine. If they did not, they were not authentic, regardless of the strength of external evidence.”Footnote 89 Cochlaeus, for one, was untroubled by the enigma of how Saint James's remains ended up in Compostela, since “the divine majesty has proven and shown by miracles and benefits, better than any books or pages, that his body is truly there.”Footnote 90
Moreover, Calvin has undersold the sophistication of his opponents’ faith. He dismisses the careful Catholic distinction between latria, worship due only to God, and dulia, reverence due to the saints.Footnote 91 There were cogent Catholic responses to his assaults on individual relics. Duplicate relics were miracles: “God multiplied these objects as He wished, for the benefit of humankind.”Footnote 92 So was their survival, each vicissitude only further confirming the power of providence. The critique from historicity was answered by the invocation of church tradition or ecclesiastical history. Catholic authorities had long held that the chasubles Calvin so mocked, for instance, were derived from the vestments of ancient Israelite priests.Footnote 93 Anachronisms could also be attributed to repairs, modifications, or adornments—while the relic was original, the reliquary or other external trappings did not need to make such a claim.Footnote 94 The work of remaking and restoring disrupted linear chronologies: Paulinus of Nola describes such reliquaries as “at once ancient and new, yet neither new nor ancient, / at once different and the same,” a paradox cherished by the devout.Footnote 95
Calvin's outrage that “les simples”—a phrase connoting purity, sincerity, honesty, straightforwardness, and virtue, as well as a lack of learning—had been deceived by the papists deliberately mischaracterizes Catholic worship.Footnote 96 He leaves no room for what Robert A. Orsi calls “devotional double-mindedness” vis-à-vis holy matter. Pilgrims come to New York City's Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto believing that “in some way these waters are the waters of Lourdes,” even as they know perfectly well that “these waters come through the pipes of the city's reservoir”: “the water is both ordinary and extraordinary; it is identical and not to the water at Lourdes.”Footnote 97 The same dynamics inflect early modern devotional causes célèbres like the Rood of Grace. In 1538, Henrician officials tasked with the dissolution of the Kentish monastery Boxley Abbey claimed to have discovered that the Cistercian house's celebrated crucifix, famous for its moving eyes, contained “certen Ingynes & old wyer wyth olde Roton stykkes in the backe . . . that dyd cause the eyes of the same to move & stere in the head therof lyke unto a lyvelye thyng.” The Protestants brandished the Rood as evidence of “the false, crafty & suttel handelyng” of the papists and the gullibility of their addled flocks.Footnote 98 Yet Leanne Groeneveld shows that the credulity of the pious was a polemical construction: the devout “would have been well aware that the Rood of Boxley's movements were effected by internal devices and an external operator.”Footnote 99 That awareness in no way precluded real devotion; the automaton could be at once machine and miracle.
Such paradoxes, in the language of Catholic spirituality, are mysteries. Not only is a mystery impossible to explain in rational terms, but an insistence on doing becomes impious, or at least wrongheaded.Footnote 100 And while some Catholics were troubled by the inconsistencies in the cult of relics, iconophile theology was more than equal to the challenge.Footnote 101 The debunking of 327 individual relics—or three thousand, for that matter—left the underlying theological edifice unscathed. The key word, however, is individual. Thus the strenuous efforts of Protestants, with varying degrees of success, “to conflate specific instances of fraud with a more general critique of traditional religion.”Footnote 102 Calvin's madcap enumeration becomes comprehensible—and effective—when the level of analysis shifts from particular relics to the collective. Reckoning with the Traité as a cumulative rhetorical effect demands rethinking the influence of Calvin's most immediate model: Erasmus.
