The 12th century phenomenon of re-enshrining body-parts of saints is one tied up with political instability in Europe and mass movement across the continent. Of course, in so far as arguably the centre of 12th century Europe was Rome and its church. Centuries of developing outposts thanks to pilgrimage to and from Christianity’s Western centre left a church striving to retain power to the far-flung corners of its influence, where Christianity had assimilated with the locals. The result? A need for uniformity, to keep in line any threat to a central papal authority. It isn’t too surprising then to note certain reforms such as, the status of the bishop elevated, pilgrimage being advocated for and the very proof of faith - the tangible relics of saints being re-enshrined into more elaborate casings. An effective reminder to the lay congregation and clergymen alike as to where the orders came from. On a local level, it isn’t surprising that native rulers took advantage of this reminder of power and aligned their own motives to legitimise their political standing. With that reminder stemming from the papal authority in Rome, even outposts on the very edge of the continent were targeted, which according to Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales c.1146 - c.1223 CE) in 1185 was, Ireland.
It is important to note the circumstances that Rome was operating within in the 12th century. As noted by Diane Webb, several anti-popes, notably at the instigation of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa between 1159 and 1178, and their efforts of skewing papal authority, were more symbolic than effective. Some of them commanded little support apart from Roman nobility and German emperors. It was their mere existence that was symptomatic of division and instability. In the 1140’s citizens of Rome sought to emancipate themselves from the tutelage of the popes and proclaimed a commune, recalling the glories of their ancestors, as outlined by the more ‘pre-Christian-centric’ Mirabilia Urbis Romae (written c. 1140s.) The popes, as both rulers of the city of Rome and the church, laid claim to imperial insignia and attributes, which included the succession of saints through their venerated shrines. A great example of this in Ireland is bishop Diarmait Mac Denisc inscribing his name on the base of a bronze and silver arm-shaped reliquary shrine as the successor of the saint within, St Lachtin. We know nothing else of the presumed bishop, MacDenisc, but the shrine dates from c. 1120 and once (now lost) contained an arm bone of St Lachtin (a 6th century saint) from Donoughmore Co. Cork (Fig.1). The inscription notes the figures involved in its commission, stating that it is for Cormac son of Mac Carthaig, the heir to the kingship of Munster, a prayer for Tadhg son of Mac Carthaig, another prayer for Diarmait, son of Mac Denisc successor of Lachtin and a prayer for the high-king Maelsechnaill Ua Cellachain.
The reliquary shrine, if indeed driven by papal authority, is the ultimate form of propaganda. It portrays authority originating from Rome, but in reality, the church was a centre of absentee popes sharing the benefits of pilgrimage culture with Santiago di Compostela and Jerusalem. By 1123, Calixtus II singled out those on pilgrimage to Rome, romipetae (or ‘rome-seekers’) as deserving of special protection. For much of the 12th century, conflict with the Roman commune had meant that many of the popes were unable to maintain their positions in the city. Reliquary shrines thus became reminiscent and vital historic links between Rome and Christian outposts as they reflected the important lineage and links to various saints.
To maintain a European-wide Roman saint cult, Rome had to provide tangible secondary relics for European churches to retain and subsequently legitimise their own ecclesiastical outpost of the Roman church. It is not inconceivable then to suggest that this element of re-producing tangibility filtered into more vernacular socio-political climates. As noted by Alan Thacker, ‘The papacy secured secondary relics to trade out by dropping pieces of clothing down to the tomb of a saint – like that of St. Peter – until it felt more weighted, this implied it had been bestowed by the saint’. The relic could then be distributed, or the process was imitated by a native apostolic see and was enshrined in a highly decorative casing. In a supposed edge of the continent, Ireland, the native churches did just that. All whilst undergoing major church reform and seeing the status of bishops, the representatives of such papal authority, elevated.