Relics and Reliquaries in the Vita Germani Auctore Constantio : the Capsula
Department of Classics, National University of Ireland, Galway
© 2012 by Francesca Bezzone. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2012 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.
Abstract: The use of the word capsula in the Vita Germani appears to be unique for the late antique period. This paper will shed light not only on the originality of Constantius's semantic choice, but also on how the term capsa—of which capsula is one of the variations—seems to have undergone an evident semantic shift during Constantius's years, and how his text appears to be the first literary witness to this shift. It will be shown how the change in meaning of the term is rooted in the evolution and diffusion of the burgeoning cult of saints during the fourth and fifth centuries.
§1. Holy objects are a favorite theme for Constantius, so much so that of the eighteen instances of miracles performed by Germanus in the Vita,1 a text which is relatively short with its forty-six paragraphs, nine are carried out with the aid of a blessed article.
§2. These nine examples can be roughly divided into objects the miraculous characteristics of which are actively created by Germanus by blessing, and others which have been passively, so to say, made holy by the saint: objects which have been in contact with his body and that have therefore developed extraordinary qualities.2
§3. Holy oil falls within the first of these two general categories, as it is blessed by Germanus before being used. Blessed oil promotes two miraculous deeds in the Vita Germani, in chapters 8 and 13. In the first it cures, once ingested, a number of people from a demonic illness. In the second, a light aspersion of the same over a stormy sea allows Germanus and his crew to reach safely the shores of Britain.
§4. There are no direct attributes or metaphors describing the oil as holy in chapter 8, only the action performed by Germanus, simply described by the verb benedico, hints at its status.
§5. In chapter 13, the act of blessing is not described explicitly, but it is implied by the wording of the episode. The oil is swiftly used by the saint in name of the Holy Trinity, which is a way of designating the divine role of the oil itself. It is interesting to note also how the distributive value of the ablative and the genitive referring to it transforms both the object and the physical act in which the object is involved into something holy.
§6. Further examples of relics sanctified by Germanus's intercession are found in chapters 11 and 29. In chapter 11, wheat is blessed and fed to chickens in order to return the faculty of singing to them; in chapter 29, Germanus prays over a bowl of spiced wine and bread, which he gives with his own hands to a young mute girl who extraordinarily gains her voice back. In the text, the wheat is recognized as holy thanks to the ablative of manner defining the verb: triticum beneditione condivit.
§7. The bread and the spiced wine are given to the young girl after she is blessed by Germanus, but in this case the transformation of the object into a miraculous relic is not disclosed so much on a lexical, but rather on an inter-textual plane: the image of the bread and the wine is a striking reference to Jesus and the Last Supper, the blessing imposed over the girl a mirroring of that of Christ over the Apostles.3
§8. The objects presented so far all belong to the category I would describe as active non-corporeal relics, because Germanus, by means of a factual blessing, transformed the mere object into an instrument of spiritual or pragmatical healing; the next items, on the other hand, belong to a second typology, that of passively created relics: these are objects which did not become sacred thanks to a willful act of Germanus, but to the simplest and most basic form of physical contact with his body, therefore have been blessed by the saint with thaumaturgic powers by simple contact and not through a conscious act of benediction.
§9. This is the case of the straw on which Germanus sleeps in chapter 22, and the same can be said about the wooden plate and the barley bread in chapter 35, which do not appear to have been blessed by the saint, but simply to have belonged to him.
§10. In fact, the barley loaf and its plate are only potentially miraculous in the Vita: nowhere in the text they are associated, neither contextually nor lexically, with miracles. On the other hand, Constantius mentions that the Empress did have the small items gilded, and that many a miracle was performed through their intercession, although no further episode involving them is presented in the narration.
§11. Germanus's body—and the bier where it rests—(ch. 45) and his clothes (ch. 43) are also passively created relics: the bier is means of a healing in Piacenza, whereas the clothes are divided between six Gaulish bishops and Placidia after the saint's death. The feretrum corporis is not defined by direct attributes, but by those of the faithful who is healed: the woman is vivificata by its mere presence, implicitly defining it as vivificante, that brings life. Germanus's clothing, in spite of being mentioned only briefly, is the archetypal type of relic, the history of which dates back to the narration of Jesus' tunic in the Gospel.
