Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe
III. Bones and More Bones: Relics and the Spread of the Cult
The physical “proof ” of the legend of the Eleven Thousand Virgins was unearthed during the construction of a new circuit of walls in 1106.1 The excavations in the suburb of Niederich to the north of the city of Cologne uncovered thousands of skeletal remains in a vast series of Roman grave- sites, henceforth known as the “Ager Ursulanus.”2 This appeared to prove the veracity of the story and the bones were proclaimed to be the relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, martyred and buried outside the walls of Roman Colonia. While it is now common to scoff at the astounding credulity of these medieval folks, it is important to consider how this was understood as a revelation of hard evidence, providing empirical, physi- cal proof of the existence and presence of the Eleven Thousand Virgins.3 1 The impetus for the construction of the new circuit of walls was Emperor Henry IV seeking refuge in Cologne from his son, Henry V. The emperor urged the strength- ening and expansion of the fortifications to encircle several extra-mural settlements, notably that of Niederich with the churches of St. Kunibert and the Holy Virgins. To this end the existing walls were strengthened and a series of ditches and earth- works were erected around the three suburbs of Niederich, Airsbach, and the Holy Apostles. This ring of outer fortifications was later replaced by a stone wall in 1180. See Paul Strait, Cologne in the Twelfth Century, Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1974, pp. 30...
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