CONTESTING THE ERASMIAN INHERITANCE
“All his life,” avers William Bouwsma, “Calvin inhabited the Erasmian world of thought and breathed its spiritual atmosphere.”Footnote 103 This debt manifested variously in Calvin's scholarly methods, pedagogical principles, critical insights, philosophical concepts, and stylistic flourishes.Footnote 104 In 1543, Erasmus was unquestionably Europe's foremost critic of the cult of relics.Footnote 105 His Colloquia (Colloquies, 1518), notably “Naufragium” and “Peregrinatio religionis ergo,” lampooned the grossness of popular piety: letters dictated by the Virgin, suppliants who forgot about Christ in their frantic pleas to the saints, used handkerchiefs revered as relics. On a loftier plane, the Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Handbook of a Christian knight, 1503) warned that materiality was eclipsing true pietas, an Erasmian keyword that fused sound doctrine, communal and personal devotion, and lived morality:Footnote 106 “You revere the saints; your joy is in touching their relics. But you spurn the best of what they left behind, the perfect example of a pure life. . . . You gaze in astonishment at the tunic or sweat-cloth they would have be Christ's, and you read Christ's revelations drowsily. You think it the greatest of all things to possess some fragment of the cross in your house. Yet this is nothing compared to carrying the mystery of the cross in your heart.”Footnote 107
The traditional genealogy from the Traité to Erasmus has understandably run through the Colloquia, the Enchiridion, and the Modus Orandi Deum (On praying to God, 1524); these texts not only mock the excesses of popular piety, but they share with the Traité a tone Barral-Baron aptly calls “the ironic smile.”Footnote 108 There are also direct borrowings from Erasmus in the Traité—notably, several jokes lifted from the Colloquia. Of fragments of the true cross, the Reformer quips, “If one were to gather up all of them that could be found, it would be the freight for a mighty big boat.”Footnote 109 Here is Erasmus, three decades earlier: “They allege the same of the Lord's cross, which is displayed in so many places, privately and publicly, that if all the fragments were gathered up they'd seem the full freight for a ship.”Footnote 110 Quite rightly, then, the Traité has become a key case study for the “filiation between the humanist and the Reformer.”Footnote 111
Quite rightly, but not so straightforwardly. Despite the sense among some Catholics that Erasmus had betrayed them, compared to Calvin his critiques are a prescription for considered reform, rather than a call to full-throated Reformation.Footnote 112 For one thing, there is the obvious but essential fact that the Traité is in French. Where Erasmus “always communicates for a cultured, select, and Latinate elite,” Calvin addresses himself “to the largest possible public,” here anyone who can understand French.Footnote 113 Francophone territories were the focus of Calvin's polemical efforts in this period (when first mooting an inventory of relics, he suggests “ten or twelve cities, such as Paris, Toulouse, Rheims, and Poitiers”).Footnote 114 In light of Erasmus's paralyzing fear of popular unrest, so much of which had marked the early Reformation, the linguistic difference is not insignificant.Footnote 115 Calvin's Catholic interlocutors, for their part, viewed the choice of French as a stratagem to “more easily infect the souls of the unlearned, simple, and foolish with his poison.”Footnote 116
As for the critique itself, in assessing Erasmus's agenda it is worth keeping in mind Cochlaeus's and Blanckaert's distinction between substance and abuse. Erasmian pietas had a reformist bent, as the humanist marshaled his learning to evaluate the state of the church and to imagine a better alternative.Footnote 117 He regarded the cult of relics as a lightning rod for superstition, exploitation, and greed. Far too many pagan practices had survived under the fig leaf of a saint; far too many absurdities were embraced in the name of devotion. It appalled Erasmus to see Christian pilgrims genuflect before a saint's filthy linens, or to hear them haggling with divine patrons (this many votive candles for so much assistance).Footnote 118 Still worse is the mercenary behavior of those who maintain the cult: at every shrine, the protagonist of “Peregrinatio” is hounded by custodians and guides, each expecting a show of pious generosity. After spending a small fortune in this fashion, he expresses his gratitude at having eluded certain notorious bandits; readers duller than Calvin would have gotten the joke.Footnote 119
All of which is to say that Erasmus's target is abuse rather than substance, the exception rather than the rule: the obscene accumulation of wealth, the brazen exploitation, the patent superstition.Footnote 120 But he refused to extrapolate from the abolition of scandals, however egregious or pervasive, to the abolition of popular piety itself. When it came to images, for instance, he acknowledges that their use and abuse had become “infinite [immensum]”: “Yet this is not a reason for casting all images out of the churches, but for teaching the people how they may rightly be used.”Footnote 121 As for the saints, Erasmus believed that a well-regulated cult could offer a spur to virtue: “if you delight in rendering worship to Christ through the saints, strive to imitate Christ through the saints, and in honor of each one endeavor to improve a particular vice or to embrace a particular virtue.” So long as outward displays were matched by interior devotion, Erasmus had no complaint.Footnote 122 The wealth the shrines had accrued over the years could, perhaps, be given to the poor.Footnote 123
Calvin flatly denied that the physics of worship, as it were, permitted the upward movement from image or relic to God. Worship channeled through even the noblest matter will inevitably be corrupted through idolatry, which tends ever downward toward more and more debased objects.Footnote 124 The error intrinsic to relic piety could only end in worshippers revering “the bones of some bandit or thief, or even of an ass, or a dog, or a horse” as the remains of a martyr, or “the trinkets of some whore” as the jewelry of the Virgin.Footnote 125 Here Calvin differed from Luther, for whom the problem was also abuse; a good Lutheran, looking at a good Lutheran image, could “see through the image to its didactic charge.”Footnote 126 Calvin, by contrast, spoke of worshipers as “stunned” by matter, unable to transcend “looking at the bare sign.”Footnote 127