§12. The word capsula appears three times within Constantius's text, in chapters 4, 15 and 43. On the sole basis of its textual presence, it could be argued that the capsula is less "active" than other miraculous aids within the narrative—only one miracle is performed through it, compared to the three carried out with holy oil. In the context of this enquiry, lack of examples could lead to the marginalization of the term, as literary episodes are the very bread and butter of the historical and social study of a text. To this critique, I answer with an apparent contradiction: it is the sporadic presence of the term capsula in the Vita Germani, and in other texts contemporary to it, which indicates its importance in the history of Christian costume as described by Constantius. In what follows, I shall demonstrate through literary comparisons and historical linguistics how such an affirmation is not, in fact, a contradiction at all.
§13. Capsula appears for the first time in chapter 4, ll. 10–11, within the description of Germanus as a person, with particular attention given to his rather frugal clothing: "He was never dressed during the night and seldom removed his shoes and belt, and always wore around his neck a small sachet attached to a leather string containing relics of other saints."5 The passage describes two decisive characteristics of the capsula: the fact that Germanus never separates from it, and the holiness of its content. The capsula, this first passage tells, is twice holy, as it belongs to a saintly figure who performs miracles with it, and that it is filled with reliquiae sanctorum, relics of saints. Both ideas are fundamental for the miraculous episode of chapter 25, where the object is used to cure a young girl plagued by blindness: "And then Germanus, filled with the Holy Spirit, invokes the Trinity and immediately takes into his hands a small box of saintly relics he kept close to his body; he removes it from his neck and, in front of everyone, places it on the eyes of the little girl".6
§14. Germanus takes the capsula off his neck before applying it to the young girl's eyes, which proves the object is, indeed, always in contact with the saint's body. But the capsula is, most of all, filled cum sanctorum reliquiis.
§15. The final passage within the Vita where the term appears is in chapter 43 when, after Germanus's death, the Empress Placidia and the six bishops who accompanied the saint to Ravenna share his belongings: the capsula is here only mentioned as one of the objects taken by the Empress (VG 43, ll. 14–15).
§16. In all three instances, the text is unambiguous about the literal meaning and the factual use, in everyday life, of the object that Constantius calls capsula: it is a container of some sort, which can be carried easily enough under one's clothing and contains holy remains. Germanus carries his around his neck, which proves the object cannot be too heavy or it would be too uncomfortable to wear.
§17. The matter of the shape, size and constitutive material of Germanus's capsula is of interest: Constantius does not mention any of them. This means the text lacks any kind of physical description of the capsula, besides what can be implied by the fact, as I mentioned above, that the saint wears it as a neck talisman. None of Germanus's relics still extant are a portable reliquary that belonged to him (although their last cataloguing was carried out before 1948).7 It seems clear, as a consequence, that all that can be said about the object-capsula Germanus used to wear, can only be deduced by turning to what art history can say about small, portable reliquaries in the fifth and early sixth centuries. Unfortunately, it is very little.
§18. The earliest reliquaries appear to have originated in the Eastern Roman Empire, because of the historical relevance of the area to Christianity and also, as in the rest of the Mediterranean world, as a result of the growth of the cult of martyrs and saints. The first examples (third century),8 were related to the worship of their shrines, and in particular of their place of burial, as well as to the worship of fragments of the holy cross (Brown 1981). The step from this to a real cult of relics was short and very simple: but all that is left from the time of Germanus, that is the end of the fifth century, are mostly cross-shaped reliquaries,9 often containing smaller caskets in which the relic object would have been placed. This does not mean that portable reliquaries of the sort that Germanus may have worn do not exist, but they are usually considerably later in date; an example is the Charlemagne reliquary, part of the Reims Cathedaral Treasury, a ninth century round pendant (Klein 2004), and the many catalogued by Braun in the fifth chapter of his work, under the heading Kapsel- und Scheibenförmige Reliquiare (Braun 1940), of which he provides an exhaustive photographic collection in the text's appendix. His work is of great significance when the varieties of reliquaries and their material of fabrication are involved, but he showed very little interest in their dating, which is, indeed, very unfortunate. Nevertheless, his analysis of reliquaries provides an extensive overview of the materials used in their production, and this can be of a certain importance to the matter of Germanus and his portable capsula: as mentioned earlier, the simple fact the saint carried the capsula around his neck continuously, and even slept with it, most likely means the object was of limited dimensions and possibly could have lied flat against the saint's body. This description could very well fit an object similar to the Charlemagne talisman and many of those pictured and described by Braun.
