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Bible backlash as relics like Mary’s Holy Belt dubbed ‘fake big business’

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Scholars and religious believers over the years have been disappointed to discover their treasured finds or sacred relics are, in fact, fakes. Earlier this year, all 16 texts of what were believed to be from the original Dead Sea Scrolls in the Museum of the Bible were found to be duds. Then, in June, prominent Spanish archaeologist Eliseo Gil was jailed after he forged scores of his most notable ancient Roman finds. They are but a few examples.

In the Middle Ages, a period that ran from around the 5th to 15th centuries – artefacts  became increasingly popular, often being brought from thousands of miles away by travellers and merchants, and pilgrims returning home.

It was these people, Seb Falk, a Medieval historian at Cambridge University told, who quickly cashed in on what became a lucrative business model. 

Some of the most well-established relics religious pilgrims visit today were found during the medieval period. 

For example, Mary’s Holy Belt made its way to Prato, Italy, in the 14th century, accompanied by a legend that stated she had given it to the apostle Thomas before her ascension to Heaven as proof. 

Many pieces of art were subsequently commissioned for the belt during the Italian Renaissance, pieces that would have paid handsomely. 

Similarly, the Shroud of Turin, first mentioned in the 14th century, was initially denounced as a fake, but went on to gain wide acclaim as Jesus Christ’s burial cloth – a point which is still hammered home today despite its creation having been carbon dated to between 1260 and 1390.

It is pieces like these, and countless other relics that Dr Falk explained were “big business” of the medieval period – bits of history that fitted peoples’ narratives and personal beliefs. 

Dr Falk explained: “It’s modern people who have a particular hang up about the Turin Shroud and other artefacts from the time. 

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“This wasn’t something that was particularly outstandingly famous in the Middle Ages – it’s a modern question.

“In the Middle Ages there were thousands of relics like this and relics were big business and they were a really important part of peoples’ beliefs.

“If I came back from a crusade in the Holy Land with a piece of wood that I could convincingly argue was part of the True Cross, that might mark the beginning of what we would today call a cult, or a centre of spirituality.

“It would create a site for pilgrimage, an item that people would now come and see, ultimately helping people focus their beliefs and of course helping make money for whichever Church houses that relic.”

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Physical relics of the saints, Jesus and other things were incredibly popular in the Middle Ages, Dr Falk said.  

In making arduous treks across Europe to various shrines and the Holy Land, pilgrims proved their devotion to God. 

A perfect example of the way in which people worshipped these relics and items of what they perceived to be vital to their lives can be found in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1170, after his assassination, local people are said to have obtained pieces of cloth soaked in his blood.

Rumours soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, all sorts of ailments were cured: blindness, epilepsy, leprosy.

It wasn’t long before monks at Canterbury Cathedral began selling small lead bottles filled with Becket’s blood to visiting pilgrims. 

Dr Falk contrasted the obsession back then with celebrity and popular culture today, and explained: “When I was young, kids used to go and hunt autographs from famous people. 

“Today, we take a selfie with a famous person if we happen to run into them – that’s a little bit like touching the relic of a saint.

“And of course this doesn’t just apply to the Shroud of Turin – there’s endless numbers of body parts of saints which were presented in beautiful ornate casks across Europe.”

In this way, Dr Falk said religious worshippers could actively engage with their faith.

By making a journey across land to a site of religious significance, pilgrims would learn things en route, coming across those who shared similar faiths and beliefs, as well as being able to see the world. 

Whether or not those relics they visited or brought back were truly authentic depended on what they were prepared to believe in. 

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