In comparison to the Colloquia, the Traité ranges far wider, gathering famous and obscure relics alike. Furthermore, Calvin all but ignores the excesses and enormities, the elaborate ecclesiastical settings, the liturgical apparatus surrounding the relics. What abounds is not gold or silver, indulgences or services, but the relics themselves—for all its attention to fraud, the Traité attacks the cult, not its abuses.Footnote 128 This Erasmus never did, though he had all the same historical and philological tools. Despite the enthusiasm of contemporary Reformers and radicals, scholarship has reaffirmed the steadfastly orthodox, traditionalist character of his religious thought.Footnote 129 On the subject of relics, as Erasmus grew more and more uneasy at what Luther had set into motion, he emphatically endorsed the cult, at the cost of contradicting his younger self.Footnote 130
In this light, I want to complicate the accepted line of descent from Erasmus to the Traité, suggesting that the influence of the Colloquia and the spiritual writings is mediated through the humanist's rhetorical theory, an influence measured in style rather than content. For it was in his attention to and reliance upon rhetoric that Calvin showed himself most thoroughly as a child of the Renaissance and of Erasmus.Footnote 131
I am thinking specifically of copia. No better description of copia can be offered than the one penned by Erasmus himself, opening his 1512 treatise De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum Commentarii Duo (Two commentaries on the double abundance of words and things): “There is nothing more admirable or more magnificent than oratory overflowing like a river of gold with a rich abundance of arguments and of words.”Footnote 132 Famously, De Copia offers a virtuoso practical demonstration, as Erasmus lists 147 ways to say, “Your letter delighted me immensely [Tuae me literae magnopere delectarunt]” followed by two hundred ways to say, “As long as I live, I shall always remember you [Semper dum vivam, tui meminero].”Footnote 133 With his own language flowing in such extravagant torrents, Erasmus advises his readers on how to speak and write copiously: how to assemble a sufficient store of words, examples, arguments, and references; how to organize them to good effect; how to vary one's language so as to delight, move, and persuade. Copia of subject matter—relics, perhaps—was to be assembled by amassing exempla, under which heading Erasmus grouped “stories, fables, proverbs, opinions, parallels or comparisons, similitudes, analogies, and anything else of the same sort.”Footnote 134
De Copia was an international best seller and a standard textbook of humanist pedagogy.Footnote 135 R. R. Bolgar went so far as to call it “a clue to the whole of Humanism.”Footnote 136 Though the defining trait of Calvin's prose style was clarity, even simplicity, he could be abundant whenever rhetorical or homiletic exigencies demanded.Footnote 137 It should be noted that copiousness is not the same as prolixity: copia could be, though in practice rarely was, concise.Footnote 138 Critics like Cochlaeus savaged Calvin's verbosity: the Catholic controversialist sniped, “It is written in Proverbs [10:19], ‘In a multitude of words, sin is not lacking.’ And none of the heretics of our time more abounds in verbiage than John Calvin, a fugitive and exile from France, as proven by his books, which he floods with a ceaseless deluge of words, and scatters through the world with impious loquacity.”Footnote 139
The Traité, an enormous catalogue of words describing an overabundance of things, is a set-piece display of Erasmian copia. It is the function of such copia “to conceptually and materially conflate words and things”: here it re-creates the infinitude of the cult of relics.Footnote 140 As Calvin rattles off the relics of the apostles, for instance, the reader is crowded by names, places, and bodies all at once: “Everyone knows that the city of Toulouse thinks it has six of them—namely, Saint James the Greater, Saint Andrew, Saint James the Less, Saint Philip, Saint Simon, and Saint Jude. At Padua is the body of Saint Matthias, at Salerno the body of Saint Matthew. At Ortona that of Saint Thomas. In the Kingdom of Naples that of Saint Bartholomew. Now let us note those who have two bodies, or three. Saint Andrew has a second body at Amalfi; Saint Philip and Saint James the Less each [have] another at Rome, at Santi Apostoli. Saint Simon and Saint Jude also at Rome, in the church of Saint Peter. Saint Bartholomew at Rome in his church.”Footnote 141 And these are only the whole bodies—a further litany of smaller pieces follows. Note the gradual increase in asyndeton and the fragments instead of sentences, as the bodies shift from textual representations to brute things that intrude upon language.
In particular, Calvin embraces Erasmus's method of amplificatio, which “proceeds by a certain number of steps ‘not only to the extreme, but sometimes beyond the extreme in a fashion.’”Footnote 142 The Traité's amplificatio climaxes with the heads of John the Baptist:
Those of Amiens glory in having the face, and in the mask that they display there is the mark of a blow from a knife, which they say Herodias gave him. But those at Saint-Jean-d'Angély contradict them, and show the same fragment. As for the rest of the head, the top, from the front to the back, was at Rhodes and is now at Malta, I believe. At least the Commanders claimed that the Turk yielded it to them. The rear part is at Saint-Jean[-Baptiste] de Nemours. The brain is at Nogent-le-Rotrou. Despite this, those at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne do not lack a portion of the head; his jaw has not failed to be at Besançon at Saint-Jean-le-Grand. There is another piece at Saint-Jean de Latran in Paris and a bit of his ear at Saint-Flour in Auvergne. At San Salvador in Spain the brow and his hair. There is also a piece at Noyon, where it is displayed most authoritatively. There is likewise a piece at Lucca; I know not in what corner. And is all this the end of it? Fly over to Rome, and at the monastery of San Silvestro, you shall hear it said, “Behold the head of Saint John the Baptist.”Footnote 143