§19. I restricted my search for a capsula like Germanus's by focusing on the materials that were most commonly used in art during Late Antiquity: according to Nees it was silver and ivory. Both materials denoted and symbolized wealth and status (Nees 2002, 63–79); both could probably have been afforded by a bishopric like that of Auxerre, or by Germanus himself, who came from a noble family (VG 1–2). Plausibly, the capsula and its contents could have been a gift to the saint. However it seems to me it would be alien to a figure like that of Germanus, described by Constantius as having renounced his wealth and as following a lifestyle that can only be called ascetic (VG 2–4), to have indulged in the possession of an object of such value and preciousness. This deduction seems to be confirmed by the text itself: in chapter 35, when the Empress Placidia sends to Germanus a heavy silver plate full of foodstuff, he distributes the food to his brothers and gives the valuable plate to the poor:
The venerable Empress sent a very large silver plate to the abode of the priest, filled with the more refined foodstuffs, but without any type of meat. He distributed what he received, so he handed over the food to his servants, but he kept the silver dish … [that he] would give to the poor.10
This gesture denotes selflessness and lack of interest in any form of fine goods or, indeed, precious objects, further evidence that Germanus's capsula could have been of a poorer material than ivory or silver.
§20. In his photographic collection, Braun shows sachet and medallion-shaped portable reliquaries in leather and other lesser materials (Braun 1940), which may be closer to the reliquary Germanus owned and certainly better fitting his simple and ascetic personality.
§21. Another essential characteristic implied by the text is the presence of a content saintly in origin: as I have shown, in two of the three passages where the term appears, Constantius firmly characterizes the object by means of the holiness of the material within it. The text embraces, without hesitation and with powerful emphasis, a fully religious, Christianized description of the capsula, but is not informative about who the relics inside it belong to.
§22. It is, nevertheless, from the comparison to other earlier and contemporary texts that the innovative nature of Constantius's lexical choice is deduced. In the years between the beginning of the third century and the first half of the sixth, the diffusion of capsula is extremely low and, as we shall see, strictly related to Constantius's text and the literary figure of Germanus; Constantius uses the word three times in his work (in chapters 4, 15 and 43 as noted earlier), and he is by far the fifth-century author who favored this term the most.
§23. The analysis of the textual presence of capsula, in all cases, during the time frame mentioned above, in texts other than the VG, shows only one instance of it in book 26 on Aurelianus, of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae; this text is a series of highly problematic and fictionalized biographies of Emperors, usurpers and other political figures who ruled between the beginning of the second and the end of the third century, whose authorship and date of composition are still largely disputed,11 but which were more than likely composed during the first half of the fourth century. In the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, the meaning of capsula is clearly that of a chest full of riches: "you have three hundred pounds of gold from Zenobia's coffers, one thousand and eight hundred pounds of silver from the possessions of the Palmyrenes, you have the royal jewels."12 This is the only instance of the word capsula in a non-Christian background I found attested in literature during the years from the beginning of the third to the end of the sixth century: the context of the passage makes clear that the content of the capsula is not religious, but very much prosaic and material: gold and silver, actual spoils of war, contained in a chest.
§24. Within a strictly Christian milieu, the textual presence of capsula is attested five times, two of them during Constantius's lifetime, three significantly later. Of the two instances contemporary to Constantius, one is taken from the Testamentum Perpetui Episcopi, bishop of Tours, another probably spurious document, written around 475.
