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Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures
Mary Ruefle

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's OddestTown

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's OddestTown - David Farley I think someone said it on the back of the book in a blurb, but it really is true: if you're going to only read one single book about the foreskin of Jesus Christ, then you really want to read this one.


You read that right.

Join me, will you, in this particularly weird history of the Catholic Church as we discover the silliness that is the world of relics. For the uninitiated, relics were bits from the lives of various saints and others deemed holy by Rome. These bits had a hierarchy and differing statuses. For instance, there were bits of saints bodies -- St. Valentine's head, for instance -- and these were primo relics. Then there were, just a little bit lower on the totem pole, bits touched by the saints, such as the ax that beheaded St. Valentine. Finally, at the lowest level were relics that were relics by their proximity to actual relics, such as the bag that held the ax that beheaded St. Valentine.

Of course, though, there were hierarchies within those hierarchies, bigger named saints having better relics. St. Paul being better than St. Valentine; Mary Magdalene better than St. Paul; Mary, mother of Jesus, better than Mary Magdalene; and, of course, the big magilla, Jesus. Anything that could be claimed to be something connected with the life of a saint, the bigger the saint the better, was venerated and placed in an honored spot in churches throughout Europe.

Of course, with the relics market being a hot property through the Middle Ages -- and during and post-Crusades -- it wasn't long before tons of folks were jumping on the bandwagon. Relics like splinters of the "True Cross" on which Jesus was crucified were quite the thing, so revered and accepted without reservation that John Calvin once quipped that if all the pieces of the so-called "True Cross" were collected in one place, they would form a whole ship's cargo.

These big ticket items were obvious draws, as were pieces of the table from the Last Supper, the spear that pierced Jesus' side, and so on. But, with the bodily ascension of Jesus, as the story goes, there was no tomb and no chance of nailing a sweet chunk of his body to tout around as a sign of how special you were. Nothing like some random skull could be toted around and claimed as Jesus' head. To be sure, there were relics of Jesus' hair and fingernails, but those were pale substitutes. Besides, even though one could logically extrapolate divine haircuts and nail clippings, there was nothing specifically Biblical to back that up.

Well, cue up your Luke 2:21, because we have straight from the horse's mouth confirmation that Jesus was circumcised which means --yes! -- Holy Foreskin left behind. We can never be sure exactly who figured out this crackerjack scheme, but times being what they were, it went over big. All that was needed was the story of Charlemagne being vouchsafed this particular bit of flesh from an angel and him handing it over to Pope Leo III (though there is a competing story that Charlemagne actually received it as a wedding present from the Byzantine Empress Irene).

Pope Leo III did what anyone else would do when handed what was reputedly an 800 year old piece of baby cock: he put it in the Vatican's most inner sanctum. And there it reputedly remained for seven hundred more years until Rome was sacked by the Germans in 1527. Apparently a soldier found the prepuce, which was little more than a couple chickpeas in size, thought it worth keeping, and took it with him. He was later apprehended in the nearby town of Calcata, where he was locked in a cave jail cell. He hid the foreskin there, was released, and thirty years later, miracle of miracles, the foreskin was discovered and became a centerpiece of the small town's church.

Celebrated by official church dogma, pilgrims who made the journey to the town to view the Holy Foreskin were granted ten years off their stay in Purgatory. And there the foreskin stayed for the next few hundred years.

This bit of dainty old flesh was deified practically, though it wasn't without competition. In the 12th century, an abbey in Charoux, France, decided to horn in on the action, claiming they had the real Holy Foreskin. They claimed to also have received it from Charlemagne, though they apparently lost it for an odd century or two. Theirs disappeared again, after Pope Innocent III declined to rule on its authenticity, only to be "rediscovered" in 1856. Ultimately, there were something like seventeen other competing foreskin claims. Yes, once one town had themselves a claim to some mystical Jesus dick, other towns wanted in on the action.

With a little prepucial sword fighting going on following the Charoux "rediscovery," Rome had to step in, and it did so, deciding in 1900 that anyone who even mentioned the Holy Foreskin would be excommunicated. They modified their approach in 1954, by deciding that plain old excommunication was too soft a decree and pronounced mentioning it would be punished with a harsher degree of excommunication that included shunning by all Catholics. This for even mentioning a relic they'd spent the last several hundred years talking up as grand and great.

The small town of Calcata was allowed to keep their relic. They were even allowed to conduct an annual parade through the town featuring the relic, but only once a year and never discussed any of the remaining 364 calendar days. The going consensus was that relic veneration had pretty much died out, Calcata was a fairly small town, what was the harm in leaving it as it was after setting up their penalties?

Then, in 1983, the priest of Calcata made a shocking announcement to his parishioners. The foreskin had apparently been stolen. It was gone once again, this tiny little bit of flesh supposedly from the end of Jesus' penis, which the priest, Dario Magnoni, had kept, of all places, in a shoebox in the closet of his home

Well, as you can see, this is quite a story. And this history is entertainingly told by travel writer, David Farley in his very amusing, highly enlightening An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town. The title takes its first three words from a papal condemnation of the relic and interest in it. It's hard not to see the church's point. What else could provoke a twenty-first century person to want to learn about what was clearly a faked bit of church lore, especially one so preposterous as this one?