De Copia further recommends many of the tools Calvin deployed for the Traité, among them commonplacing and an attention to “what in spoken usage changes with the times” (read custom), properly set in a historical context.Footnote 144 Calvin also seems to have deliberately subverted some of Erasmus's precepts, notably those concerning decorum. De Copia cautioned against the use of expressions that were “sordidus” (“those which will seem too low for the dignity of the matter”) or “obscoena,” which “ought to be utterly alien to the speech of Christians.”Footnote 145 To speak of a “swarm [fourmillere]” of holy relics, to describe saints’ bodies as “filth [ordure],” if not outright indecent, was to debase “the dignity of the matter.”Footnote 146
Still more abundant than the relics of the Traité are the arguments against them; Erasmus insisted on nothing so much as variety, and Calvin rarely contented himself with one argument when many would do. Thus he piles up problems of survival, anachronism, and attestation pell-mell to debunk the table from the Last Supper: “Note that Jesus Christ had the Last Supper in a hired room. On leaving it, he left the table behind: we nowhere read that it was ever recovered by the apostles. Some time later, Jerusalem was destroyed, as we have said. How plausible is it that it should be found seven or eight hundred years later? What is more, the form of tables was then quite different from what it is now. For they reclined, rather than sitting, at meals, as the Gospel expressly states.”Footnote 147
Besides reaffirming the humanist character of the Traité, recognizing the text as a piece of copia addresses the theological impotence of debunking, because it positions the entire ensemble, not individual items, at the core of the critique. Copia dwells not in the particular examples but in their collective action, in the production of a rhetorical and forensic effect.Footnote 148 As Erasmus puts it, copia “makes it so that the entire oration is densely and closely packed and secured by arguments on every side. Even if you do not marshal them and lead them out, as it were, in battle array, they shall fight for themselves and shall aid the cause in no small degree.”Footnote 149 Umberto Eco writes of the Litanies of the Blessed Virgin, enumerations of Mary's myriad “properties, attributes and titles,” “They must have been recited like a mantra . . . it does not matter so much whether the virgo is potens or clemens . . . what matters is being seized by the dizzying sound of the lists.”Footnote 150 The sensory experience of reading or listening to the Traité may have accomplished not a little of Calvin's work, affectively conveying the sheer vastness of the cult of relics and the corresponding magnitude of its fraudulence. Listen to the drumbeat of additions in Calvin's list of the forefingers of John the Baptist: “At Besançon in the church of Saint-Jean le Grand there is one of them. At Toulouse another. At Lyon another. At Bourges another. At Florence another. At Saint-Jean-des-Aventures near Mâcon another.”Footnote 151
Moreover, the Traité's cumulative effect as copia changes the status of the individual relics mentioned, as the technique transforms its constituent parts. Analyzing a passage from Cicero (106–43 BCE),Footnote 152 Erasmus explains that each word and each sentence is strengthened by what came before: “Here each word grows stronger in turn. . . . If one were to divide up and linger on individual stages, it would certainly augment the copia of the oratory, but it would amplify less effectively.”Footnote 153 Each of the Baptist's heads and fingers gains heft by juxtaposition with all the others. Compilation generates new harmonies and dissonances among its constituent parts; scale itself is transformative, for a word, a thought, a fact comes to mean something different when it is placed into juxtaposition with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of others, a phenomenon Calvin discussed in his biblical exegesis.Footnote 154
Here, perhaps, Calvin understood copia better than Erasmus. The irenic Dutchman chose the material for his demonstration of copia deliberately: his variations on “Your letter delighted me immensely” and “As long as I live, I shall always remember you” sought to impress upon his readers “the central importance of friendship among scholars.” Now, so long as they were parceled out into different missives to different correspondents, his lists were indeed “the tools to maintain such relationships at long distance.”Footnote 155 But what Calvin realized was that if the variations are all brought together, each is hollowed out into a cheap formula. Here the elegantly varied copia of the Colloquia gives way to the brute accumulation of Calvin's contemporary and fellow (rebellious) Erasmian François Rabelais (d. 1553). By the end of the catalogue of the Library of Saint Victor in Gargantua and Pantagruel 2.7—“Jumblings of Scotus. The Winged-Rat of the Cardinals. On the Holding Back of Spurs, in Eleven Decades, by Master Alberic of Rosata. By the same, On the Fortification of Hairs, in Three Books. Nine Enneads on the Success of Exhausting Things by Bishop Boudarin, with Papal Privilege for Three Years and Afterwards not”—the very notion of a book, any book, has become laughable.Footnote 156 As Christopher D. Johnson notes, “hyperbolic amplification proves a means of exhausting or mocking received ideas.”Footnote 157 Bringing together 327 relics strips each one of its singularity; “profusion itself vilifies images by brutely exposing them as so many things.”Footnote 158
A LIST OF BARE BONES
Framing the Traité as an inventory is Calvin's foremost rhetorical coup, for it permits the disavowal of the use of rhetoric itself: “No form of writing appears more matter-of-fact, unrhetorical, and innocent than the list.”Footnote 159 Ostentatiously confining himself to the relics “les plus certaines” and “les plus authentiques,”Footnote 160 Calvin positions his critiques as truths not made but recognized, “discovered rather than invented.”Footnote 161 It is the relics themselves that demand their own rejection, by the pure force of truth. The Traité's eminently rhetorical assemblage, then, masquerades as what Eco calls a “practical list,” one with “a purely referential function.” Such lists “refer to objects in the outside world and have the purely practical purpose of naming and listing them.”Footnote 162 Calvin thus eschews the overt preposterousness of a Rabelais, or even a Luther. Compare the matter-of-factness of the Traité with Luther's brief salvo against relics, Neue Zeitung vom Rhein (Fresh news from the Rhine, 1542). The German Reformer listed the treasures Albert of Brandenburg (1490–1545), archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, had recently acquired:
