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The tale of Cuthbert’s corpse is vivid and improbable, but it is not unique. Devotion to the saints was one of the central features of the medieval church, and this devotion was often focused on relics—that is, physical remains. A saint’s tomb was more than a repository for a corpse. It was also a target for pilgrimage, for offering, and for prayer. It was a place where miracles were thought to happen.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the respect accorded to the saintly dead by medieval Christians, they were rarely allowed to rest in peace. As soon as a holy person died, his or her corpse would be scrutinized for signs of sanctity by those who prepared it for burial. When Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, died in 1200, his viscera were removed from his body, which was taken a long distance for burial. Some among his household were initially uncomfortable with this plan, but they warmed to it when the episcopal bowels provided first proof of their owner’s holiness. As the bishop’s chaplain Adam of Eynsham reported in his biography of Hugh, Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis, “no water or stool was found, and they were as clean and immaculate as if someone had carefully washed and wiped them.”
Certain cynics dismissed the results as the inevitable consequence of the dysentery that plagued Hugh in his final days, but others claimed it a miracle. Their faith was rewarded when, a week later, the body was put on display in Lincoln Cathedral. A normal corpse would have started to decay, but Hugh had “the fresh appearance of a man who has fallen asleep after a bath and not that of a dead man.”
A corpse’s appearance between its death and its burial could provide initial indications of sanctity. But the ultimate proof required inspecting the body many years later. This usually happened when remains were disturbed due to construction, or when the body of a new saint was ceremonially moved to a more substantial shrine. On such occasions, it was normal to open the coffin and subject the remains to a vigorous (but respectful) examination.
Such inspections were not without their risks, however. If a corpse was found to have decayed, a cult’s potential would be seriously undermined. When the Canterbury monks exhumed Archbishop Lanfranc in 1174, they were excited to find his remains seemingly intact. But they quickly lost interest when they realized that his bones had rotted away. Even a well-preserved corpse could be vulnerable. When Hugh of Lincoln’s remains were reinspected in 1280, his head fell off. Fortunately, this embarrassing incident was seen to provide further evidence of his sanctity, since the exposed neck appeared ruddy like that of a recently dead man.
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The insistence on the lifelike qualities of these corpses comes from the Christian tradition that “the saints are not called dead but sleeping,” as St. Jerome once put it. They were expected to possess lifelike qualities even in death. Pink and white coloring, for example, was thought to be a sign of readiness for the resurrection: Their intact, lifelike bodies would literally stand and walk, just as Jesus had done.