Relic Tales:

A Descriptive Catalogue of Medieval Narratives Recounting
the Circulation of Christian Passion Relics in Mixed Muslim-Christian Contexts

Content Authors/Creators: Siobhain Bly Calkin, Hisham Al-Khatib, Danielle Taylor

Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty, Copper: engraved, chiseled, stippled, and gilt; champlevé enamel: dark, medium, and light blue; turquoise, dark and light green, yellow, red, and white; wood core, painted red on exterior, French

(Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty, ca. 1180-90. French. Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Relic Tales and Its Origins

Relic Tales is an open access database cataloguing some of the medieval texts that depict cross-cultural contact between Muslims and Christians in which Christian Passion relics play an important role. Passion relics are devotional objects made holy for medieval Christians by their contact with Christ during his crucifixion and death, and include the wood of the Cross, the nails, the crown of thorns, and the spear or lance with which the Roman soldier Longinus pierced Christ’s side (see, for example, accounts of the Crucifixion in the Christian Bible gospels, specifically Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, and John 18-20). The medieval narratives presented in Relic Tales depict these devotional objects operating after the Crucifixion in contexts of Muslim-Christian interaction and contact. The narratives provide insight into how devotional objects were understood to function in multicultural contexts during the medieval period.

The texts listed here were all likely composed between 1095-1500CE and were written in Arabic, English, French, and Latin. The narratives recount human-relic encounters involving different religious groups, one of which views the Passion relics as objects worthy of veneration while the other does not. The narratives therefore reveal some of the ways in which communities mobilize religious artifacts in cross-cultural interactions and conflicts, and in depictions of religious others, an issue at stake in many inter-religious encounters today as well as in these tales from centuries ago.

This catalogue of texts emerged out of, and shares with the general public, primary research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) between 2014 and 2022. That research was completed by Dr. Siobhain Bly Calkin of the English Department of Carleton University and two Research Assistants working under her supervision during their Ph.D. studies at Carleton, Dr. Danielle Taylor and Dr. Hisham Al-Khatib. This research underpins Dr. Calkin’s monograph-in-progress, Narratives of Impassioned Things: Christian Tales of Relic Translation and Transformation in Muslim-Christian Contexts. However, it also turned up a number of texts that all three scholars felt could be useful to other scholars and teachers seeking to explore ways in which devotional objects shape and factor into cross-cultural human encounters. As a result, this e-book was created.

Because the narratives catalogued here were first located to assist with Dr. Calkin’s study of medieval Passion relic tales circulating in Europe, particularly France and England, the e-book is exclusively focussed on narratives involving Passion relics (rather than corporeal or saintly relics), and is heavily weighted towards Christian and European perspectives. However, medieval Muslims also wrote about their encounters with Christian Passion relics and their perceptions of Christian devotion to them. Dr. Al-Khatib has included fresh English translations of some of those Arabic texts in this e-book as well as a translation into English of a previously unpublished Arabic poem about Saladin in which his capture of the crusader kingdoms’ Cross relic at the Battle of Hattin in 1187CE is recorded and celebrated (The Letter “R”). It is important to warn readers, however, that these texts reflect both the attitudes of their day and the fact that between 1095 and 1500CE there were many conflicts between Muslim and Christian realms. Neither religion’s depiction of the other is necessarily respectful or well-informed during this period (though some are more respectful and/or better informed than others).

Discovering which medieval texts narrate in substantial detail encounters involving Christians, Muslims, and Christian Passion relics was not as straightforward as one might imagine. Many scholars are aware of crusading narratives that recount military interactions involving Christian Passion relics, such as accounts of the finding of the spear/lance in Antioch during the First Crusade (1096-99CE) in which that relic is carried into battle against Muslims (e.g. Raymond of Aguilers’ Historia Francorum qui ceperunt Iherusalem). Many scholars are also aware of narratives about the relic of the Cross carried into battle at Hattin in 1187 by leaders of the crusader kingdoms and captured by Muslim forces there during their victory (an event recounted in the Itinerarium Peregrinorum and various letters of the period). Such texts are included here, as well as some examples of Muslim accounts of the same events. These narratives generally take the generic form of histories, chronicles, or letters. However, many other types of tales recount Muslim-Christian interactions involving Passion relics, and our research revealed a variety of texts and genres that have not received as much scholarly attention or recognition of their engagement with ideas about devotional objects circulating in multi-cultural contexts. One of the central contributions to scholarship made by Dr. Calkin’s monograph and this catalogue is the juxtaposition of these other narratives alongside more widely studied accounts of crusading events. This juxtaposition creates a textual corpus that better illuminates the cultural variety of ideas about Passion relics and religious difference circulating between 1095 and 1500CE, as well as the broad dissemination of such ideas.