1. A fair piece of the left horn of Moses.
2. Three flames from Moses's bush on Mount Sinai.
3. Two feathers and an egg of the Holy Spirit.
4. The whole tip of the flag with which Christ harried Hell.
5. Also a great lock from Beelzebub's beard, which was stuck to the same flag.
6. Half a wing from Saint Gabriel the Archangel.
7. A whole pound of the wind that blew for Elias in the cave on Mount Horeb.
8. Two ells of the sound of the trumpets on Mount Sinai.
9. Thirty beats from the drum of Miriam, the sister of Moses, heard at the Red Sea.
10. A great heavy piece of the cry of the children of Israel, with which they brought down the walls of Jericho.
11. Five fine bright strings from David's harp.
12. Three fine locks of Absalom's hair, by which he was left hanging from the oak tree.Footnote 163
This is all very amusing, but easily dismissed as parody, unrepresentative of the cult of relics as actually practiced. Incredible though some of the claims Catholics did make on the behalf of relics were, they rarely reached such levels of absurdity. By dealing with actually existing relics and with the claims Catholics themselves made about them, the Traité's blows are much harder to parry.
Then again, not every practical—in Eco's terms—list of holy remains will be “the means by which the relic is consummated and annihilated through an ultimate displacement that makes it a topos.”Footnote 164 The closest cousins to the Traité, formally speaking, are Heiltumsbücher, illustrated catalogues of relic collections.Footnote 165 The contents of a Heiltumsbuch could far outnumber those of the Traité, but they do not have the same deconstructive effect. To the contrary, they are enthusiastic expressions of relic piety: their organization tends to reflect the order in which the collection was ritually displayed in a ceremony known as a Heiltumsweisung; their copious illustrations permitted readers to relive the ceremony “and immerse themselves in the contemplation of the vessels and statuettes with their sacred contents.”Footnote 166 Enumeration could vest each object with deep meaning of its own, and description could stimulate the imagination and invite emotional identification.Footnote 167
It is not, then, as Fabre and Wilmart would have it, the catalogue form per se that “destroys the value” of each relic.Footnote 168 The Heiltumsbuch is analytic and commemorative, confined to and drawing its meaning from local contexts and collections (which almost never gathered their contents into one metanarrative);Footnote 169 Calvin's inventory is synthetic and destructive, forcing each item to stand side by side with hundreds of its fellows (or competitors). Alongside this difference in geographic remit, Calvin dispenses with the illustrations with which the Heiltumsbuch celebrates the unique visuality of the relic—and, specifically, of its reliquary, as in Lucas Cranach the Elder's (ca. 1472–1553) exquisite woodcuts of the Wittenberg collection (fig. 2).Footnote 170 Indeed, perhaps the most crucial feature of Calvin's list is the omission of reliquaries, the masterpieces of design that mediated virtually every early modern experience of relics. Some collections, Heiltumsweisungen, and Heiltumsbücher were organized according to type of reliquary (crosses with crosses, busts with busts, and so on)—yet even artists without Cranach's skill managed to highlight each item's particularity (fig. 3).Footnote 171 The rich detail and “artistic exactitude” of the deluxe Heiltumsbuch made it a kind of “picture-catalogue” of the relic collection, as much an inventory of art objects as of holy remains.Footnote 172 The Traité's aniconic character undercuts the emphatically visual nature of relic piety, a move consonant with Calvin's deprecation of sight vis-à-vis hearing as the medium of true knowledge and true faith.Footnote 173
But the reliquary was more than a work of art. As Cynthia Hahn has shown, reliquaries were instrumental in shaping the worshipper's encounter with the holy object, presenting “the relic as powerful, holy and sacred, part of the larger institution of the Church.”Footnote 174 Reliquaries and Heiltumsbücher recorded the gifts of donors, reenacted salient moments in the object's history, and proclaimed local allegiances.Footnote 175 They propagated “a complex instruction of the body and the senses, the teaching of reverentia,” the awed respect due to the holy.Footnote 176 Integral to this process was the reliquary's character as a functional, liturgical object, “a dynamic part of the chorus of saints . . . an object to be carried and manipulated, displayed and presented.”Footnote 177 The Vienna Heiltumsbuch (1502), for example, specifies the songs to be sung at each stage of the Heiltumsweisung.Footnote 178 It was also one of several Heiltumsbücher to include images of worship in action (fig. 4), exalting the act of reverence and reenacting it with every turn of the page. For the worshipper, relic piety involved a complex choreography of kneeling, praying, touching, kissing, bowing, and singing.Footnote 179 In reducing the relic to the bare bone (pun intended), Calvin strips away the patina of liturgy and local tradition that gave these objects precise meanings, and often guaranteed their authenticity.Footnote 180 Excluded from the frame too was the double movement that powered the cult: the movement of relics among shrines and collections and the movement of pilgrims to and from holy sites.Footnote 181 Relics, “inherently restless,”Footnote 182 seem to “burn the hands of those who possess them” and to multiply as they move.Footnote 183 This pas de deux ground to a halt as the Traité fixed relics in place and neutralized their propensity to “self-propel” among Christian communities.Footnote 184 Keen observer of Catholicism that he was, Calvin recognized that “it was practice not theology that determined the shape of the cult of relics” and that once the object was severed from practice, half the battle was already won.Footnote 185
