The corpus of corpses is everywhere around us. Sometimes it’s used correctly, sometimes it is not. As in, do you know the difference between a relic, a reliquary, and a relict? I’ll explain:
A relic is something that’s survived or been kept for a reason. Usually we think of relic as a word to describe the bones or parts of the body of a saint, or historical figure, but veneration comes in different levels.
Think sideways – to, say, mourning jewellery from the Victorian era; locks of hair set into rings and lockets – and anything ‘of the person’ we’re remembering, is a relic. Do you have baby teeth in your bedside chest of drawers? Those are relics.
We’ve been fascinated with relics since, well, forever really. John Donne’s poem ‘The Funeral’ was written in the early 1630s, there or thereabouts (I’ll put it at the bottom of this post), and waxes lyrical about the ‘wreath of hair’ – it’s exquisite – and, for my part, far more evocative than his other poem of this ilk, er, ‘The Relic‘.
A reliquary is a container that holds relics. Relics were often thought of as being “more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold” (which comes from the Sacred Writings of Eusebius Pamphelis: “The centurion, when he saw the contentiousness exhibited by the Jews, gathered up his bones, which were more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold.”)
So it’s only natural that anything deemed to be a relic is kept, or preserved, in vessels – reliquaries – made of or covered in precious metals. Gold or silver, usually.
The word relict comes from the Latin word relictio, meaning left behind. Today we take it to mean ‘widow’, which is why you’ll often find it on gravestones – particularly those in the 17th and 18th century.
The word carried over into common usage after it was part of a standard formula being used in grants of probate, which were always written in Latin.
But the word relict in a Will has a different meaning. Relict means the widow of the person who has died, whereas widow in that instance means a widow but not necessarily of the person who died.
Confused now? Me too.
It’s quite common for us to hang onto – literally, hold – objects that belonged to, were part of, or had touched a person who has died.
If the whole 'what's a relic?' thing has piqued your interest, then this is a great little book to seek out. Lutz looks at relic culture in depth, exploring how we hang on to the belief that physical mementos respect the singularity of human beings, as well as reminding us of people who have died. She goes into detail, looking at the works of Dickens, Emily Brontë, and Thomas Hardy (you know he exhumed thousands of bodies at St. Pancras, right?).
Author: Deborah Lutz
Price: Not cheap. Anything from £23 on Amazon
Footnote: “Authors, relic beliefs, ritual – insightful.”
The Funeral - John Donne
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