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Einhard and the Sacred Relics: A Forgotten Story of the ‘Dark Ages’

A New Birth and a New Death

On Christmas Day in the year 800 CE, the Roman Empire was proclaimed to be reborn. The Frankish king Charlemagne, a fierce conqueror and the ruler of most of western Europe, had travelled to Rome, and there Pope Leo III declared him Roman emperor, his collection of loosely controlled lands being dubbed the Holy Roman Empire. The coronation was questionable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Charlemagne’s so-called empire had very little to do with the old Roman Empire, the western half of which had fallen centuries earlier. After all, Charlemagne belonged to the “barbarian” Franks. Nevertheless, the crowned emperor strove for a splendour befitting a revived Rome. The city of Aachen, the royal and cultural centre of the empire, was made into a hub of learning, with the beloved scholar Alcuin of York giving a classical education. The chapel was decorated with precious metals, and furnishings were brought in from Rome. A significant cultural movement known as the Carolingian Renaissance grew out of Aachen and its scholarly circle.[1]

As promising as the future may have seemed to Charlemagne on that fateful Christmas Day, some grim realities awaited him and his empire. His power waned significantly during his final years, and matters grew worse during and after the reign of his son Louis. The empire was weakened by civil war and enemy invasions, and eventually it was divided in three. Just a little over a century after his coronation, none of Charlemagne’s descendants were in power.[2] The days of Alcuin were long gone; dreams of a reborn Rome were effectively destroyed.

One of the courtiers in Aachen during the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis was Einhard, whose celebratory biography of Charlemagne remains one of the most important sources about the emperor’s life.[3] He left behind some other writings, one of which is the largely forgotten Translation and Miracles of the Blessed Martyrs, Marcellinus and Peter, an account of how, under Einhard’s supervision, relics of two Christian martyrs were relocated, or “translated.” Its neglect by historians is understandable. The story’s matter-of-fact description of supernatural events is deplorable by the naturalistic standards of contemporary history, and even if the basic account is true, it is of little consequence to the larger story of early-medieval Europe. But even so, I think this tale deserves a second look. As a story, it makes for interesting reading, and more importantly, it offers the reader a glimpse into the past, into the period we regrettably call “the Dark Ages,” into the reign of King Louis and the lives of people he ruled over.

Here’s my summary of the story’s first two of four books. Sit back and enjoy.[4]

The Story

At the outset of the narrative, Einhard has built a chapel in Germany and wants to obtain holy relics for it. A deacon of Rome by the name of Deusdona happens to be visiting Aachen, and he offers to give Einhard some relics in exchange for a mule. Einhard agrees and sends his notary, Raitleig, along with at least one servant, to accompany Deusdona to Rome and retrieve the goods. On the way a priest named Hunus joins the company, hoping to retrieve the body of St. Tiburtius as part of a deal Deusdona has made with an abbott (1.1).

When they arrive in Rome, Deusdona fails to live up to his end of the bargain, endlessly stalling and deceiving Ratleig and Hunus. Frustrated and convinced that he doesn’t have the relics, the two men decide to take matters into their own hands. They discover that the remains of St. Tiburtius are not in Deusdona’s possession but are preserved, along with those of two martyrs named Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, in a church dedicated to Tiburtius outside Rome. They then plot to steal the remains of all three saints; Hunus will take the relics of Tiburtius, as planned, and Ratleig will take the relics of Marcellinus and Peter for Einhard. It requires two attempts, but the men succeed, at which time Deusdona, puzzlingly, comes forward with some different relics and has Ratleig include them with the relics he plans to bring back to Einhard (1.2–6). Eventually Einhard discovers that they are the remains of a martyr named Marius and his wife and sons (3.12).

With some help from Deusdona and his brother Luniso, the relic-bearers begin their return journey. The company splits into two groups to avoid trouble from Roman authorities, and Ratleig’s group safely makes the long trek to Einhard’s chapel in Michelstadt (1.6–8). However, once the remains are stored in the chapel, people begin having visions in which they are told that the martyrs are not pleased with their relics’ location and that these relics are to be translated from Michelstadt to a different place, which at least one vision specifies as Mulinheim (1.9–11). A number of other signs take place; in one instance the reliquary holding the remains drips a blood-like liquid for three days (1.10; see also 1.11). Eventually Einhard decides to obey these demands and has a group of people help him carry the relics to their new home, conducting the translation with reverence and attention to prescribed rituals and practices. On the way, an ailing nun is healed after spending a night praying beside the chest holding the relics. With much ceremony and jubilation, including two celebrations of the mass, the relics are brought to the church and are honoured by the installation of beautiful furnishings. A boy is also healed during the second mass. With the journey over, Einhard returns to Aachen (1.12–15).

