Anniversary Post: Saint Bones and Nikephoros I

St Nikephoros - Saint BonesOn this day in 847, the bones of St Nikephoros I were interred at the Church of the Holy Apostles. As far as I can tell, this was a big deal. Nikephoros had died almost 20 years earlier. But saint bones were a very big thing back in the day. People thought that by being near them, they could be healed and stuff like that. Those were the days my friend!

That was when the church was kind of sealed off from the rest of the world and people looked upon it as a place of magic. And it was! If you consider power magic. And I do.

But the whole thing makes me think of Cadfael — the series of television movies (based upon Edith Pargeter’s novels, which I have not read). They take place in 12th century England. Cadfael is a monk — but one who entered the church later in life, having previously been a warrior. He is an herbalist and thoroughly anachronistic in that he is clearly an enlightenment thinker. All around him — even the good people — are stuck believing the most ridiculous nonsense. But not Cadfael.

Saint Bones of Winifred

Anyway, in the series, the abbey has the bones of St Winifred, and it acts as a kind of funding mechanism for the church. People come on pilgrimages to the abbey just to be near the bones. But we find out in A Morbid Taste for Bones (which was the first book, but not the first episode), that there are no saint bones in the box that apparently the church keeps these things in. Instead, it is the remains of a murderous (and mentally ill) monk. It makes for wonderful social commentary with people coming from hundreds of miles to be near the saint bones when the the saint bones are actually still in the ground in Wales.

Of course, the way Cadfael sees it, why can’t the bones of St Winifred work their magic from wherever they are? I mean, if it truly is magic — the work of God — what does proximity have to do with it? But these are the kind of enlightenment forms of thinking that do stick out in a story about 12th century England. Still: I recommend the films. They are great fun.

23 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Saint Bones and Nikephoros I

  1. I enjoyed that series when I had a chance to catch it on PBS. I enjoy Derek Jacobi’s acting and he did an excellent job. I did think it was silly that he was able to solve crimes when, to put it charitably, forensic science was not quite up to that level.

    I cannot speak about the saints’ bones since belief does funny things to people and I have not spent much time on the religious history of England outside the Reformation.

    • Jacobi is great in it. Jacobi is always great. I love him. He’s one of the greats. It’s cool that you can get all the episodes in one set for just $30.

      • I am sure it will eventually be on Hulu or Netflix. Or I could just buy the digital version.

        I need to avoid increasing the amount of things I have so digital is awesome.

        • I don’t understand why it isn’t more popular. I mean, Cadfael is such a great character. I’ll probably put another one tonight. Although they are kind of intricate. I suspect the novels work better.

          • Probably because it was on PBS and didn’t involve beautiful people wearing beautiful things. And they don’t market their stuff particularly well so not a lot of people knew about it.

              • That is because you are a romantic at heart. I understand why she wanted to have money set aside by though. It helps when you start out in marriage to have a good amount set aside in case of issues. Probably one of the reasons I have never married is my focus on being very practical. That and I usually lose interest in a guy after a couple months.

                • Yes, she is the practical one. And I think women are more practical generally. And men do have about a two month self-life…

                  • You have managed to keep yourself alive for years after splitting with the most recent wife.

                    One of my (male) history professors once told my class that the reason that women were admitted to Oberlin College back in 1837 was to have them clean the college since the male students were too lazy to do it. I have no idea if that is true but it does make sense. It is better to clean up the place then live in a sty. *says the woman who hires someone else to clean for her*

                    • I would love to clean the house. If only there weren’t one more thing to do on the computer!

                    • Excuses excuses. That is what I say when I look around and think about cleaning.

      • Jacobi is really terrific. I haven’t seen this show, but I always enjoy him. Remember the silly Branaugh picture “Dead Again”? Jacobi saved that movie with his performance as the psychic. He’s like a less mopey version of Ian Holm.

