Reliquaries of St. Elzéar and Bl. Delphine

by Tracy Jamison*

Words are potent. Words can awaken memories, stir emotions and quiet the mind. Words have been used in the creation of groundswells that burst forth to bring down stalwart walls of injustice as well as to buttress vast empires: Word-for-word, Brick-by-brick. In her lecture, Dr. Nicole Archambeau examined the concept of the voice as a relic. How ‘mere words’ of admittedly melodic meter, manifested within the human body, and alleviated physiological and psychological distress during an era rife with mercenary invasions that razed fifteen cities,  populations forced to languish under waves of plague and that eventually saw the erosion of the Treaty of Brétigny and the continuation of the Hundred Years’ War.

After parsing through medieval canonization inquests and Articles of Interrogation in order to divine how people foresaw and negotiated the curative continuum from medico to physico in their attempt to heal and restore the spirit, Dr. Archambeau chose the life of Delphine of Glandèves, more commonly known as the Blessed Delphine, as a paragon of 14th century healing pluralities. Delphine was a countess who was alleged to have the ability to mediate miracles through the melodic meter of her voice. As a miracle mediator, Delphine offered a distinctive healing option from the ‘despairing doctor trope’ that did not sanction the giving of false hope to those suffering from illness. The wife of newly canonized Saint Elzéar of Sabran, Delphine was not a doctrinaire and did not tout that she possessed any medicinal knowledge. Nevertheless, during her canonization inquest, Master Durand Andre testified that through her voice, Delphine touched him from the inside and he felt contrition, compunction and consolation.  As Archambeau articulated in her lecture, witnesses for Delphine’s candidacy for canonization related to the papal court that Delphine ministered miraculous healing that actively managed the care of their soul, a vital part of personal health.

The seriousness of soul caretaking (through confession and repentance) was not be taken lightly  in the 14th century, as those who died without having repented every hurtful act they had committed in life would go to hell. Since memory is fallible, frequent confession was necessary. However, for some, debilitating anxiety, sadness and desperation ensued due to fear of not being able to recall wrongdoing. These passions (sadness, anxiety and fear), according to Archambeau, Blessed Delphine deposed as a reluctant pastoral care practitioner, her voice serving as an aural relic for the faithful. Regents, Noble Ladies and Lords testified that Delphine was speaking directly to them, her daily prayers traversing the corporal boundaries of the body to the spiritual.

Even at the end of her life, when Delphine was stricken with fits of crying, her tears were seen by many to be a sign from God and those who heard her sobs reported that they possessed a musical quality, with some specifically describing the tone as ‘celestial’. Toward the end of her lecture, Dr. Archambeau told the story of a second miracle mediator who while attending Delphine’s funerary vigil, touched a ring to her ‘remarkably preserved feet’ and received personal healing of a toothache by touching the ring to her cheek. Later, the mediator uses the ring to restore the sight to a nun who could no longer read. Does this mean that Delphine’s remarkable vocal relic (an extension of the holy body) became a more familiar form of contact relic after her death? Although Delphine never officially received canonization, she and her husband, Saint Elzéar of Sabran are venerated jointly on reliquaries. The strategies and rituals of healing are as diverse as the societies and cultures in which they arise.  Likewise, it would only seem fitting that healing relics also retain that inherent diversity. Take my word for it.

*Tracy Jamison is pursuing a Master’s in History of Science at Oregon State University

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