The other types of texts presented here include stories told in sermons in Christian churches and legendaries, and celebrated on specific Christian feast days (e.g. the Exaltation of the Cross). They also include narratives circulated as part of lengthy vernacular texts designed to provide Christian devotional instruction for medieval laypeople and any clerics who might desire such instruction (e.g. Bible anonyme, Cursor Mundi). Passion relics also play starring roles in popular medieval tales of knightly heroism and violence (e.g. Fierabras, Sultan of Babylon, Chanson d’Aspremont, Destruction de Rome, Richard Coer de Lion) and in Arabic poems celebrating the achievements of leaders such as Saladin (The Letter “R”). The relics appear as well in tales of Christian pilgrimage and travel to the Holy Land after that land returned to Muslim control (e.g. Mandeville’s Travels and the pilgrimage narratives of Guylforde, Torkington, Thietmar). Relic Tales directs scholars’ attention to such texts, some of which do not solely depict Christian-Muslim conflict and battle but portray instead (or as well) Muslim instruction of Christian characters and readers (e.g. Cursor Mundi) and critiques of Christianity (e.g. Mandeville’s Travels).


What Relic Tales Offers to Scholars and Teachers

Relic Tales facilitates access to a wide variety of primary medieval narratives so that individuals seeking to historicize and diversify their understanding of charged human encounters around devotional objects can do so, and so that teachers and professors who wish to include such texts in their course materials can locate and access the necessary primary sources.

Each text has been placed in a category based upon its language of composition. Each entry contains some or all of the following information so that scholars can access the text and so that teachers can decide which texts to include in their courses and assess how easily the material might be accessed by their students. Entries present:

  • The text’s full medieval title(s)
  • A plot summary of the text’s relic narrative(s)
  • A list of the Christian Passion relic(s) that appear in the text
  • A list of the key medieval manuscripts of the text and their dates
  • Links to online editions of the text (if available)
  • A list of key print editions of the text
  • A list of English-language translations of the medieval text (if any exist)
  • Links to online open access English translations of the text (if available)

In addition, Relic Tales includes PDFs of some primary materials that are not easily accessed elsewhere. These include:

  • An English translation of the Arabic poem The Letter “R”
  • Updated English translations of the relic narrative portions of some Arabic chronicles and poems
  • An edition of A grete miracle of a knyghte good callyd Syr Roger Wallysborow,” an English prose narrative found in London, British Library, MS Harley 2252.

Some specific examples of how this e-book might be useful for instructors include:

1) Instructors of courses on medieval religion can find here examples of texts indicating Christian relic devotion (e.g. Turpines Story; Exaltation of the Cross; portions of Cursor Mundi and Bible anonyme; “A grete miracle of a knyghte good callyd Syr Roger Wallysborow”) as well as examples of Muslim perspectives on such devotion. (e.g. Imad el-Din el-Katib el-Isfahani excerpts; Bin Shaddad excerpts).

2) Instructors of courses involving medieval travel narratives can find here examples of texts that highlight the significance of devotional objects in the itineraries of medieval European travelers and travel writers. (e.g. Guylforde’s Pilgrimage; Torkington’s Pilgrimage, Mandeville’s Travels, Thietmar’s Pilgrimage)

3) Instructors of courses on medieval Muslim-Christian conflict or the Crusades will find here updated translations of some portions of Arabic accounts of these events, as well as some ideas of Christian accounts that can be used comparatively. This e-book also includes entries for texts that depict such military encounters more imaginatively (e.g. The Letter “R,” Destruction de Rome, Fierabras, Richard Coer de Lyon, Chanson d’Antioche) in case instructors wish to explore how artists re-told and re-envisioned historical encounters.

4) Instructors of courses on medieval leaders or heroes will find here examples of texts to consider for inclusion in their courses and where to access them (e.g. The Digby Play of Mary Magdalen; depictions of Saladin in The Letter “R” and Baha’ Al-Din Bin Shaddad’s chronicle; depictions of Richard I in  Itinerarium Peregrinorum and Richard Coer de Lyon)

5) Instructors of courses on medieval depictions of Christians and Muslims could use any of the texts catalogued here as examples for study.

Relic Tales is the first digital resource dedicated to compiling a list of medieval texts depicting Christian-Muslim relic encounters. Many of these texts are under-studied but important narratives about cross-cultural encounters in emotionally charged situations. Relic Tales alerts scholars and teachers to the existence of these texts and facilitates access to them for teaching and research. It also allows educators and researchers to easily find examples of texts which can be studied in tandem with one another.


Conclusion and Invitation to Contribute Entries

Relic Tales as it stands right now presents a somewhat eclectic mix of sample narratives, but it does indicate the wide variety of texts about Passion relics circulating in Muslim-Christian contexts, basic information about these texts (including where to access them to teach or read the relevant excerpts), and, in some cases, new editions or translations of primary medieval texts that have been made available as PDFs for free downloading for educational purposes.

By presenting our research as an e-book, space has been left open for other scholars, working in a variety of languages, to correct any errors they may find and/or to send us references to other texts about inter-religious encounters involving Christian Passion relics so that those may be included for scholars and teachers interested in exploring such narratives in their own research or teaching. To that end, the template for a Relic Tales entry is available here in Word and PDF format, and scholars who wish to submit additional entries for the catalogue are encouraged to complete a template entry for their text and send it to Dr. Calkin at for consideration for inclusion. The same e-mail can be used for any suggestions for improvement or updates.

RelicTales Blank Template (Word)

RelicTales Blank Template (PDF)


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