It must be remembered that sixteenth-century Catholicism was a mosaic of local rites and traditions, “engineered to celebrate the particular rather than the universal,” in which saints and relics played a vital part.Footnote 186 And cult objects in their turn were closely associated with the spaces—nation, region, town, even neighborhood or church—that housed them, as well as with the specific contours of the landscape.Footnote 187 Protestants, Koerner notes, “abhorred such localism,” which seemed continually to verge upon polytheism.Footnote 188 Calvin's pamphlet on the Lord's Supper includes among “the abuses that are so vile as to be unmentionable” that of “attributing to each saint their own mass, and transferring what is said of the Lord's Supper to Saint William and Saint Walter.”Footnote 189 In the Institutes he reasons that prayer to the saints is foolish, since the true saint's will is nothing but the fulfillment of the will of God—which, in any case, their intervention could hardly alter.Footnote 190 Calvin also savages monastic orders for having “broken the tie of unity” in Christ's church through their distinct rites and private observances.Footnote 191
Contrast Calvin's detached relics with those listed by the Elizabethan wit Anthony Munday (ca. 1560–1633) in his exposé of the English Catholic expatriate community in sixteenth-century Rome. The English Romayne Lyfe (1582) lingers over the “meruailous reuerence” and “great deuotion” paid to each relic, especially the physical practices of the worshipper and the details of the reliquaries.Footnote 192 This attention to worship places each object within a system of meaning and within the space of particular churches: “From thence we goe into an old roome, wherein is an old Wall standing along in the midst of this roome, and in this Wall is three old doores.”Footnote 193 Practically a textual pilgrimage through Rome, Munday's critique struggles to transcend its localism—and to avoid taking the Roman sacred landscape as a given.
The Traité disrupted Catholic localism not only in bringing together relics from across Europe but also in subjecting them to a single rubric of critique. It was here that the Protestant Reformation most dramatically set the agenda for the Catholic Counter-Reformation: the Council of Trent would strive to impose uniform standards on the cult of the saints, and on worship tout court, precisely to preserve the particular while warding off challenges from the likes of Calvin.Footnote 194 The proliferation of unofficial cults and spurious relics continued to worry Roman authorities throughout the early modern period. Trent did not mark, or even seek, the end of Catholic localism, but the validity of the Protestant attack had been granted.Footnote 195
The systematic juxtaposition of relics, the collision of local geographies of the sacred, causes the cult as a whole to short-circuit. Recall what Calvin said of the dueling claims to the Titulus: “Each refutes the other. Let them battle it out as much as they like. In the end, both parties will be convicted of lying as soon as one chooses to examine the thing itself.” If, in Orsi's felicitous phrase, late medieval Europe was constituted as “a map of bones,” Calvin wrenched his readers from meditating upon their own private corner and forced them to confront the unwieldy whole.Footnote 196 The Traité undertakes that most dialectical of exercises: heightening the contradictions.Footnote 197
Propelled by the copiousness of his relic collection, Calvin leaps from a contingent, historical, partial critique of the false relic to an absolute, ontological, universal critique of all relics as false. This is not because the Traité is actually all encompassing, “permit[ting] everyone to find a relic they know, that they have been able to venerate, or of whose benefits they have heard, and to comprehend its falsity.”Footnote 198 As Calvin himself acknowledged, the catalogue is riddled with lacunae: there are only thirty relics in all of modern-day Germany, seventeen in Spain, three from the Swiss cantons, one in the Low Countries (Maastricht), and none at all from the British Isles, Portugal, Scandinavia, or Eastern Europe. Even in the francophone territories where the Reformer's networks were strongest and his readers the most numerous, he ignores all of Romandy (save Geneva), all of what is now Belgium, and such major regions of France as Aquitaine, Normandy, and Brittany.Footnote 199
Instead, the universalization of the Traité's critique is accomplished by the rhetorical framing of the list itself. Developing an aesthetics of the list, Eco distinguishes between representations of bounded completeness and those created “when we do not know the boundaries of what we wish to portray, when we do not know how many things we are talking about and presume their number to be, if not infinite, then at least astronomically large . . . an actual infinity, made up of objects that can perhaps be numbered but that we cannot number—and we fear that their numeration (and enumeration) may never stop.”Footnote 200 These lists are made “because we cannot manage to enumerate something that eludes our capacity for control and denomination,” much as the excesses of the cult of relics disrupted the order of the Reformed church.Footnote 201
