By Paula R. Stiles
Today is the 709th anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar in France in a pre-dawn raid. Let’s explore one of the artifacts and legends that have been connected to them after that date.
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Shroud of Turin. I’m a medievalist and most medievalists find the period of the Black Death (starting with the latter half of the 14th century) compelling in a ghoulish sort of way. It was a huge world-wide demographic change, the best-recorded example of one of Nature’s rare attempts to wipe us humans completely out.
It’s therefore equally intriguing that in the middle of this huge societal eruption, one of the most unique, strange and controversial relics of the Middle Ages appears — a piece of linen almost fifteen feet long and over three feet wide with an image of a naked dead man superimposed on it, front and back. In other words, a shroud. Since the late 14th century, this shroud has been linked to Jesus Christ.
It’s interesting to note that the first confirmed record of the Shroud is a report to the Pope in 1390 stating that it was a fake relic and the creator of it had confessed. Since then, the provenance (also known as “chain of custody”) of the Shroud has been remarkably solid. “Provenance” is the documentary history of where an object has been and what’s happened to it. For example, we know that the Shroud was in the middle of a church fire in 1532 that burned so hot it melted holes in the silver reliquary, singing holes right through the folded-up Shroud in a line down each side. Subsequently, a small and dedicated group of nuns patched these holes with new cloth.
The trail grows a lot more iffy prior to 1390. We have some documentation of it in either 1353 or 1357 related to the display of the Shroud by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Geoffroi has been more tentatively linked to a possible uncle, Geoffroi de Charney, the last Grand Marshal of the Order of the Knights Templar, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1314. Even more tentatively, some have speculated that the Shroud fell into Templar hands after it was pillaged from a famous Byzantine collection of crucifixion relics during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This theory was put forth by popular Templar historian Ian Wilson in The Turin Shroud in 1978. Academic Templar historian Malcolm Barber thoroughly examined these claims in a 1982 article, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud,” and came up with a verdict of inconclusive.
The Byzantine relic, known as the Mandylion (or the Image of Edessa) was a cloth upon which Christ’s face had miraculously appeared. It was part of a collection of crucifixion relics such as wood and nails from the Holy Cross. The record trail for it goes back to the sixth century and a tradition goes back to the early fourth century. After that, even the spottiest provenance goes cold.
The Mandylion is also related to an acheiropoieta (icons or other holy images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary not made by human hands) tradition in which a pious woman known as St Veronica wiped the face of Jesus while he was carrying the cross to Golgotha. His image was then impressed on the cloth by miraculous means. Images related to this tradition began to appear in the 14th century. The Shroud is unique in that it is a full-body acheiropoieton image rather than just a head and appears to reflect older traditions such as that in the late-12th century Pray Codex from Hungary.
The main problem with the Shroud of Turin is that even though it has excellent provenance back to the Middle Ages, its origin point (known as its “provenience”) remains unknown. All we know is when it was first displayed and even that’s in the murk before 1390. The Pray Codex and the St Veronica tradition give us some hints, but again, don’t really date it. And that’s important because if it does date to the early 1350s (or earlier), the story of the forger’s confession starts to fall apart. It’s unlikely that person had survived to 1390.
And that brings us to the iffy science. Numerous tests have been done on the Shroud, giving it a date ranging all the way back to two thousand years ago. The most famous one, of course, is the carbon dating of sampling from 1988 that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. Much ink has been spilled and shouting done over the test. Its proponents (who were basically debunkers and people anxious to promote carbon dating, which was then still rather a young science) insisted it was the best possible way to date the Shroud and everyone else doing other tests was biased. Its critics complained that the science was faulty, the sample too small, the Shroud was contaminated by extra carbon (remember that fire?), the sample had been taken from a smaller patch, and so on.
The basic science, all things considered, was pretty solid, but the other criticisms have validity. It was only one test done 28 years ago. Carbon dating has moved on and that one test did not account for things like the fact the Shroud has been handled a great deal over the past six hundred years, and that yes, there have been patches, as well as that it has been subjected to a major fire. And there is one other major issue.
Now, I want to say that while I lean toward the romance of the Shroud really going back to ancient times, I don’t think it can ever be anything but a matter of faith whether it was the shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if we could date it to the first century CE, let alone from Palestine, there’s no real way to prove that it was wrapped around the Son of God.
But it would be good to know a fairly solid origin point so we could get that provenience and establish some other things about the Shroud’s origins, especially the alleged Templar connection. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out how it was made (assuming you don’t buy the acheiropoieton theory). Was an actual bleeding dead body involved (and how chilling is that idea, especially if it was created in 1353, during the first wave of the Black Death)? Was it a standard shroud or was someone killed to make it? Or was it very cleverly painted, which would make it an amazing masterpiece of medieval art?
Also, what about the story of the Widow de Charny? While early medieval women had a pretty strong influence on Church cultic practice, this was largely frowned upon by the 14th century. A secular woman, especially an unmarried/widowed one, creating a cult center involving a major relic (or icon, as the Church officially terms the Shroud), especially during the initial period of the Black Death, was highly unusual.
The carbon dating doesn’t answer any of these questions. In fact, despite their claims of having no bias, the proponents of the carbon dating test knew perfectly well that any dating post-1390 would have no legitimacy in light of the very strong documentary provenance from that point, and even the more-iffy dating to the middle of the 14th century. It’s not just the issues with the possibility of contamination from other sources. These could be resolved (albeit the Church is not thrilled by the idea of allowing testers to rip up the Shroud, especially in order to debunk it as an ancient relic) by more testing. The problem is that the century the 1988 test gave is precisely the century that requires the most clarification in the Shroud’s history. If testing makes it older than the 14th century, and especially the 13th century, that gives some solidity to the proposed chain of evidence involving the Charnys and the Templars. But by just saying it’s somewhere in the 14th or late 13th century, the carbon dating test gave us absolutely no new information. Thanks to the provenance, we already knew that.
Unfortunately, those engaged in the carbon dating project didn’t care. They wanted to “prove” that the Shroud was no older than its documentary provenance. They wanted to debunk, to shut down the debate. They most certainly had a bias there. The problem was that they didn’t prove anything (the dating range went back 130 years before the confirmed documentary trail) and they didn’t help with confirming any of the previous stories. And they certainly didn’t shut down the debate. Even if the carbon dating was accurate, it wasn’t accurate enough.
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