To learn more about it, to study the Vatican records and try to piece together the lore and the current whereabouts of the relic, Farley moved his wife and his dog and himself to Calcata, Italy, where he lived for several months, digging into the history as well as plenty of Italian food. The book, when not discussing ancient bits of revered dong, comes off as a kind of slightly whacked love letter to the strange town of Calcata, a refuge for outcasts from the country itself, but also from other places.

Farley describes the village as commonly referred to as a "paese di fricchettoni" which is to say village of freaks. With two actual Calcatas on the map, the old medieval town and the newer Calcata Nuova, the history doesn't make it difficult for a reader to understand those who call the residents freaks. New Agers, old hippies from across the continent, and wanderers from all around flocked to the old town. This sets Calcata apart, as something like 70% of Italians live within 1 mile of their childhood homes.

The older part of town had once been condemned by the Italian government after earthquakes earlier in the century destroyed a village elsewhere in Italy. All the old residents moved to the new government built Calcata Nuova, selling off their homes in the sixties to a bunch of hippies and artist types. In a place filled with Belgians, Americans, Italians from all over, Dutch, Spaniards, etc., Farley can only find freaks to befriend, including an old actor who appeared in Italian soft-core porn and who gives the author a book of nude photography of himself, sometimes in a state of arousal; fascists still dedicated to Il Duce; an old Contessa with bad gas who has been writing a history of the Holy Foreskin for ten years; and other assorted quirky characters.

The book generally trades back and forth being about the historical accounts of the foreskin and Farley's day to day life trying to research it and get answers while living in Calcata, traveling to Rome and Turin, and finding himself stymied at nearly every turn. He acts as a beard for the local foreskin expert, Patrizia, who claims the Vatican is blocking her research, asking for reference works they've denied her, while being fed the basic lore by her in return for his services. The lore itself proves almost as bizarrely entertaining as Farley's misadventures in Italy, a kind of slapstick antidote to the tendentious sturm und drang of Dan Brown.

For example, what will seem beyond absurd into a kind of grotesquerie was how much debate centered around this particular relic. Theologians through the ages spent much candlepower and brain juice formulating statements such as this head scratcher from Saint Anastasius Sinaita in the seventh century: "And as Christ's immaculate blood, mixed with water, trickled on and purified the earth during the Passion, the cut and lost foreskin bestowed holiness on the same earth. In any case He, who let it be cut off freely, saved the foreskin, so that He could assume it again at his resurrection, and He, uncorrupted and whole, could possess every sin of every body. Because our bodies will be complete at the resurrection, and stand by his side."

So, did you get all that? Jesus, at the age of eight days, saved his own foreskin, which he kept with him all his life, so he could have it after his body ascended into heaven and was resurrected millennia later. Let us further note that the author of this particular piece of nonsense ran an abbey

Further, in the sixteenth century, at least one Spanish theologian, Francesco de Suarez argued that Jesus' body could easily, after his resurrection, have regrown his foreskin. Unfortunately, neither Farley or de Suarez fail to go into any detail as to how specifically this is supposed to have taken place. One imagines that Jesus could have likewise as easily have healed the holes in his hands and side, rendering the story of Thomas and his doubt a moot one, but, alas, the record does not touch on this bit of supernatural healing.

So, ideas and hypotheses about Jesus' foreskin percolated throughout the centuries, and were hashed over at later points including by the seventeenth century Greek theologian Leo Allatius. This learned scholar's fantastical contribution to the argument about this Holy Foreskin was not only did it ascend into heaven with Jesus, but that it also traveled through space to become the rings of Saturn. Keeping that in mind, how much will it surprise you when I tell you that Allatius also wrote the first medical treatise on vampires?

Farley is, of course, by no means exhaustive in his accounts. We are spared the dull parts of the history and given just what the papacy feared, irreverence. And, honestly, what should a sensible person's reaction be when learning that certain bishops argue for the foreskin's authenticity by citing the message delivered by Saint Catherine in the fourteenth century that the Popes should move back to Rome from Avignon, France, and that Jesus himself put his foreskin on her finger as a wedding band? Or how can you react with anything but irreverence when you read the story of Saint Agnes of Vienna who claimed that every time she took communion, the wafer was transformed in her mouth into the "sweet" meat of Jesus' foreskin?

Let me remind you. I'm not making any of this up.

Farley's book is too good for you not to read. Irreverent? Absolutely. Entertaining? Just as much so. Fascinating? Your mileage may very, but such hidden nooks and crannies of the past can't help but draw me in. Farley paces everything wonderfully and delivers a gently funny travelogue and history that is both laugh out loud hysterical and stranger than just about any book of fiction you could find.