Gift, Sale, and Theft: Juan de Ribera and the Sacred Economy of Relics in the Early Modern Mediterranean

in Journal of Early Modern History
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In 1599 Valencia celebrated the arrival of an ancient Christian martyr whose remains were the latest addition to the collection of the city’s archbishop, Juan de Ribera (1532-1611). Through an examination of some of Archbishop Ribera’s relic acquisitions, I explore the inner workings of the early modern sacred economy of relics. Ribera’s collection strategies blended distinct modes of exchange and linked him to a clandestine economy of relic theft. These transactions reflected the relic’s own uncertain ontological status as both person and object. This ambivalence became a factor that fostered an atmosphere of anxiety around the early modern relic economy, as did Protestant reformers’ critiques and their upending of the traditional Christian symbolic order. The reaffirmations of the cult of relics by the Tridentine Church stabilized the value of the sacred commodities. The economy of relics illustrates how the sacred constitutes a heretofore underexamined area of inquiry for commodity studies.

Journal of Early Modern History

Contacts, Comparisons, Contrasts. Early Modernity Viewed from a World-Historical Perspective




Patrick J. Geary, “Sacred Commodities: The Circulation of Medieval Relics,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, 1986), 169-191.


Bohumil Badura, “La casa de Dietrichstein y España,” Ibero-Americana pragensia 33 (1999): 46-67; Juan Carrillo, Relación histórica de la real fundación del Monasterio de las Descalças de S. Clara de la villa de Madrid (Madrid, 1616), fol. 48r-52v.


Juan Manuel del Estal, “Felipe II y el culto a los santos,” in Felipe II y su época. Actas del Simposium (II) 1/5-IX-1998, ed. Francisco Javier Campos y Fernández de Sevilla (San Lorenzo del Escorial, 1998), 499; Mediavilla Martín and Rodríguez Díez, Las reliquias del Real Monasterio del Escorial, 2, 603-604, 665-668. Cardona was also instrumental in Philip II’s acquisition of the famous Host of Gorcum, a consecrated host that miraculously bled when profaned by Protestants in 1572. See W. H. Vroom, “In tumultu gosico. De reliquias y herejes en tiempos tumultuosos,” in Felipe II (1527-1598), Europa y la Monarquía católica, ed. José Martínez Millán (Madrid, 1998), 425-435; Mediavilla Martín and Rodríguez Díez, Las reliquias del Real Monasterio del Escorial, 2, 574-577. For her 1597 donation of relics to Dr. Luis Mercado (1525-1611), personal physician to Philip II and Philip III, see Archivo Histórico Nacional (ahn), Códices, 1261-B, 141-142.


Benjamin Ehlers, “Negotiating Reform: Archbishop Juan de Ribera (1532-1611) and the Colegio de Corpus Christi, Valencia,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 95 (2004): 186-209.


Stéphane Boiron, “Définition et statut juridique des reliques dans le droit canonique classique,” in Reliques et sainteté dans l’espace médiéval, ed. Jean-Luc Deuffic and André Vauchez (Saint-Denis, 2006): 19-31. See also Eugene A. Dooley, Church Law on Sacred Relics (Washington, d.c., 1931).


Boiron, “Définition et statut juridique des reliques,” 27-28. “Sanctorum corpora spectant ad congregationem fidelium: sunt enim Ecclesiae membra. Ideo fideles omnes habent partem adiutorii eorum, sicut unum quodque; membrum habet partem in opere alterius membri, ut pes in opere manus: quia manus operatur pro pede, & pes ambulat pro manu, & pro aliis membris; & stomacus digerit pro singulis. Hoc igitur modo corpora sanctorum pertinent ad fideles, quo etiam ipsa membra spectant ad totum corpus.” Giovanni Battista Segni, Reliquiarum, sive de reliquiis, et veneratione sanctorum . . . (Bologna, 1610), 179-180, 234.


Bill Brown, “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny,” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): 199.


Geary, Furta Sacra, 136-43. The parallels between relics and slaves become especially apparent in probate inventories, where slaves and relics—or more frequently, reliquaries—are often listed alongside furniture, linens, pots and pans, and other household goods. Some examples: Archivo Histórico Protocolos de Granada (AHPrGr), G-440 (July 5, 1610): inventory of Cristóbal Fernández de Córdoba, alderman of Granada; AHPrGr, G-300 (May 22, 1593): inventory of Fernando Martínez, inquisitor.


Boiron, “Définition et statut juridique des reliques,” 27-28. Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift, trans. Nora Scott (Chicago, 1999), esp. 121-125.


Geary, “Sacred Commodities,” 181.


