Why you should care
Because sometimes the quest for a piece of the divine goes a bit too far.
Henry V — yes, that Henry V, the king of England who conquered much of France and inspired some of Shakespeare’s finest battle speeches — heard a rumor in 1421 about an object of great power in one of the French villages now in his dominion. Henry’s new wife, Catherine of Valois, a daughter of the defeated French king, was pregnant with their first child when Henry learned of the holy prepuce of Coulombs.
A prepuce is a foreskin, and “holy,” of course, signifies one of divine origin, which meant that the holy prepuce of Coulombs was none other than the foreskin of one Jesus of Nazareth, whose body was elevated from earth to heaven, according to Scripture. Most of his body, that is — apart from those snipped folds of baby penis skin he left behind, which became known for easing the suffering of women in childbirth. Well, at least for those women with access to the centuries-old miracle flesh. And so, six years after Henry’s triumph at the Battle of Agincourt, he sent his cavalry back to France to retrieve the sacred relic (once more unto the breach, apparently for the sake of a baby in breech).
And it worked. The sweet scent of the holy foreskin reportedly helped Catherine give birth to a healthy Henry VI, who became the youngest king of England ever just nine months later, when his father died from dysentery. It’s a remarkable story, and not just because it involves a 15th-century royal who had an interest in the birthing process beyond whether its end result itself had a foreskin. No, the story of Henry and the holy prepuce is just the tip (sorry) of an even more remarkable tale of superstition and skepticism, of anatomy and divinity, of commercialism and communion, of reverent awe and reliquary disgust. In short, the journey of the holy foreskin over the centuries is the story of being human in a changing world.
1. Jesus Christ Circumcised
According to Christian theology, when God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, he subjected himself to the same infirmities — hunger, thirst, grief and pain — that all men experience. And those pains likely began in earnest with the removal of his foreskin as an infant. In a way, he was kind of asking for it. Here was the very same Lord who had cured the fertility problems of the nonagenarian Jewish couple Abraham and Sarah through the medically unorthodox suggestion that the aspiring father circumcise his own penis with a piece of flint.
Abraham’s long line of male descendants in turn re-enacted their patriarch’s self-mutilation as a sign of their ongoing gratitude to the all-mighty fertility specialist. By the time Jesus was born, circumcision was commonplace among newborn Jewish males, and commonly mocked by non-Jews. The first-century Roman satirist Juvenal poked fun at what he considered to be an amusing paradox: the Jews’ willingness to mutilate their children’s genitalia while refusing to mutilate the flesh of pigs.
It was only a matter of time before that foreskin started to pop up all over Europe.
Being Jewish, Jesus was almost certainly circumcised, likely “on the eighth day” of his life as the Gospel of Luke (2:21) attests. There is also no shortage of paintings depicting the surgical procedure. Personal favorite: the rendering by the Italian Renaissance painter Pellegrino da San Daniele, one of the few where the baby Jesus remains distinctly (and one supposes accurately) unenthusiastic about the whole affair.
Among early Christians, says Andrew Jacobs, author of Christ Circumcised, circumcision was a “hot topic,” with many Jewish followers of Jesus insisting that gentile followers should undergo circumcision. Of course, male circumcision is a hard sell in parts of the world unaccustomed to applying sharp objects to the penises of infants, let alone to those of grown men wishing to change their religious affiliation. But the apostle Paul was not your average salesman, and in his letter to the Galatians, he rewrites the covenant of circumcision, pointing out that “in Jesus Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” One can imagine the relief of male Galatians upon hearing those good tidings.
Paul’s new take, under which Christ’s circumcision alone fulfills the Lord’s covenant, however, placed a premium on the resulting holy foreskin. And so it was only a matter of time before that foreskin started to pop up all over Europe.
2. Of Rock Stars and Hucksters
Early Christians got serious about venerating the material remains of early saints during the fourth century. By the time the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 and required that every Christian house of worship have a holy relic at its altar, church leaders were really only sanctioning a trend already underway.
There were several possibilities when it came to a good relic, and a hierarchy developed to classify them. First-class relics were the saints’ physical remains, from skulls and bones to vials of blood. Second-class ones were the saints’ possessions. A third-class relic was one that had touched the saint’s body, including some of the grisly torture devices that had been used to deliver their martyrdom. As David Farley puts it in his book An Irreverent Curiosity, relics were “products of another age, a time when saints were posthumous medieval rock stars, pilgrims their devout groupies and monks their roadies.”