§25. The term capsula recurs once in the text, and it still clearly has the semantic value associated with a box: "… similarly (I give) a common little box made of silk to Amalarius the priest;"13 the second is a direct quotation of the miracle Germanus performs in chapter 15 of Constantius's VG, within a text which has been compiled in later centuries and, for this reason, cannot be regarded as an original instance of the use of the word capsula. This text is a collection of passages on the Pelagians, their creed and the reaction of canonic Christians to it. Germanus appears in the chapter De Pelagianis Italia Ejectis, et de Britannis Eorum Errore Liberatis … cura Caelestini Papae:
|De Pelagianis Italia Ejectis||Vita Germani|
|And then Germanus, filled with Holy Spirit, invokes the holy Trinity and immediately takes into his hands a small box of saintly relics he kept close to his body; he removes it from his neck.14||And then Germanus, filled with the Holy Spirit, invokes the Trinity and immediately takes into his hands a small box of saintly relics he kept close to his body; he removes it from his neck.15|
§26. Within a century, by the time of Gregory of Tours, the association with religious terminology appears complete: Gregory, in fact, uses the term capsula to indicate a reliquary (of different sizes, not always as described by Constantius) fairly often in his texts, but without any ambiguity about its meaning. In all instances, the semantic capsula represents an object that can be identified as containing holy relics:
Which I took away and, I admit it, opened, finding in it a silver box containing relics of the witnesses of the blessed legion as well as of many saints both martyrs and confessors.16
and returning , he quickly took with him (some) of the dust of the holy sepulcher for a blessing, which he placed in a little box and hung it on my neck.17
§27. In the first passage, the capsula is clearly a box of a certain size, made—or gilded—in silver, containing relics. The size of it is fairly simple to deduct by Gregory's mention of the many objects within it; the author's words, in the second passage mentioned, strikingly match the description of the capsula made in the Vita by Constantius. The object is obviously small enough to be carried around the neck by both Gregory and Germanus.
§28. Although instances of the term indicating small boxes with non-religious content are still found in the literature of the late sixth and seventh century,18 the narrative strength of the passages in which the capsula contains relics, and the overall majority of examples that associated the word to a reliquary, lead to the conclusion that the term, as early as the sixth century, had its principal meaning changed from that of a simple box to that of a reliquary. The reason for this shift has to be found in the evolution of the social and artistic aspect of Christianity, and especially in the development of the cult of saints (Brown 1981, chs. 1, 5 and 6).
§29. The relevance of Constantius and the Vita Germani in this historical-linguistic matter resides in the strong possibility, as highlighted by the literary analysis developed in the previous pages, that the Lyonnais was amongst the first, in the fifth century, to use the term capsula to indicate a reliquary; in order to give deeper historical and textual roots to this theory, I extended such analysis to the uninflected morpheme, capsa and to the other attested diminutive of it, capsella. The pattern of their diffusion is essential to the full understanding of that of capsula and, in particular, to the critical position that Constantius seemingly has in its early use and diffusion in a typically Christian semantic context. It should be noted that the Vita Amatoris offers another variant of capsa, with the meaning of "portable reliquary": Stephanus, who wrote in the last twenty years of the fifth century, chooses the word capsellaris instead of the uninflected, more commonly used capsa, in ch. 25: "and he used to wear with honor, hanging around his neck a small box, where relics (were) contained."19 The similarities between Stephanus' capsellaris and Constantius' capsula are strong: both objects are described by the authors as containing relics and being worn around one's neck; both Stephanus and Constantius leaned towards the less utilized of the variants of capsa available to them, although, in Stephanus's case, very little can be concluded about the reasons of such a choice, considering the word is used only once in the text, it is not defined by any attributive characteristic and the object is not involved in any relevant narrative event.
§30. Stephanus's choice is, on the other hand, important from a cultural point of view as from the text it can be deduced that, during the late fifth century, Constantius was not alone in describing the practice of carrying relics on one's body, in particular around the neck. Crucial is also the geographical factor: both authors write in southern Gaul and their work gravitates heavily around the diocese of Auxerre.
§31. If, as the examples above show, the word capsula is very little attested in texts from Constantius's period, the diffusion of capsa appears constant throughout the centuries.20 Records for the diffusion of capsa and capsella in the period between the fourth and the mid sixth century demonstrate how these terms were far more widely used, in any context, than capsula has been during the same time frame, leaving Constantius to be, in fact, the only author recorded to have employed the term in the fifth century in a Christian context. In fact, capsa, capsula, capsella and all other variations of the word (such as capsellaris and capsellula) were, during the fourth and fifth centuries especially, principally used to indicate coffins and boxes of various sizes21 .
