By the late Middle Ages, scraps of Mary Magdalene were strewn all over Europe. Not only was her body (or most of it) on display in the town of Saint-Maximin in Provence (it’s still there, if you want to take a look), but, as Charles Freeman notes in his Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (2011), “there were three more of her bodies” to see, one near Ancona, one in Rome, and one in Constantinople. Lucky Abbéville had a head; Cologne had embraced two of her arms, and “five more were known” elsewhere. Relics were part of the sea of faith, to borrow a phrase, in which most Christians swam, but they were also a handily profitable device to prop up temporal and spiritual power. As such, they were an excellent business opportunity.
Enter Dismas, the Swiss hero of The Relic Master, Christopher Buckley’s beguiling, funny, and slyly erudite new book. Dismas (named, not inappropriately, after the penitent thief crucified alongside Christ), a former mercenary — a Reisläufer — and former monk (“couldn’t get used to the hours”), has become a dealer in relics, one of the best, a man not without a certain degree of integrity. Disdainful of the sloppier and more disgraceful frauds, he deals in nothing he knows to be false. He stands by that leaf he sold from the Burning Bush.
Dismas is in Basel for the 1517 relic fair, a fair that never existed but is located by Buckley in a city that plays host nowadays to an annual fair showcasing contemporary art. The kneecap of Saint Afra then, a spot painting by Damien Hirst now, objects of desire and of worship, objects that magically bestow much-coveted properties on their owners, some sort of holiness in the first case, some sort of sophistication in the second, as well as the status that comes with buying anything — kneecap or spot — that is outrageously expensive enough.
Such relics often fetched tidy sums, not least because of the revenues brought by the pilgrims who came to venerate them, thereby possibly improving their prospects in the afterlife — for a price: “Donate such and such sum,” writes Buckley, “to venerate such and such relic, and so many years would be deducted from your term in Purgatory.” They could be useful, indulgences: get-out-of-purgatory-sooner cards, never short of takers. After Basel, Dismas delivers a haul of relics to one of his two main clients, an archbishop of great splendor and greater cynicism. After careful episcopal evaluation, it is determined that the 296 relics “would provide an aggregate indulgence value of 52,206 years off time in Purgatory. And provide his grace with a tidy return on his investment.” It was madness, but, like many manias, not without its internal logic.
Buckley’s tone is amused and amusing, but choosing to write such a book now, after the Internet bubble, after the 2008 bust (how were collateralized mortgage obligations, uh, valued, anyway?), and at a time when billion-dollar “unicorns” gallop through private-equity portfolios, undercuts any suggestion of condescension. Thus Dismas and many, many others discover that their cash has been looted by a crooked financier, Master Bernhardt. The locals contemplate what might be an appropriately grotesque punishment — burning, death by bear, something even nastier involving fishhooks? In the end, he gets off with a “well-attended” beheading. Absent the beheading, an echo of Madoff there, I thought; Bernie, Bernard, ah.
The year 1517 is an interesting one — a year at the cusp — for Buckley to pick. Within weeks of Dismas’s expedition to the relics fair, he is in Wittenberg, visiting his other key client, the Elector Frederick of Saxony. And Dismas is with Frederick when the elector is told that Martin Luther has been busy at the Castle Church: “‘Ninety-five [theses],’ Frederick smiled, ‘is our church door sufficiently commodious?’”
Dismas is soon wondering what Luther’s less than indulgent treatment of indulgences might mean for his trade: “Many indulgences were earned by venerating relics. If indulgences were abolished, who would come to venerate the holy bones?” He was right to worry: Frederick gave up collecting relics within a year or two. And then there was grim John Calvin. His Treatise on Relics (1543) is a work far rougher on those souvenirs of sanctity than anything you’ll find in Buckley. So much of the Virgin Mary’s milk was on display, jeered Calvin, that “had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers in various parts.” A dairy.
Hints of the shift in thinking beginning to percolate through Europe at this time are scattered through The Relic Master. Dismas is a traditionalist, but he struggles to answer some of the increasingly awkward questions that his friends are beginning to ask. Surely the “indulgence business” was in the Gospels “somewhere.”
I’ll pause now to reassure anyone worried that he or she has stumbled into a discussion of a learned volume on 16th-century religious controversies rather than a review of the latest book by Christopher Buckley, a famously enjoyable writer related, so to speak, to this magazine. Fear not: The Relic Master covers some serious historical ground and boasts an impressive list of sources at the end, including Freeman’s book and an account of a marriage in 16th-century Nuremberg that I, for one, will be hurrying to read — one day. But it also features killings, torture, hand-to-hand fighting, attempted crucifixions, a beautiful girl, bizarre superstitions, three loutish arquebus-slingers, trout nibbling at a severed arm, power politics, a lecherous Medici, herbal Viagra that works, black humor (“Frederick’s not a burner”), good jokes, and some splendidly wry writing: “Tetzel was a supple theologian. He’d pioneered a new form of indulgence whereby you could buy full indulgence for sins you had not yet committed. Even Jesus hadn’t thought of that.” Supple.
It’s never easy to know how to handle the distant past in fiction. Hollywood’s classic couldn’t-care-less generated some terrific lines (“War, war! That’s all you ever think about, Dick Plantagenet! You burner, you pillager!”) but failed to convince, while more respectable attempts at the old ye olde were neither authentic nor readable: Sir Walter Scott, I’m looking at you. Others have mined history to make fun of the present, or to make fun of the past; some — Robert Harris, for example, in his Cicero trilogy — have treated it seriously, both as a window into a vanished civilization and as a device to reexamine more modern times. Others still (such as, in his own way, Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose) have tried to understand a way of thinking that can seem impossibly alien today.
There are glimpses of that lost sensibility in The Relic Master. Buckley’s characters are not Enlightenment folk centuries out of time, or even Bob Hopes cracking wise on the road to Chambéry — but their 16th-century attitudes are presented lightly and never weigh down what is essentially a romp, a caper, written with a wink (“A German pope? Judgment Day will come first”) in breezily contemporary prose (not a “prithee” in sight). Buckley is often described as a satirist, but in this book he comes across more as someone enormously entertained by man’s perennial absurdity, an absurdity he relishes pushing just that bit further, teasing then — and now.
So far as the plot is concerned, the MacGuffin involves the faking of one Jesus burial shroud and then the taking of another (it’s complicated). Dismas’s dream of a prosperous retirement in safe, neutral Switzerland (Harry Lime might sneer, but the Swiss have long been a sensible people) has been trashed by the banker who looted his savings. That compels him to go on one last, atypically dodgy “mission” — that’s where the shroud(s) come in — to earn back that retirement in the mountains. And as we all know, one last missions have a way of turning tricky. Dismas’s farewell tour is no exception. I won’t be a spoiler, but I will say that, once again, fishhooks have an unpleasant role to play, that a ridiculously narcissistic Dürer (yes, that Dürer) is an accomplice, that the girl shoots a mean crossbow, that an imperial posse is thwarted, that disguises are deployed, that a performance of the Last Supper is sabotaged, and that the arquebus-slingers — Unks, Cunrat, and Nutker, three goons with strong Three Stooges characteristics — turn out not to be so bad in the end.
It’s a story that — as capers should — rolls merrily along. It was clearly fun to write, and it is certainly fun to read, but the very best of this book comes in moments such as this, included in the description of Dismas’s arrival in Wittenberg:
“Did you bring wonderful things?”
“One or two. Saint Barbara. A toe.”