At least 29 churches claimed to have one of the nails used to crucify Jesus.
The relic trade really took off during the Crusades when plundering Europeans returned from the Holy Land and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 with relics by the cartload, including the head of John the Baptist and the table from the Last Supper — or so it was said. For a church in the Middle Ages, possessing a relic, especially a Vatican-approved one, was a spiritual and commercial boon. Pilgrims journeyed long distances and paid to see and touch and kiss the material remnants of even B-list saints. Such relic tourism contributed to local economies for centuries, and a cottage industry in relics, trafficking largely in forgeries, grew up to meet the demand. And there was no bigger draw than the relics reputedly associated with the Son of God himself.
There were holy baby spoons and holy cloaks that covered the baby Jesus. At least 29 churches claimed to possess one of the nails used to crucify Jesus, and there were enough pieces of the “true cross” floating around medieval reliquaries to build an ark. Still, Christ’s ascension, a key doctrine of the faith, meant that the ultimate first-class relic — the body or blood of Jesus — was nearly as inconceivable as it was irresistible. As Jacobs, a professor of religious studies at Scripps College, puts it, the “absence of Christ’s bodily remains was both proof of his uniqueness but also became an itch Christians desired to scratch.”
From as early as the sixth century, relic sellers found a way to resurrect the divinely discarded detritus, from Jesus’ sweat and hair to his fingernails, even urine and feces (holy shit!). “In terms of relics, there are some legit body parts that came from people who were later canonized as saints,” Farley says of the trade, “but the relics of the Holy Family, it’s safe to say, are all fake, created in the Middle Ages by industrious relics salesmen.”
And as the flesh and blood of Christ’s otherwise departed body, the holy foreskin was the ultimate relic. “They couldn’t let Christ’s body go without keeping a piece,” the Protestant reformer John Calvin later quipped. And a piece of the action, it should be added.
3. The Quest for the One True Foreskin
Part of becoming a successful relic — besides having a mildly credible physiology — is having a great backstory. And, as the only real piece of Jesus Christ remaining on the material plane, the holy foreskin required a provenance story befitting its importance. And for that, the tradition of the most pious penis turned to Charlemagne, the legendary eighth-century French king who it was claimed had acquired the most sacred of all relics while crusading through the Holy Land (something he almost certainly never did).
Then, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in Rome, a truly monumental occasion. To show his gratitude, the new emperor reportedly gave the Church the one item on its wish list that could be acquired from no one else. It wasn’t long before as many as 18 holy foreskins were popping up in churches all over Europe, from Belgium to Spain to Coloumbs, each tracing its esteemed lineage to Charlemagne. The medieval saint Catherine of Siena claimed she was the spiritual bride of Christ and wore the holy foreskin on her ring finger to prove it.
It was around this time that the saga of Christ’s severed manhood took something of a Da Vinci Code turn. Around the 11th century, the version known as the Rome foreskin was deposited by the church in Rome’s Sancta Sanctorum. There it apparently resided until 1527 when German and Spanish invaders plundered the city. Among the sacred items that went missing was a small silver reliquary containing an item the color and size of a red chickpea. Eventually, the German warrior who made off with the relic, so the story goes, wound up in the hills outside Rome, tired and on the run. In nearby Calcata, he was imprisoned, yielding his holy bounty to the sleepy village.
A series of miracles subsequently emanated from the sacred chickpea, the Vatican officially endorsed the relic and pilgrims came from miles around with their hopes and disposable income. The pilgrimages continued for centuries, until, as the 20th century dawned, rival foreskins began to re-emerge. At this point, the church began to wonder whether encouraging the faithful to worship a slice of the savior’s penis had become unseemly. The Vatican eventually declared that the holy prepuce had become “an irreverent curiosity” and those who spoke or wrote about it faced excommunication.
The villagers of Calcata still continued to hold their annual New Year’s Day procession with the relic as the star attraction. The rest of the year, it was kept in a shoebox at the back of the closet of the local priest, Don Dario. Then, in 1983, it mysteriously disappeared. Many locals accused the Vatican of taking it. Others blamed thieves or satanists. Perhaps the holy foreskin had at last ascended to heaven to join the rest of its owner’s body. Whatever the case, its absence prompted fewer questions than its presence ever had.