§32. Semantically, the word capsa and its diminutives underwent a process of widening (Campbell 1999, 256–257), which has been caused by the typically Christian practice of keeping body parts and objects which had once belonged to a saint, as a means of protection and display of faith: capsa kept its basic meaning of box, but the social and religious growth in relevance of the cult of saints and relics brought about an extension of its meaning, which invested the entire word's lexical spectrum.
§33. With the exponential growth of saints' and relics' worship, the association of capsa's diminutives with reliquaries becomes almost complete.
§34. Such identification seems to be also born of pragmatic reasons: the increased habit of carrying smaller reliquaries on one's body justifies the link between the diminutive and the reliquary. Linguistically, capsula (and capsella) were first involved in the semantic widening of capsa, but have also successively been at the centre of a further process of semantic restriction, in which their primary meaning is no longer that of a box or a container, but more specifically that of a reliquary.
§35. Textual evidence, as shown above, seems to demonstrate this process may have begun in the speakers' minds as early as the mid third and the beginning of the fourth centuries AD.
§36. The overview of the diffusion of capsula throughout the centuries, of its uninflected form capsa and, for the sake of completeness, of the other diminutive capsella, has proven how the very term capsula was not, during Late Antiquity, particularly common in use, and how its original form, capsa, and another diminutive form, capsella, appear to have enjoyed greater use in the literature of the time. The texts written contemporarily to the Vita Germani do not show any evidence for the use of the term with the meaning of reliquary, which was to become usual by the end of the sixth century: this very characteristic seems to emphasize Constantius's lexical choice and its originality. The relatively low presence of capsula in his text is far from denoting the lack of relevance of the term: in fact, it is its very presence that encapsulates its real value, from both a literary and a socio-historical point of view.
§37. Constantius's preference for a little-used term is a powerful representation of his creative and literary skills, whereas the presence of the object in the narrative becomes an everlasting witness to the growth of a form of worship which was to become so essential, also economically, during the later Middle Ages: that of holy relics. The capsula also becomes a symbol of a change of costume and habits: from a small box, to an object often precious and very frequently carried on one's body, just as Constantius recorded in the Vita Germani.
1. All references to the Vita Germani (VG hereafter) are from the MGH edition. The translations of all texts from Latin into English are mine throughout. [Back]
3. Luke, 22:19–20; Mark, 14: 22–24; Matthew 26:26–28. [Back]
4. In the following, I will make many references to lexical searches for the diffusion of given words. The procedure I applied is rather simple, yet extremely effective: the chosen term is entered in its general form (the stem+*) in both the Brepolis and Patrologia Latina databases. The searches result in a series of textual instances in which the word is found. I therefore analyzed singularly each example and, by the context and time frame in which the text was written, I deduced the actual meaning the word had in the text itself. I subsequently compiled tables to facilitate the recognition of patterns in both the temporal diffusion of a given term or the diffusion of the term itself in relation to a particular meaning associated to it.