        I guess he’s into this “who wrote Shakespeare” stuff, which I find silly, but most hobbies are kinda silly. And from Jacobi’s Wiki page I see Mark Rylance, who is fabulous, is into this stuff too. Oh, well, nobody’s a genius at all hours. Bendan Gleason is into Irish identity, George Clooney whips out his dick at parties to do a Groucho Marx impression. Maybe Helen Mirren spends hours a day typing “your baby’s face looks like a rotted rutebega” into YouTube cute-baby comment threads, I dunno. People are odd.

        • I’ve never see that. I will have to check it out now.

          Yes, the Edward de Vere stuff is silly. But it isn’t surprising. In the theater, it is assumed that Shakespeare is such a unique talent that he couldn’t possibly be just what he seems. So the real problem is the over-estimation of Shakespeare. Whatever. I forgive him, because I don’t expect actors to be smart. In fact, I’m usually shocked when I hear them talk about playwrights, because they are usually pretty limited in understanding.

          But I love this opening of Henry V — not just Jacobi but also the very idea of doing it that way. I love that it is done in one shot (something that is usually done too much and poorly). I imagine the poor focus puller during all this. So much has to be perfect. And it is:

          • Watch at your own risk. It’s quite a loony film. But Jacobi is terrific in it.

            I also adored his usage in “Henry V.” That opening on a soundstage is terrific. One of these days I have to check out Branaugh’s “Hamlet,” which has Jacobi and the usual cast of megatalent. I’m just annoyed that it was filmed in 70mm, and you can’t see the difference between 70mm and 35mm (or digital) on a small screen. As a lover of film tech, I wish I could see it on a big screen.

            Put it this way: if you’ve ever enjoyed a giant-screen Imax film at a science museum (and I have), you wouldn’t tell your friends “see it on video.”

            • I have seen a few Imax films, but I haven’t been terribly impressed. Of course, I don’t like being in the huge theater. I suffer a bit from agoraphobia.

              I have the 4 hour, uncut, Hamlet. I greatly admit Kenneth Branagh, but that film is way over-lit. Visually, it has no subtlety. If you ever get a chance, there is a filmed play version starring Kevin Kline, which is probably the best I’ve seen. Of course, I believe that it is a fatally flawed play.

              • I LOVE big screens. Have ever since I was a kid. But then again I always sought immersion in movies; I wanted to be in that story for two hours instead of real life.

                I’ll have to catch that Kline version someday. I never make it through watching “Hamlet.” The character is a pretty accurate depiction of depression, yet I think the author really thought depressed people were lunatics, so it’s hard to play the role without babbling some of the lines. I always sympathize with Hamlet for stabbing that fatuous windbag Polonius (he sounds like a human services supervisor) and loathe him for being so mean to Ophelia.

                Maybe the strangest version is “The Lion King.” I’ve never seen it, but recently I saw someone talking about the plot, and, yep evil uncle murders Pa. How odd.

                • Yes, it is the treatment of Ophelia that makes him truly awful. But there is a fundamental problem in the play: your father comes to you says, “I must walk the earth until my death is avenged. And it Claudius.” And then Hamlet spends the rest of the play wondering what to do. And in the end, he doesn’t avenge his father’s murder; he instead avenges his mother’s unintentional poisoning. The play shows all the signs of, “This sucks, but I’ve spent all this time writing it — I can’t just throw it away!” There is, supposedly, an ur-Hamlet, which I can only assume is shorter and better. Get to the point!

                  Interesting about The Lion King, but the uncle doesn’t take up with the widow, so it’s not that close. That’s a big issue for Hamlet. And, of course, the play is agnostic as to whether she is innocent of the murder. Most actors who play Gertrude certainly play it as though she is innocent.

  2. I stumbled across the books first, and love them (Ms. Pargeter* wrote under the nom de plume Ellis Peters, for anyone interested in tracking them down.) I’ve only seen one and part of another of the films; they didn’t grab me nearly as well. It’s probably for the same reason that I’ve never been able to finish watching I, Claudius despite loving the books; the filmed performances seem far too arch and “actorly”, but when I read the books these people feel _human_ to me.
    Anyway, all of that wasn’t meant to diss the films, but merely to say: the books are great! You’ll love ’em!

    * She was awarded the Order of the British Empire; does that make her “Dame Pargeter”? I’m trying to find out before the edit window closes…
    Edit: No.