By casting the Traité as a prolegomena to, rather than an attempt at, the inventory of relics, Calvin builds in this sense of potential infinity, leaving it to the reader's imagination how many more frauds would be revealed if the effort were continued. After listing more than a dozen shrines claiming to possess fragments of the Crown of Thorns, he insists, “Were a diligent inquisition to be made, more than four as many of these could be named. There must necessarily be fraud here. What faith can one have in either the one or the other?”Footnote 202 Still more trenchant is his warning at the outset: “when we have found so much deceit in what I shall name of relic worship [reliquiaire], which is hardly the thousandth part of what is displayed, what are we to think of the rest?”Footnote 203 Here the Traité epitomizes what Terence Cave calls the “cornucopian text,” an Erasmian concept of dynamic open-endedness that contains within itself the generative possibilities of endless extension.Footnote 204 A tableau built around the last relic mentioned in the Traité drives the point home: “While this booklet was being printed, I was informed of a third prepuce of Our Lord, displayed at Hildesheim, of which I had made no mention. There are infinitely more like this. In the end, the investigation [visitation] would discover a hundred times as many as can be named.”Footnote 205 The Latin translation of the Traité had the express purpose of encouraging others elsewhere in Christendom to begin their own inventories, a prospect that appalled Calvin's Catholic opponents.Footnote 206 Nor was the infinitely extendable inventory, continually supplied with new tidbits, mere bravado: Calvin contemplated returning to the Traité, as he did so frequently to the Institutes.Footnote 207 The Reformer's biographer Nicolas Colladon (ca. 1530–86) reports that “his intention was to enlarge the said book if he might be informed of other, similar things in those lands, as there were countless others besides those he had mentioned.”Footnote 208
Thus, a relic does not need to be mentioned in the Traité to become a target of its critique. At the end of the inventory, Calvin practically taunts his reader, “Now, among so many lies, as obvious as I have shown them, where can a true relic be found, of which you can be certain?”Footnote 209 Any relic must now be seen alongside its thousands of fellows scattered across Europe. Not even the best-attested object was safe from doubt, from the niggling fear that somewhere, just over the horizon, there was another one just like it. As Alain Besançon vividly puts it, “In the pure, cold light of the Reformation, everything the church holds takes on a hideous and obscene shape.”Footnote 210
What Calvin undermined, then, is not only the authenticity of the particular items he named but the way of seeing and the sense of space that underlay the entire cult of relics.Footnote 211 The Reformation, in Virginia Reinburg's perceptive words, had shattered “a commonly shared agreement about religious truth.”Footnote 212 What made a shard of bone or a drop of blood into a relic was belief: belief in saints, in this particular saint, and in the authenticity of this particular relic. Remove the belief (and the concomitant practice), and bone and blood were once more only bone and blood.Footnote 213 Worship required sound knowledge of God. For this reason, medieval and early modern churchmen exerted themselves “to teach congregations how to approach, venerate, and even, how to see relics.”Footnote 214
If Calvin is a different kind of historical materialist, “heightening the contradictions” nevertheless neatly characterizes the effect of juxtaposing twelve heads of John the Baptist. He forces the believer to confront the logical fallacies in their “devotional double-mindedness.” The appeal, ultimately, is to common sense, to a “nature of things” ruled by the law of non-contradiction.Footnote 215 Carlos M. N. Eire emphasizes that for Calvin, “material reality cannot be usurped by spiritual reality. . . . Calvin did not want a religion in which reason had at times to be denied or suspended. Faith was reasonable, it had to make sense.”Footnote 216 Duplicated bodies were frauds, not miracles. If Calvin has his way, it will no longer do to explain—or, rather, to refuse to explain—the conflicts of faith and the senses as mysteries.Footnote 217 Cochlaeus perceived this rationalizing imperative, and provocatively asked whether God can do “nothing that Calvin does not understand?”Footnote 218 Like Gessner's Bibliotheca Universalis (Universal library, 1545–49), then, the Traité can be read as “claiming to order knowledge as a propaedeutic to judgment,” an order predicated on the rationality of Creation.Footnote 219
The consequences of subjecting miraculous presence to the law of noncontradiction cannot be overstated. Paradoxes of presence defined what was, perhaps, the doctrinal flashpoint of the Reformation—the meaning of the Eucharist.Footnote 220 What did it mean to say, as virtually every sixteenth-century Christian would have, that Christ was present in the sacrament? For Catholics, Christ was physically present, the elements transubstantiated into the fleshly body and blood of the Savior. For Lutherans, too, he was really present, his body with and within the bread and wine, “both everywhere and nowhere.”Footnote 221 For Calvin and his Reformed fellow travelers, both positions were nonsensical. Christ's body—human flesh like anyone else's—was in heaven, and so could only be in heaven; Christ could only be spiritually present on the altar.Footnote 222 To claim otherwise implied “either that the body of Christ is without measure, or that it can be in multiple places [at once],” with unacceptable implications for the nature of Christ's humanity.Footnote 223 God was of course omnipotent, but the ubiquitarian demand that his omnipotence “make flesh be flesh and not-flesh at once” was a logical absurdity, “perverting the order of the wisdom of God.”Footnote 224 Such a stipulation permitted the possibility of a miracle while drastically redefining the nature of the miraculous.Footnote 225 Nor could Calvin countenance the paradox of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or sacramental union: the bread and wine looked, felt, and tasted like bread and wine because they were (only) bread and wine.Footnote 226 To claim that they were simultaneously or instead Christ's flesh and blood was simply repugnant to sense.