In the case of the capsula, I firstly searched the uninflected capsul* through Brepolis in the following time frames: Antiquitas (0–200 AD), Aetas Patrum I (201–500 AD), Aetas Patrum ii (501–750 AD) and the Vulgata; the same search has been carried out on the Patrologia Latina. I subsequently extended the search to the uninflected caps* and capsell*. [Back]
5. Noctibus numquam vestitum, raro cingulum, raro calciamenta detraxit, redimitus loro semper et capsula sanctorum reliquias continent. [Back]
6. VG 25, ll. 5–7: Ac deinde Germanus plenus Spiritu Sancto invocat Trinitatem et protinus adhaerentem lateri suo capsulam cum sanctorum reliquiis collo avulsam minibus conprehendit eamque in conpsectu omnium puellae oculis applicavit. [Back]
7. For a detailed account on the history and presence of Germanus's relics in France see ABSS (1950). The chapters in question are: 'Le culte de Saint Germain ans l'ancienne diocèse de Langres'; M. Roblin, 'Le culte de Saint Germain d'Auxerre dans la diocèse de Paris'; A. Colombet, 'Les souvenirs de Saint Germain en Côte d'Or'; A. Bivers, 'Le culte de Saint Germain d'Auxerre en Invernais'; P. Barbier, 'Le culte de Saint Germain en Bretagne'. [Back]
8. For an in depth analysis of the birth and development of the cult of saints and their relics see Brown (1981), Brown, (1982), Howard-Johnston and Hayward (1999), Crook (2000), Delehaye (1927), and Walsham (2010). [Back]
10. Ad diversorium sacerdotis regina venerabilis vas argenti amplissimum, refertum cibis delicatioribus sine ulla carnis admixtione, transmisit. Quod susceptum ea ratione distribuit, ut ministris suis traderet, ipse vero vindicaret argertum, remittens loco muneris patenulam ligneam panem ordeaceum continentem. Quod illa utrumque cum ingenti gratulatione conplexa est, quod et argetum suum transisset ad pauperes et illa escam beati viri eum. [Back]
12. Flavius Vopiscus Syracusius, book 26 "Aurelianus" in Scriptores Historiae Augustae, cap.31, par.8, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/home.html: habes trecentas auri libras de Zenobiae capsulis, habes argenti mille octingenta pondo de Palmyrenorum bonis, habes gemmas regias [Back]
13. "Testamentum Perpetui Episcopi", Patrologia Latina 58, col. 0754C: Similiter et Amalario ibidem presbytero capsulam unam communem de serico. The choice of the attributive communem seems to point towards an object of no particular spiritual value. [Back]
14. In Scripta et Monumenta pertinentia ad historiam pelagianorum, Migne, PL 45, col. 1753: Ac deinde Germanus plenus Spiritu sancto, sanctam invocat Trinitatem, et protinus adhaerentem lateri suo capsulam, cum sanctorum reliquiis collo avulsam manibus comprehendit. [Back]
15. VG 15, ll. 5–7: Ac deinde Germanus plenus Spiritu Sancto invocat Trinitatem et protinus adhaerentem lateri suo capsulam cum sanctorum reliquiis collo avulsam manibus comprehendit. The addition of the accusative adjective sanctam seems to have been the choice of the compiler of Scripta et Monumenta, as such variation has not been recorded by Levison in his apparatus. [Back]
16. Gregory of Tours Historiarum libri x, 10.31, l. 6. Quem delatum reseravi, fateor, et inveni in eum capsulam argenteam, in qua non modo beatae legionis testium, verum etiam multorum sanctorum tam martyrum quam confessorum reliquiae tenebatur. [Back]
17. Gregory of Tours, Historiarum libri x, 8.15, l. 6. Revertens que cum eo, ille parumper pulveris beati sepulchri pro benedictione sustulit quod in capsulam positum ad collum meum dependit. For the other instances of capsula in Gregory's work, cfr: Historiarum libri x, 10.31, l. 16; 7.31, l. 8; 8.15, l. 8. [Back]
18. See Venantius Fortunatus, "Vita Sancti Amantii Ruthenensis Episcopi" in PL 88, col 0521C. [Back]
19. Stephanus Africanus "Vita Amatoris": et capsellari honore quo reliquias inclusas pendulas collo gestabat. [Back]
20. It is extremely hard to denote the exact beginning and ending of historical periods, especially when it comes to Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: history is, by definition, a fluid, ever-changing entity, which cannot easily be constrained in its development by strict dates. Nevertheless, my work needs to rely, if not on precise dates, at least on general ideas of time. For this reason, I will consider Classical Period the years up to, roughly A.D. 200; Late Antique Period, from around the year 200 to 550; and, finally, of Early Medieval Period from the second half of the sixth century up to the mid-eighth century. [Back]
21. Some examples: in the 'Acta Sancti Felicis episcopi et martyris' contained in the Monumenta Vetera ad donatistarum historiam pertinentia, ab anno Christi ccciii ad annum cccl, the unknown fourth century author uses capsa to indicate the lower part of a ship ( this meaning was common in Classical times), PL 8, col. 0687C; Augustine mentions a capsella in the Ad Donatistas post colationem liber unus , which is clearly a little box, PL 43, col. 0672; in the Liber de promissionibus et praedictionibus dei, PL 51, col. 0759A, an unknown author relates the well known biblical passage where Moses is placed, as an infant, into a basket (capsam) and entrusted to the Nile. [Back]
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