On reliquaries, see Cynthia Hahn, “What Do Reliquaries Do for Relics?,” Numen 57 (2010): 284-316; Alain Dierkens, “Du bon (et du mauvais) usage des reliquaires au Moyen Âge,” in Les reliques. Objets, cultes, symboles. Actes du colloque international de l’Université du Littorial-Côte d’Opale (Boulogne-sur-Mer) 4-6 septembre 1997, ed. Edina Bozóky and Anne-Marie Helvétius (Turnhout, 1999), 239-252. See also the comments of Julia M. H. Smith, who argues that the reliquary transforms the relic into earthly treasure, giving it economic value with the quality of “costliness.” Julia M. H. Smith, “Rulers and Relics c. 750-c. 950: Treasure on Earth, Treasure in Heaven,” Past and Present Supplement 5 (2010): 73-96.


Segni, Reliquiarum, 172-178.


Krzysztof Pomian, “Collezione,” in Enciclopedia Einaudi (Torino, 1978), 346.


Segni, Reliquiarum, 128-129.


Michael W. Maher, “How the Jesuits Used Their Congregations to Promote Frequent Communion,” in Confraternities and Catholic Reform in Italy, France, and Spain, ed. John Patrick Donnelly and Michael W. Maher (Kirksville, 1999), 83-84. In 1621, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (d. 1626) named “padre Carretonio mio carissimo” as the executor of his will. Zygmunt Wazbisnki, Il Cardinale Francesco Maria del Monte: 1549-1626, 2 (Florence, 1994), 637.


Geary, Furta Sacra, 44-48.


Marika Keblusek, “Profiling the Early Modern Agent,” in Your Humble Servant: Agents in Early Modern Europe, ed. Hans Cools, Marika Keblusek, and Badeloch Noldus (Hilversum, 2006), 11. On artisans as antiquarians, see Barbara Furlotti, “Connecting People, Connecting Places: Antiquarians as Mediators in Sixteenth-Century Rome,” Urban History 37, no. 3 (2010): 386-398. While Santini’s testimony in bav, Vat. Lat 11904 highlights his specialized knowledge and his connections to the rich and powerful, other evidence suggests he may have travelled mainly in artisanal circles. In 1606, Santini got caught up in a lawsuit brought by a painter named Marco Antonio Magno against Allesandro, a bookbinder. “Trovandosi il querelante in conversazione nella propria casa con Gio. Angelo Santini pittore romano, e Pietro Pelagallo librajo palermitano, fu battuto alla porta. Aperto trovò l’Alessandro, e lo rimproverò. Se ne corrucciò questi e diedegli un colpo di spada in faccia ed altro al Santini, che era venuto en ajuto del maestro suo.” Antonio Bertolotti, Artisti modenesi, parmensi e della Lungiana in Roma nei secoli XV, XVI e XVII. Ricerche e studi negli archivi romani (Modena, 1882), 84.


Guibert of Nogent, “On Saints and their Relics,” in Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, ed. Thomas Head (New York, 2000), 399-427. On medieval critiques in general, see Klaus Schreiner, “‘Discrimen veri ac falsi’. Ansätze und Formen der Kritik in der Heiligen und Reliquienverehrung des Mittelalters,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 48 (1966): 1-53. On the Pardoner and Fra’ Cipolla, see Robyn Malo, “The Pardoner’s Relics (and Why They Matter the Most),” The Chaucer Review 43, no. 1 (2008): 82-102.


Marshall, “Forgery and Miracles,” 65-67.


Peter Burke, “How to Become a Counter-Reformation Saint,” in The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication (Cambridge, 1987), 48-62; Simon Ditchfield, “Tridentine Worship and the Cult of Saints,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, 6, Reform and Expansion, 1500-1660, ed. R. Po-Chia Hsia (Cambridge, 2008), 201-224.


Keith P. Luria, “ ‘Popular Catholicism’ and the Catholic Reformation,” in Early Modern Catholicism: Essays in Honor of John W. O’Malley, S.J., ed. Kathleen M. Comerford and Hilmar M. Pabel (Toronto, 2001), 114-130.


Richard E. Spear, “Scrambling for Scudi: Notes on Painters’ Earnings in Early Baroque Rome,” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 3 (2003): 310-320. For more on prices in early modern Rome, see the classic study by Jean Delumeau, Vie économique et social de Rome dans la second moitié du XVIe siècle, 2 (Paris, 1959), 521-750.


Gaetano Moroni, “Sagristà del Papa,” in Dizionario di erudizione storico-eclesiastica (Venice, 1852), 189.


Katrina Olds, “The Ambiguities of the Holy: Authenticating Relics in Seventeenth-Century Spain,” Renaissance Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2012): 135-184; A. Katie Harris, “‘A known holy body, with an inscription and a name’.”


E.g., Ferrand, Disquisitio, 63-96.


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