Calvin's insistence in the Traité that matter, however holy, had to behave logically—and that to claim otherwise was not piety but delusion—contains no exception for the consecrated Host:Footnote 227 “It functions as it is supposed to function, as created, as material, as finite. Material reality cannot be usurped by spiritual reality.”Footnote 228 Cochlaeus conceded that the argument from noncontradiction was “more substantial and evident” than the others in the Traité and, spotting the threat to transubstantiation, included a defense of the real presence in his refutation.Footnote 229 It is worth mentioning that two years after the Traité, Calvin published a treatise on the Lord's Supper whose vocabulary bears some resemblance to his pamphlet on relics.Footnote 230
Yet the theological consequences for the Eucharist are only an outworking, albeit a crucial one, of a more profound shift in ontology. The rationalization of presence, divine presence not excepted, entailed a redefinition of the relationship between “divine and human,” and, thus, “between spirit and matter, between the past and the present, between representation and reality, between one person and another, and between political leaders and those over whom they exercised different forms of authority.”Footnote 231 Orsi writes, with not-unjustified hyperbole, that “divergent conceptions of presence became a point of absolute division between Catholics and Protestants, and then it evolved into one of the normative categories of modernity.”Footnote 232 In seeking to subject sacred presence to the dictates of common sense, the Traité mounts “a violent rejection of the assumptions about the immanence of the holy that underpinned traditional Catholic devotion.”Footnote 233
At the same time, presence is as much a dividing line within Protestantism as it is between Protestants and Catholics.Footnote 234 As far as the divine presence is concerned, Lutheran ubiquitarianism is far closer to Catholic transubstantiation than to Reformed sacramentarianism. Indeed, it was disagreement over the Eucharist in the 1520s that first split the Reformed from the Lutherans, a division that defined intra-Protestant relations and Reformed identity throughout the early modern period.Footnote 235 When, in the 1570s, the Reformed churches attempted to hammer out a creedal statement to which all could subscribe, the one unifying principle was a rejection of ubiquitarianism.Footnote 236 The Reformed Protestant cosmos obeyed a different, far stricter set of rules, fundamentally incompatible with the more capacious forms of presence that suffused the worlds of rival confessions. Out of this incommensurability flowed the outraged incomprehension voiced in the Traité, that anyone could accept what “reason shows us” to be “nothing but lies.”Footnote 237 The journey between paradigms was possible, as Calvin's own trajectory proved, but the difficulty of making such a shift must not be underestimated. Calvin, who had once kissed a piece of God's maternal grandmother (though with how much reverence one cannot say), had to strive relentlessly to uproot any traces of Catholic mentality within himself—and never quite succeeded. Sowing the seeds of doubt, as the Traité sought to do, was a painful business.Footnote 238
A critique of fraudulent relics thus doubled as a Trojan horse for Reformed sacramental theology, but even more for a Reformed vision of the world—and a Reformed way of being in the world. The Traité was part of Calvin's lifelong campaign for “spiritual worship,” “worship devoid of trust in material props or humanly devised ceremonies; and worship that has been commanded by God.”Footnote 239 It was, crucially, a campaign directed no less at what was done with objects than at the objects themselves.Footnote 240 The endless quest for absolutely pure worship defines the history of the Reformed tradition. Calvin wrote the Traité just as the francophone Reformation was coalescing into a distinct confession. The rejection of relics became at once one of its rallying cries and one of its shibboleths.Footnote 241
It is ironic, then, that of the many things Calvin himself worried about, not the least was iconoclasm, particularly when the impetus to smash things came from below. Yet his rhetoric, by charging the knowledge of relics with sensory, intellectual, and theological revulsion, helped foment popular iconoclasm. Loath though he would be to admit it, Calvin was standing upon the shoulders of the iconoclasts who had come before, and he was inspiring their successors. Protestant communal violence was marked by precisely the feelings of liberation from deceit, outrage at fraud and the dominion of the clergy, and incomprehension at the unenlightened that animate the Traité.Footnote 242
Calvin mobilized the rhetorical lessons of Erasmus to do what Erasmus always feared: disturb the universe. By crafting an overwhelming exercise in copia, by making doubt in relics contagious and imposing noncontradiction, Calvin destabilized the religious and intellectual foundations of Roman Catholic piety, causing a tremor whose aftershocks were only amplified by the Council of Trent. The list, as Eco writes, “becomes a way of reshuffling the world,” while affirming the principles by which it is really ordered.Footnote 243