Of Girdles and Splinters

For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you’re aware that I am preparing a presentation for a conference on my fortieth birthday – yissss! For those of you smart enough to not follow me, now you know. The presentation is, generally speaking, about medieval English women’s use of relics.


It all started with a strange reference in a book I was reading. I was 12 years old and had just discovered the world of late medieval/early modern England. Captivated by a culture that was so completely alien to my own, I started checking out everything I could at the library. But this book I was reading was different, almost serendipitous. I’d found a biography of Catherine of Aragon in a second-hand seaside shop while my family was on holiday. What were the chances? I snatched it up and it immediately became my holiday beach read, of course.

Most of us by now know about Catherine’s troubles, thanks to HBO, Netflix, and other outlets that have jumped on the Tudor bandwagon in the last decade or so. We all know that she was a woman who had a hard time doing her duty – providing an heir for England. Lots of speculative fiction has been written about most of Henry VIII’s wives on this score, including fictionalized scenes of desperation and, in some cases fraud in the attempt to save their lives by providing, by one means or another, a living boy.  Of course, such fraud was beneath the legendarily pious Catherine who, I read in this book, instead sent for the girdle of the Virgin Mary so that she could wear it while she was in labor and ensure a good birth.


What I didn’t know when I was a twelve year old budding scholar of shit no one else cares about was that there was an entire childbirth culture peculiar to medieval and early modern Christian women that involved the use of saints’ relics. Using such relics during childbirth was meant to ensure a good birth and a healthy child. Some of the relics used were girdles thought to have belonged to the Virgin Mary, splinters of the true cross, shirts having belonged to saints, and other items such as rings, staffs, etc.

Now, when I say “girdle”, don’t think of a 1950s Playtex kind of girdle but rather an ordinary sash or belt. But still. What?

Here’s the story. Or rather, one of the stories about the girdle. It is said that at the time that the Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven – the assumption of Mary – Thomas, the doubting disciple, was far away, busy converting Africans. He got word that Mary was dying and was on his way home when suddenly she appeared in the sky and dropped her girdle down to him, presumably so that this constantly doubting asshat would have tangible proof that she had indeed ascended bodily into heaven. This is also why the girdle is sometimes called the Girdle of Thomas (and also because women can’t have anything without men taking credit for it).

I started to get really curious about this girdle and began looking around to see what it was, how it was used, who used it, where it came from, where it was housed, how one even ASKED for it, whether money was exchanged, and whether men used relics in the same practical way as women seemed to have done. If you’re wondering why it has taken me exactly 25 years to figure this out, it’s because I now have a reason to really buckle down and do the research for a conference presentation at my university. But also because the usual source of information in our times, the internet, doesn’t seem to understand how medieval relics worked. If you do any kind of search for the girdle or most any other kind of relic, most sources that aren’t scholarly are going to assume that there is only one of each relic (or two if you have competing sects that each own one). So, let me break this down for you…There is not one girdle. Not because Mary owned several or because Thomas needed so much proof that she just upended her lingerie drawer onto his head but because of a phenomenon known as tertiary relics. Tertiary relics are ordinary objects that are made holy because they’ve come into contact with the original holy object. In the case of the girdle, people would often take their belts with them to the church where it was kept (in this case, the cathedral in Prato, Italy) and touch them to the original and viola! A relic is born! When Thomas Cromwell and his pals went around England on their visitations to monasteries and convents, they made note of any religious objects or relics. During this time they found that there were at least half a dozen girdles, most of them available for loan to women in labor.

So, that’s the short story about the girdle(s) and how they came about. Now my research for my February presentation is focused on a couple of key areas, namely, what were other relics used during childbirth, how did one go about asking for the loan of a relic, and, finally, did men use relics in a practical way just as women did? To answer these questions, I will need to look at several sources that I’m not even sure I can get my hands on. For instance, to find out about how exactly a loan was made, I’d want to look into things like monastery records, something I can’t really do online and will have to wait until my next UK trip this summer. Wills are another good source of information about privately held relics. For instance, Sir William Clopton left a sliver of the true cross for his son on the condition that he make it available to “honest” women in childbirth (Source: Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England by Mary Fissell). This at least answers the question about what other relics may have been used in childbirth (the how is still mysterious. One wears the actual girdle but I seriously doubt one inserts the splinter. Jokes aside, it was likely clutched). To answer my question about men’s use of relics I might turn again to monastery records or even simply secondary sources about relics. In this case, the assumption that men are the norm is helpful here.

Anyhow, that’s where I am with the presentation at the moment. I have miles to go before I sleep.