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Religious mysteries (and a hint of surrealism) in Belgium: the relics of the Blessed Idesbald

Engraving of the Blessed Idesbald

Good Blessed Idesbald, patron saint of fishermen, sailors and the Flemish coast

Consternation in the newspapers and a mayor speaking on national radio about the relics of a long dead saint: no, this is not the plot of a new Dan Brown mystery novel. This is something actually happening in Belgium right now.

So, what is this about? In the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Potterie church in Bruges the lead coffin of the locally venerated Blessed Idesbald was opened and scientifically examined. It was more or less expected to find the relics of this 12th century abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Duinen in Koksijde inside it. The thing is, research has now shown that these remains actually belong to somebody who died roughly between 1470 and 1623. Conclusion? These are not the relics of the Blessed Idesbald!

The scandal! The mockery as well, as a gloating mayor of Koksijde proudly announced on the radio that in Bruges, they had been worshipping the ‘wrong’ relics for centuries. Did I spot some old rivalry between the cities of Koksijde and Bruges? Could it be that it had long been a frustration of the good people of Koksijde that ‘their’ saint (actually Idesbald was only beatified, not canonized) was buried amid these arrogant folks from Bruges?

We can only guess at what sentiment inspired the mayor. Since relics, or at least the 17th century veneration of relics is within my research area (yes, I have a profound interest in dead people, as all historians do), I feel the need to explain a few things.

Firstly, it does not matter one bit that these relics are not ‘authentic’. On the website of Ter Duinen (unfortunately the full text is only given in Dutch, whereas information on the colloquium about this discovery amongst others is also given in English) it is stated that the discovery “raises questions about the centuries’ long devotion for these relics in Bruges”. It does not.

According to the catholic church, what Catholics worship when they pray to these relics, are not the relics in themselves. Even more, they shouldn’t even be ‘worshipping’ a saint anyway… A saint, or in this case, a ‘blessed’, is not god. The only ‘being’ a Catholic is allowed to worship is god. Hence, a saint is nothing more than a ‘conduit’. You actually expect or ask something from god and you invoke the ‘help’ of a saint to get it. Why would you do that? A saint is somebody that has received god’s special grace, a person that was recognised and touched by god, usually because that person lived a ‘saintly’ life, or was martyred, and often because miracles happened around his or her grave, relics, or alternatively, statue (remember what I said about statues in my previous post?). Because of this, these saints have a, let’s say, personal and privileged relation to god. This relation enables them to plead with god for the saviour of whomever is invoking their help.

Complicated isn’t it?

This means that it doesn’t matter what you pray to, as long as you invoke the saints’ help to reach god, who will ultimately decide if you get what you want or not. If you like to pray in front of a truly hideous neon coloured plastic statue of the Virgin, then that’s fine too. By the way, I have no special interest in Bruges, nor Koksijde, nor good old Idesbald. I only get annoyed at stupidities (this happens regularly by the way). In any case, purely religiously speaking, these nice people from Bruges can go ahead and worship ‘their’ – now completely mysterious – relics for another couple of centuries. God doesn’t care.

Now, historically speaking, what happened? Again, on the website of Ter Duinen, they are amazed at the discovery, since historical documents were adamant about the identification of these relics. How could they have been wrong? Call Dan Brown! There must be a catholic plot in here somewhere! The historical documents they are talking about are probably the 17th century reports about the first discovery of Idesbald’s relics in 1623 and the interest the Infanta Isabella took in them. Moreover, it seems that poor Idesbald was reinterred in Bruges in 1894, so I suppose there are a lot of reports documenting this event. Now, I cannot speak for the 19th century, but I can speak for the 17th.

You see, I work on archival documents a 17th century duchess left behind, and what do you know, she loved to collect relics! So I have several of these documents, usually from high ranking church officials (think bishops, even the pope himself in some cases) who all state that the particular relics the pious old duchess just bought for an insane amount of money are without doubt of a said saint, martyr, whatever. She was especially fond of her relics of the 11.000 Virgins, who never even existed. Just to say, it might not be the best idea to trust these documents? In defence of these (sometimes ridiculously pious, excuse my French) 17th century bishops: how would they know if these relics were authentic or not???

They usually did try very hard to find out the truth, but without modern technology, who was to say how old a body or a sack of bones actually were? To make matters worse, under church floors coffins were often stacked one atop of the other. After a few centuries, these coffins had all shifted, some coffins had long been decayed, making an identification almost impossible. If they had to rely on reports of even older periods identifying the exact burial place of an abbot dead for 400 years, all they could do at best, was guess, and hope, and rely on their faith. Now, I don’t know the circumstances of this case in detail, only what newspapers (not really known for their accuracy maybe?) have reported and what it says on the website of the Abbey of Ter Duinen. But I cannot believe that any historian would accept these “historical documents” at face value.

And then there were politics involved. 17th century politics were all about religion. These are the Low Countries, there is a war going on, in essence a war between Catholics and Protestants. The Infanta (or Archduchess) Isabella is ruling the Southern Netherlands (more or less nowadays Belgium only a lot bigger). She is the Infanta, meaning a princess of Spain, and an Archduchess of Austria, a Habsburg, a zealous Catholic, battling to recatholocize her territories, which are now caught up in one of the most devastating wars Europe has ever known: the Thirty Years’ War (and she is also one of my favourite people in history but that’s a detail). I cannot even begin to list all the relics they ‘found’ (Isabella herself had the largest collection of relics in the Low Countries), the bodies of martyrs they tried to ‘save’ from these heretics overrunning old Catholic territories. And along comes abbot Idesbald, and miraculous healings start to happen…

It took the church another 200 years to get Idesbald beatified, and then they never followed up on that to get him canonized. In essence, this is a locally venerated person, of which relics were supposedly found in the 17th century. Miracles started to happen only after the discovery of these 17th century relics. If these are the same relics that were later transported to Bruges to be reinterred in the church Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Potterie, and if miracles only happened around these relics, than it seems the people of Bruges have the right relics after all 😉 So, dear mayor of Koksijde, chill a little…

In any case, my little intervention is of course not directed at the scientists studying this corpse and the multitude of graves found in Koksijde some years ago. The scientific importance of this find cannot be underestimated. Investigations like this and the one that was reported in the newspapers a few days ago, are hugely important. Without thorough research like this, with the investment in time and money that this calls for, our understanding of our own past will remain fragmentary at best. So yeah for the scientists! And yeah for the investors!

And a big hooray for history of course 😉


  1. yes! what the world needs is a deeper understanding of intercession, of course 😉

    • Exactly. At least then one would realise it’s not really St-Anthony who provides these parking spots we all so desperately look for on our shopping trips 😉

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