Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cashing in on the past

They were an earthy lot, our medieval ancestors. After a hard day's tilting, or hawking or oppressing the peasantry, there was nothing European nobilty liked more than a good sing-song or a story.

And one of the most popular subjects for these tales was misbehaviour among the clergy - cavorting nuns, fornicating friars and thieving priests provided hours of entertainment for the baron in his hall.

Seven hundred years later, his modern-day descendants can read in the papers a story that could have come straight from one of these medieval tales:

Pope Benedict XVI has shut down a famous monastery in Rome because of antics which included dances performed by a former lap-dancer turned nun and financial difficulties.

The “questionable behaviour and a lack of moral discipline” of the Cistercian monks in question has seen them dispersed to other monasteries throughout Italy, continuing a crackdown that began when the Pope dismissed the Abbott, formerly a flamboyant fashion designer.

In fact, the  monastery has had more than its fair shair of glittering associations - singers Gloria Estefan and Madonna have both made high-profile visits there - as well as the more dubious cachet of a thigh-flashing 'liturgical dance' performance* by stripper-turned-nun, Anna Nobili.

Vatican II ostensibly dragged the Roman Catholic Church kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, so it is bizarre to encounter in this story that staple of medieval religious satire, the Holy Relic - in fact, not one but four of the things:

two thorns purportedly taken from Christ's crown, fragments of the cross on which he was crucified, a nail used in the crucifixion and a bone from the finger of St Thomas, which the doubting apostle is said to have poked into Jesus's wounds.

Remind me again, what century are we in? The Catholic Church is in the position of someone who has inherited the bric-a-brac of past generations, some of which may be of distinctly dubious origin, but how to tell? And why bother, when the faithful - like Madonna - are happy to turn up and revere the objects in a blaze of media attention.

For every beaming Antiques Roadshow subject who discovers her tatty vase is worth half a million, I expect there are hundred who find that Great-Uncle Ralph was taken for a ride in a Shanghai bazaar. I can't see the Vatican ever taking the risk, to be honest; they'll just re-house the things and make sure the pilgrims keep on coming.

Seven hundred years and some things just don't change.

*Video at the Telegraph via link if you must; actually it's more modern ballet than Folies Bergeres - the girl has obviously trained at some point - but it's certainly not what you might call traditionally 'nun-like'.

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