4. Making Sense of Christ’s “Carnal Bridal Ring”
In James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses, there is a scene in which the protagonist Stephen Dedalus is urinating with Leopold Bloom in a garden, an occasion that gives Dedalus pause to meditate on his friend’s “invisible audible collateral organ,” including whether Bloom is circumcised. Dedalus moves on to ponder “the problem of sacerdotal integrity of Jesus circumcised” and whether “the carnal bridal ring of the holy Roman catholic apostolic church” deserves to be classified above such other “divine excrescences as hair and toenails.”
Joyce may have been having a bit of ecclesiastical fun, but Dedalus’ thread of thought highlights a real problem among theologians: Christ’s metaphorical flesh and blood, and his whole, intact ascension into heaven are essential to Christian belief. So how do you explain a piece of the godhead’s flesh turning up in reliquaries across Europe? According to Andrew Jacobs, the nature and disposition of Jesus’ body after his death were intensely debated among early Christians, who naturally wondered: “How could God exist in a body that could decay and die?”
Many medieval theologians argued that all holy foreskins were frauds because no piece of Christ’s divine body could have remained on earth. The 17th-century theologian Leo Allatius took his thesis to an absurd extreme, arguing that Christ’s holy bridal ring had in fact ascended to become the rings of Saturn. One of the motives for downplaying the existence of a discarded foreskin may have been anti-Semitism in the later church. The holy foreskin “reminds people that Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish, and that his parents were Jewish,” says Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a professor of ancient religion at the University of Exeter. “He wasn’t a ‘Christian’ at all.”
Other church scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas, disagreed. They saw no problem with the existence of a divine foreskin; for them, Christ’s circumcision represented the first time that he had shed his blood on earth, his first sacrifice. In other words, the redemption of humanity began with the bris of Jesus.
Not everyone in medieval Europe was buying, or buying into, relics and holy foreskins. “The Pardoner’s Tale,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, features a clergyman who pawns off sheep bones as holy relics. In his Treatise on Relics, John Calvin lays into the “the quantity of precious rubbish” occupying church altars across the Continent. He jokes of the dozens of vials of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk in existence that “had Mary been a cow all her life, she could not have produced such a quantity.”
Doubts about the authenticity of holy relics obviously persist into the current scientific era. But perhaps it doesn’t really matter if they are real or not, even to the most devout participants. Near the end of his book and his inquiry into the missing holy foreskin, David Farley confronts Don Dario, the priest at Calcata under whose watch the relic vanished. “I never believed in the relic,” Dario responds. “I only pretended to. The same goes for my predecessors.”
5. The Anatomy of Belief
At the heart of the history of the holy foreskin and similar relics, there appears to be an inescapable irony: an ancient religious tradition focused on the spiritual nature of humanity whose membership trafficks in false claims about material objects, including body parts, often for financial gain.
Still, from our modern perspective, it is easy to forget the many purposes that relics served in the ancient world. They provided worshippers with a means for easing pain and sorrow, for restoring health, for making wishes, for coming to terms with death and the dead. “We snicker at the idea of people praying to a foreskin, [but] … religion isn’t based on empirical truth; it’s based on faith,” says Farley. “People believed it at the time, and they treated it as a piece of the divine.”
And whatever one’s spiritual aspirations, each of us is bound up with the physical world. “There’s a sense that being able to encounter these physical remnants — seeing them, smelling them, touching them, kissing them — brings us closer to the divine than words in a holy book or prayers in a sacred place ever can,” says Stavrakopoulou. “People need more than empty symbols — they need material realities.”
Moreover, early Christians did not see such a clear demarcation between the physical and spiritual worlds. “The idea that Christianity is only focused on intangible, nonmaterial concepts like faith and spirit is a very modern, Protestant idea,” says Jacobs.
The long-standing popularity of relics can also be understood in terms of today’s two big cultural obsessions — professional sports and celebrities — where fans often seek out a connection with their favorite teams or stars (including their discarded jerseys and other possessions). The relic system, says Farley, also “acted as an instrument of tribalism” since saints and their relics were often associated with particular places in the same way that sports teams are today.
But perhaps the saga of the holy foreskin reminds us of nothing so fundamental as this: Whether God or man, or both, Jesus had a penis. Through the centuries, the savior and the saints were often cast as sexless figures within an often sexist institution. “But Jesus wasn’t an ancient Ken Doll, with nothing in his pants,” says Stavrakopoulou. “Whoever he was, the historical Jesus of Nazareth very likely had a penis. And maybe his penis did more than expel urine. And that’s OK.”