#SensCities2: St Geneviève’s relics in revolutionary Paris

13 November 2018: 17h-18h, Sint-Andries Church

St Geneviève’s Relics in Revolutionary Paris: Religion, the City, and Modernity
Hannah Williams (@DrHanWill, Queen Mary University, London)

cataGentlemen and ladies equipped with torches visiting the catacombs beneath the city of Paris. Engraving with etching (1822). Credit: Wellcome Collection.

For more than a millennium, St Geneviève’s relics were called upon by Parisians in moments of crisis. Whether climatic disasters like floods or droughts, heretical conflicts, deadly epidemics, or threats of invasion by foreign forces, St Geneviève’s relics were brought out of their shrine, processed with devotion through the streets of the city, and worshipped for the miraculous interventions that so often followed. But in 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, those holy relics became the focus of a very different public ritual. Before angry crowds on the Place de Grève, the remains of St Geneviève were mocked, burnt to ashes, and thrown into the Seine.How did these sacred relics so quickly change from beloved devotional objects to hated symbols of oppression? What does the story of St Geneviève’s relics reveal about the place of religion at the end of the eighteenth century? And how did the city of Paris become the urban stage for historic acts in France’s histories of religion, secularism, and modernity? Retrieving the story of St Geneviève’s relics, this talk looks beyond the familiar story of religion’s ‘triumph and demise’, instead finding a challenge to grand narratives of secularization and to the mythical place of the Revolution in the birth of France’s secularist modernity.