The Annus Horribilis of 2016: Medieval Holy Legends, stars lost, and stars found

2016 has without doubt been the year of loss. The cruellest of years from the Grim Reaper of  Legends.

The world has lost so many cultural icons this year through the ruthless and indiscriminate hand of mortality that it has often seemed like an entire, year-length Groundhog-April-Fool’s Day.

First, the great David Bowie, famous for his legendary music and also the free and avant-garde expression of his sexuality: a model followed by some of 2016’s other lost legends, Prince and George Michael. These were artists who refused to be something they were not.

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Then Gene Wilder (watched by myself and my sister in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory approximately 11,654 times), Alan Rickman (who can forget that cello performance in Truly, Madly, Deeply 😪?), Mohammed Ali, Leonard Cohen, the hugely talented comedians Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne, Michael Sacks, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels…

Also lost this year was the brilliant newspaper columnist and food critic, A.A. Gill, whose most infamous comment in relation to a particularly disappointing restaurant outing was probably: “Why is there never a Palestinian suicide bomber when you need one?” At the time this was daring, but today (given the changed political climate) would be unlikely to even reach the printing press. His acerbic wit was, however, not lost upon his own succumbing to a disease which he described as the “Full English” of cancer in his own column. His no-nonsense style was poignantly epitomised in the oncologist’s office. “How much do you want to know?”, asked the doctor. “Everything, and the truth”, Gill replied.

The Hollywood icon, Carrie Fisher, was seized suddenly in poignant simultaneity with her renewed fame. A day later, her 84 year old mother, Debbie Reynolds, agonised by the transgression of arranging her own daughter’s funeral, departed the world not, according to her son, Todd Fisher, from ‘a broken heart’, but because of a chosen departure from the world: ‘she left to be with Carrie’, he said.

As with all losses, there is little consolation for the loved ones left behind. But, for those who gain public idolatry, there remains behind a legacy that does provide some comfort for their mourners.

Like these lost stars, whose often-untimely deaths have shocked their followers and whose lives provided some sort of meaning and reassurance for those who received their poetic, musical, artistic, or satirical messages, the human need for the legacies and relics of the ‘great’, is timeless. As humans, we need to somehow retain those who inspire us, who give us hope for something bigger than ourselves, who express life as we wish we could articulate it ourselves, or who move us with melody or word in strangely ineffable ways.

In the Middle Ages, the inspirational and holy givers-of-hope, were often retained in very literal ways.

As well as the ecclesiastical beatifications of those deemed worthy of eternal sainthood in the Middle Ages, the physical power of the postmortem holy person was inestimable. The bodies of the holy and revered Christians of the medieval age were dismembered, encased, and preserved. The healing potency of the legendary person beyond death, was tangible and efficacious.

Pilgrims travelled hundreds of miles to visit the relics and tombs of holy people and to receive spiritual and physical healing from those apotropaic dead bodies.

As Bridget of Sweden’s relics were carried home to Sweden from Rome, for example, several miracles were said to occur on the coffin’s passing through the various towns, including the healing of a young boy.

Statue of Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) in Vadstena Abbey, Sweden


A fragment of Bridget’s finger is contained in this reliquary

Marie d’Oignies (1177-1213), a Beguine living in Liege in Belgium, was determined that her body would be preserved strictly for sacred use after her death, according to the ‘Supplement’ to her Vita. Before she died, Marie heard of a man who had pulled the teeth of a deceased holy person. Marie rebuked this man, pleading that he would not do the same to her, and saying that she would clench her teeth, even in death, so that he would not be able to. The man mocked her, and maintained that he would indeed succeed in obtaining her teeth. After Marie died, he attempted to wrench her teeth from her jaw, but could not – her jaw was clenched shut. He tried and tried, yet only after he broke down in astonishment and prayed for mercy, did her jaw open. Legend has it that the skull then shook out several teeth.

Over a century later, when the religious visionary Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) died, she was decapitated by her own lifelong confessor, Raymond of Capua, as was the custom of the time, and her head was returned home to Siena. Her head, and finger, can still be viewed at the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena. Many pilgrims still visit, and depend upon the esoteric healing powers of those bodily remains.

The relic of Catherine of Siena’s finger
The incorruptible head of Catherine of Siena

Thomas Becket (c.1119-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, was brutally slaughtered by the followers of Henry II as he said vespers with the monks in the cathedral. Not only did pilgrims travel to that very spot from the Middle Ages and beyond, but that commemoration perpetuates, as the exact site of his murder was commemorated with a modern shrine, in 1986, which depicts the swords of the Knights who killed him.

The slaughter of St. Thomas of Becket

In a strange coincidence, in May of this year, the elbow bone relic of St Thomas was brought back to Canterbury from Hungary where it had been kept since the Middle Ages (and so avoiding the iconoclasm of the Reformation). The reliquary was taken on a week-long pilgrimage involving many religious clerics, touring the churches and cathedrals with which Becket had had attachments. The culmination of the pilgrimage was a walk, from St. Michael’s Church in Harbledown to Canterbury Cathedral, to follow in the footsteps of Chaucer’s medieval pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, who also journeyed to see the site of Becket’s murder.

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The reliquary holding Becket’s bone fragment
Becket’s reliquary is temporarily returned to Canterbury Cathedral in May 2016
The fragment of elbow inside the reliquary

How fitting, that in a year that was to snatch some our our greatest, modern day cultural icons, that this twelfth-century one returned home with such gravitas, 800 years after his death.

For whether our ‘stars’ are medieval or modern, holy or artistic, they, like us, still succumb to the same Grim Reaper. The universe comprises a multitude of twinkling stars, light years away, born 13.7 billion years ago. These stars, like the brilliant minds and artists who we have lost this year, keep burning, and glowing, long after our short and individual tenancies on this earth are up.

Legends – medieval or modern – leave behind their books, scores, films, recordings, writings, even their body parts or fragments, and so live on in a new metamorphosis.

Stars die. But stars are also born. And their enduring legends keep them burning bright.

The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1438): Kempe’s only surviving relic is her text
Bowie’s Life on Mars (1971)

So, as we pass (or fizz) from 2016 to 2017, let’s not dwell on what has been lost, but rather, what has been left. Legends do not die. They just dwell, and speak, from different places.

A Happy New Year to you all, and may 2017 bring peace, tolerance, and opportunity.

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