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Making Sense of Things

In the medieval period you could touch the divine – and smell it, see it, hear it and taste it, sometimes all at once.

‘The Bath’, from Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta memorabilia, 15th century, French.

In 1154, shortly after returning to his home city of York from pleading with the pope for the reinstatement of his archiepiscopal position, the twice-elected archbishop, William FitzHerbert, died. He was alleged to have been poisoned with the chalice he used to celebrate Mass. A tomb sprang up in the east end of York Minster’s nave to house his sacred body. Pilgrims and visitors soon began reporting a ‘sweet-smelling’ oil radiating from the monument, which had begun oozing from the archbishop’s relics. The aromatic sweet smell this produced – known as the ‘odour of sanctity’ – signified the divine nature of the saint, confirmed William’s virtue and, more importantly, his authenticity as a miracle-working intercessor. It proved that he – once a living person – had miraculously shed his human flesh and was now a divine being – a saint. But did this supernatural odour exist in reality as a physical sign of the spiritual superiority of the saint, or was it merely a spiritual presence in the minds of believers?

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