  3. Like Marc, I began reading a good number of the books about 15 years before the TV series came out. (I also liked the two[?] I, Claudius books back in the late 1970s; I was made aware of the books because of the film performances being popular, but I’m not sure if I ever watched them.) I had built up an image of Brother Cadfael in my head–tall, husky warrior–and, at first, couldn’t wrap my head around slight, little Derek Jacobi. However, Jacobi was wonderful in the series and now I can’t imagine Cadfael looking like anyone else but Jacobi. (And having seen those small suits of armor in museums, Jacobi fits the warrior part admirably.)

    Your description of Cadfael doesn’t do justice to him or to the people around him. He was a devout Catholic, a thoughtful Catholic, and an enlightened Catholic as you say. Still, he too believed the “ridiculous nonsense” that others did. He knew the relics weren’t St. Winifred’s bones, but he still believed in and prayed to her. He’d lived (and fought) everywhere from the British Isles to the Middle East, so he had a wide knowledge of people that made him more tolerant of human foibles. His monastic colleagues (and non-monastic acquaintances) ran the gamut, like they would today, from pedantic and/or unthinking to thoughtful and compassionate to positively godly.

    Regarding forensic science, keen observation and Cadfael’ own and others’ knowledge helped solve cases. As a former warrior, he had an extensive knowledge of wounds and causes of violent death. As an herbalist, he had an extensive knowledge of poisoning deaths and an intimate knowledge of herbs, where they’re found, what type of conditions they grown in, etc. (So, a hypothetical example might be that the presence in a dead man’s shoe of a certain type of leaf might point to where the man was killed.) So too with the old riverman’s intimate knowledge of the river, all its nooks and crannies, and its currents. Knowing where a body (or something else) was dumped into the river, the riverman (I can’t remember his name) could make a very informed guess as to where it would end up downriver.

    For those interested in reading the books, they are stand-alone books that can be read in any order. A few years ago, I did read the complete set in chronological story order (not published order):

    A Rare Benedictine
    A Morbid Taste for Bones
    One Corpse Too Many
    Monk’s Hood
    Saint Peter’s Fair
    The Leper of Saint Giles
    The Virgin in the Ice
    The Sanctuary Sparrow
    The Devil’s Novice
    Dead Man’s Ransom
    The Pilgrim of Hate
    An Excellent Mystery
    The Raven in the Foregate
    The Rose Rent
    The Hermit of Eyton Forest
    The Confession of Brother Haluin
    The Heretic’s Apprentice
    The Potter’s Field
    The Summer of the Danes
    The Holy Thief
    Brother Cadfael’s Penance

    • Wait a second: isn’t that exactly what I said? That he didn’t see why the saint’s bones being in Wales would stop them from healing people or what not? He’s an anachronism, but not that much of one. And I think in all times, there are rational people who look on in horror at what others are doing. But what I was most thinking of was Hugh Beringar’s belief in trial by water or whatever that is.

      I didn’t realize that Brother Cadfael’s Penance had been released as a book. Was it finished?

      • (Annoying comment system! Yesterday, when I was in the middle of re-editing my previous comment, the editing countdown continued while I was editing and expired while I was struggling to unsuccessfully finish the last-minute changes. And today, I tried posting this comment without first saving it in a text editor as I usually do–it only had a single link to the Wikipedia entry for the book, so what could go wrong?–and the comment was flagged as spam and the contents discarded. Grrr! So here’s a slightly abbreviated version of my original comment.)

        Yes, that is exactly what you said! Sorry–I didn’t read the paragraph closely enough! :(

        Brother Cadfael’s Penance was published in 1994 and Ellis Peters passed away in 1995. Readers on Amazon give it high marks. I vaguely remember the plot, but I’m sure the book was good. (Reading the complete set at once gave me an enjoyable Brother Cadfael overload, but also resulted in the stories all merging together in a hazy sort of way in my head.)

    • Not really any more bizarre than most things in religion. In fact, I think the “personal Jesus” is more bizarre. But I do think it shows that people tend toward polytheism, regardless of what their religion’s official position is.

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