Publication Date

April 27, 2023

Perspectives Section

Everything Has a History


  • Europe


Premodern, Religion

After 17 men and women were charged with heresy and burned in Lunel, France, in October 1321, an unnamed person gave Berenguier Rocha a small morsel of flesh that survived the flames. Out of the belief that the supposed heretic had lived a saintly life and died unjustly as a martyr, Berenguier took the relic back home and placed it in the husk of a pomegranate on a table in his house. A community venerating one of its members who had been executed for heresy as a saint was not uncommon, but this practice was heterodox in the eyes of the Roman Church, and inquisitors tasked with enforcing orthodoxy and orthopraxy added it to an ever-growing list of dissident behaviors that had reignited their interest in southern France in the late 1310s.

A quartered pomegranate rests on a bed of whole fruits.

Ken Jarvis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite the dangers of extraecclesiastical relic collecting and enshrinement, these religious dissidents, often called “Beguins” by their persecutors, persisted with this practice in distinct ways. Although the church could place relics in crafted artifacts made of precious materials, Beguins had to rely on the objects readily available. Repurposing found objects better suited the community’s ideal of apostolic poverty in contrast to the institutional church’s material splendor, and these makeshift reliquaries served a dual purpose: to contain exalted remains and also to conceal them from inquisitorial surveillance. That Beguins were not always successful in the latter goal is why we know about such objects. Surviving inquisition depositions of accused Beguins detail these humble and often ephemeral objects, which included boxes, walls of homes, textiles, and, perhaps most remarkably, Berenguier’s pomegranate husk.

Through these makeshift reliquaries, Beguins made meaning through matter. Pomegranates were an important piece of Christian iconography. Thanks to the story of Persephone—a goddess condemned to reside for half the year with Hades after eating a pomegranate but released annually in springtime—the fruit had been associated with growing crops and rebirth since antiquity. For Christians, there were additional connotations of renewal and resurrection. Pomegranates are mentioned several times in the Bible, where they serve as evidence of the bounty of the Promised Land and decorate the pillars of Solomon’s Temple. In the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem in the Old Testament, pomegranates are explicitly connected with love, fertility, and human sexuality as an exploration of the love between God and humanity.

In the Mediterranean world of 14th-century southern France, pomegranates would have been readily available. Of all the mundane household items a Beguin might use as a reliquary, a pomegranate husk perhaps makes the most sense in terms of practicality, secrecy, and significance. Berenguier deliberately placed the martyr’s flesh into the flesh of a fruit so closely associated with divine abundance and eroticism, rebirth, and resurrection.

Berenguier’s pomegranate husk, like all the Beguins’ makeshift reliquaries, is lost to time. As a historian of medieval material culture, I find reports of objects like these to be critical pieces of the historical record. Although easily overlooked, they speak to the variety of consequential objects in the lives of medieval people. Such objects also highlight the significance of texts in the practice of material culture history. A highly ephemeral object such as a pomegranate husk reliquary is accessible to historians only through documentary sources. And although inquisition records are not, generally speaking, ideal sources, they illustrate the diversity of religious expression, understanding of sanctity, and material practice of the medieval period as they extend beyond the limits of orthodoxy. For marginalized groups such as the Beguins, no other extant documentary or object sources exist. Like the sacred flesh of a martyr wrapped in a fruit’s husk, they are all that remain.

Corinne Kannenberg is a teaching resource developer at the AHA and an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at Restore Justice in Chicago. She tweets @ckannenberg_.

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