A while later Einhard learns that Hunus, the priest sent to Rome to retrieve the relics of St. Tiburtius, stole some of the relics of St. Marcellinus from Ratleig. Hunus claims that he took the relics one night on the return journey when everyone else who was keeping watch mysteriously fell asleep—perhaps a sign of heavenly permission—but Deusdona’s brother Luniso contradicts him by admitting that he took money from Hunus to assist him in stealing these relics while they were still in Rome (2.1–2). These relics, kept in a place called Soissons, must now be joined with those in Mulinheim. With the appropriate ceremony and praise, the relics are carried toward their destination, with a long stop being made at Einhard’s home in Michelstadt, and during this journey massive crowds gather in a spirit of joy and wonder (2.3–9). Even King Louis and Queen Judith join in, honouring the saints with extravagant gifts. Among those who gather, many are healed from afflictions (2.5–7), a man forgives a debt owed to him (2.8), and another man achieves reconciliation with his father’s killer (2.8). After arriving in Mulinheim, the people carrying out the translation place the relics in a separate box near the reliquary with the other remains (2.9).

Before Einhard returns to Aachen, a vision and some terrifying supernatural experiences reveal that the newly translated relics are to be stored in the same reliquary as the other remains of St. Marcellinus. Einhard quickly obeys, and the next night an elderly man who enters the church is healed of deafness and lameness. Satisfied that the translation is complete, Einhard departs for Aachen (2.10–11).

The third and fourth books of this work are mainly devoted to the many miracles, a large portion of them being healing miracles, that take place in association with the translated relics.

A Meeting of Worlds

For many people, any medieval writing that mentions saints or relics calls to mind legendary tales of Camelot, the Holy Grail, dragon-slayers, and the like. Others may think of imaginative hagiographical stories that are very far removed—both in terms of content and the date of authorship—from whatever historical roots they might have. The Translation and Miracles, with its bold accounts of supernatural events, may at first seem to fit into one or both of these categories, but a closer examination of the text gives us reason to believe otherwise. Far from being written with a fantastical, symbolic, or allegorical air, and far from describing events of long ago, Einhard’s story is written as a factual account of recent events that involve the author himself—a man who was not a fool or a wild fantasizer but a courtier of the Holy Roman Empire and a respected scholar of the Carolingian Renaissance.[5] One passage even seems to have been written with the intention of refuting a particular claim about the location of most of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter’s relics at the time of writing (see 2.1).[6] This story, then, is meant to be directly connected to the real world, the world in which Einhard and his audience lived. Yes, Einhard does sometimes write with a devotional tone (see the preface), but the devotional value of the work is mainly rooted in its alleged historicity.

Now, all this does not mean that the book is completely accurate. Einhard could have been wrong about certain details, and it is possible that he intentionally included falsehoods to serve some purpose of his. But even so, surely Einhard was not so unwise as to pen a document that was unbelievable to his audience, and he certainly would have thought twice about making any false statements involving Louis (see 2.6). What we most likely have, then, is a book that is at least partially true and was plausible to its original reader. As such, it offers us a glimpse into some historical realities of the reign of Louis and into the worldview of many of his subjects.

This glimpse is fascinating. The world depicted is one in which people assume that the partition between heaven and earth is only partial. It is a world in which people believe that they have allies in heaven who may assist them (to say nothing of the actual assistance from the saints described in the text; see esp. 3.1). It is a world in which people of all means honour these heavenly saints and their earthly relics. And it is a world in which darkness has not been entirely cast out, where people deceive others and where piety and thievery sometimes become dangerously entangled.

This world will be more familiar and relatable to some than others, but for everyone there is benefit to be gained from encountering it. There is great value in seeing the past for what it was, in looking it in the face and allowing it to look back at us. When we do this, we begin to reap more fully the tremendous benefits of history—wisdom, contrasting perspectives, opportunities for self-reflection and heightened self-awareness, and so on—which in turn allows us to live more fully the lives to which Christ calls us. Let us, then, think carefully about the world Einhard depicts, and let us discuss our thoughts together.

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David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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