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Gift, Sale, and Theft: Juan de Ribera and the Sacred Economy of Relics in the Early Modern Mediterranean

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AbstractIn 1599 Valencia celebrated the arrival of an ancient Christian martyr whose remains were the latest addition to the collection of the city’s archbishop, Juan de Ribera (1532-1611). Through an examination of some of Archbishop Ribera’s relic acquisitions, I explore the inner workings of the early modern sacred economy of relics. Ribera’s collection strategies blended distinct modes of exchange and linked him to a clandestine economy of relic theft. These transactions reflected the relic’s own uncertain ontological status as both person and object. This ambivalence became a factor that fostered an atmosphere of anxiety around the early modern relic economy, as did Protestant reformers’ critiques and their upending of the traditional Christian symbolic order. The reaffirmations of the cult of relics by the Tridentine Church stabilized the value of the sacred commodities. The economy of relics illustrates how the sacred constitutes a heretofore underexamined area of inquiry for commodity studies.

Affiliations: 1: University of California, Davis


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