Cover image for The Stolen Bones of St. John of Matha: Forgery, Theft, and Sainthood in the Seventeenth Century By A. Katie Harris

The Stolen Bones of St. John of Matha

Forgery, Theft, and Sainthood in the Seventeenth Century

A. Katie Harris

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$119.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09535-6

242 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations
2023

Iberian Encounter and Exchange, 475–1755

The Stolen Bones of St. John of Matha

Forgery, Theft, and Sainthood in the Seventeenth Century

A. Katie Harris

“A very well written and argued microhistory that tells us much about how useful saints were within the post-Tridentine period. It also does wider scholarship the service of reminding even scholars who should know better that the history of relics, true and false, did not end with the Middle Ages. Harris has a mastery of the relevant literature in several languages which is both impressive and used to telling effect.”

 

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Hear A. Katie Harris discuss her book with the New Books Network.

On the night of March 18, 1655, two Spanish friars broke into a church to steal the bones of the founder of their religious institution, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity. This book investigates this little-known incident of relic theft and the lengthy legal case that followed, together with the larger questions that surround the remains of saints in seventeenth-century Catholic Europe.

Drawing on a wealth of manuscript and print sources from the era, A. Katie Harris uses the case of St. John of Matha’s stolen remains to explore the roles played by saints’ relics, the anxieties invested in them, their cultural meanings, and the changing modes of thought with which early modern Catholics approached them. While in theory a relic’s authenticity and identity might be proved by supernatural evidence, in practice early modern Church authorities often reached for proofs grounded in the material, human world—preferences that were representative of the standardizing and streamlining of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century saint-making. Harris examines how Matha’s advocates deployed material and documentary proofs, locating them within a framework of Scholastic concepts of individuation, identity, change, and persistence, and applying moral certainty to accommodate the inherent uncertainty of human evidence and relic knowledge.

Engaging and accessible, The Stolen Bones of St. John of Matha raises an array of important questions surrounding relic identity and authenticity in seventeenth-century Europe. It will be of interest to students, scholars, and casual readers interested in European history, religious history, material culture, and Renaissance studies.

“A very well written and argued microhistory that tells us much about how useful saints were within the post-Tridentine period. It also does wider scholarship the service of reminding even scholars who should know better that the history of relics, true and false, did not end with the Middle Ages. Harris has a mastery of the relevant literature in several languages which is both impressive and used to telling effect.”
The Stolen Bones of St. John of Matha is fascinating and opens a window to discuss several crucial features of early modern cultural and intellectual history. Harris’s ability to draw all these features together and put them into the context of existing scholarship is impressive.”

A. Katie Harris is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.