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There has been a certain amount of curiosity and perhaps confusion surrounding the theft of a relic of Pope John Paul II. The relic, a piece of cloth stained with the Pope's blood when he was shot in 1981, disappeared from a small village church in Abruzzo. Italian police quickly recovered both the reliquary that housed the cloth and the relic itself. Perhaps most curious of all, is that the thieves seemed unaware of the value of the fabric relic which they threw away, while keeping the reliquary that housed it. This theft follows an ancient pattern of buying and selling and stealing relics.

In the western world stealing relics is most frequently associated with objects such as the Shroud of Turin – associated with Jesus – or with artefacts or body parts of Christian saints. There have been recent thefts of relics in other religious traditions. In 2002, slippers believed to have been worn by the Prophet Mohammed were stolen from a mosque in Pakistan. More recently, the January theft of relics of the Buddha from a temple in a Cambodian village has led to ongoing tension between Buddhist monks and the government. While the exact nature of the relics is uncertain, the golden urn which housed them may have been more tempting to thieves.

These kinds of thefts lack the clear motivation found in the heyday of relic theft in the early Middle Ages. Then, thieves ranged from monks, nuns, priests, and bishops – all seeking saintly relics to enhance the prestige of their monastery or church – to merchants and city officials, soldiers, crusaders, and mercenaries. Top-notch relics could elevate a king above his rivals. Relics could revive the fortunes of a town suffering economic decline or provide income to a church that couldn't repair the roof. Relics brought pilgrims with their money, the better the relics and the greater their number, the more likely a community would prosper from the medieval equivalent of tourist dollars.

Medieval saints were jealous of their relics, which could range from a small body part such as a finger to a whole body. If a saint didn't want to be stolen or moved, a thief could face divine impediments, as did a tenth-century monk who tried to steal the relics of St. Martin but was stopped by an earthquake. Similarly, if the saint were sympathetic to the cause of the relic hunters, they might cooperate with the abduction of their relics.

High demand led to the proliferation of relics. In the sixth century, for example, Welsh saint Teilo was said to have produced three full bodies so various groups claiming his relics could all have one that was authentic. This accounts for why we continue to find duplicate relics of the same saint in churches across Europe. The competition for relics could occasionally become grisly. In Florence, in 1246, when the body of Umiliana de' Cerchi was being taken to be buried in Santa Croce, the crowd started tearing it to pieces, in order to get a relic of the holy woman.

Some of the best known saints in Christendom were the subject of relic theft. Nicholas of Myra – the ancient progenitor of St. Nick (Santa Claus) – allegedly gave his consent to be moved from Myra in Asia Minor to Bari in Italy. Merchants from Bari had been trading in Antioch and heard a rumour that Venetian merchants were going to Myra to steal St. Nicholas's relics. The Bari merchants beat them there and learned that St. Nicholas had appeared to indicate his consent to leaving with them. Initially foiled, the Venetians got their chance ten years later to return to Myra and steal other relics of St. Nicholas.

The Venetians were quite active in the semi-organized theft of relics. In 827, Venetian merchants in Alexandria stole the body of St. Mark, leaving his head there. Thus, St. Mark began his career as protector of Venice, his relics lying in the spectacular church of San Marco. In 1968, some 1200 years after the relics were stolen, Pope Paul VI participated in a ceremony with the Coptic pope, Cyril VI of Alexandria, to return a small piece of bone from Venice to Alexandria. Thus the relics of St. Mark made their way home, albeit after a long absence.

Against this background, we can better understand the recent thefts of relics, whether Christian or Buddhist. Relics are an attempt by human beings to harness the power of the saint in the service of today's needs. Too frequently, however, their true nature is elusive to the overly-ambitious thief.

Jacqueline Murray is a professor at the University of Guelph