I won’t mince words, the title speaks for itself. I’m going to tell you the story of the holiest foreskin in Christianity. This is the legend of the holy prepuce, the holy hood of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, Christ, the J man, was Jewish, and like all Jewish boys, eight days after his birth, his family circumcised him. This ritual, called a briss, has been a Jewish tradition for thousands of years, continuing from roughly 2,000 years before Jesus was born, all the way up to today. According to the tradition after the ceremony, the foreskin is wrapped in a simple cloth and buried. However, Jesus wasn’t just any ordinary Jewish baby. According to legend, a woman who recognized the importance of this baby took the foreskin, and saved it in a jar of preservation oil. If christian doctrine is to be believed, Jesus’s body physically ascended to heaven, but a few parts of him remain. There’s some blood, his umbilical cord, and, you guessed it, his foreskin.
The first known appearance of the devotional dirt jacket comes from the famous emperor Charlemagne or Charles the great. According to his account, he was visited by an angel that gave him this messianic magician’s cloak as a gift, that he then re gifted to pope Leo III upon his famous coronation in 800 AD. It is from here the legend says the holy foreskin went to Rome. Maybe. There’s actually another story that the hallowed turtleneck that went to Rome was a fake, and that Charlemagne kept the real one. He took it deep into rural France, and hit it in a church in Conques. They claim to still have it today in a special box… that no one can look in. However, the most accepted story is that the angelic beanie went to Rome.
It was after this when the foreskin enjoyed centuries as one of the world’s tip top holy relics, a cut above the rest, if you will. It even enjoyed a few centuries in the Vatican’s sanctum sanctorum, the holy of holies, where the most important relics in christendom reside to this day. 14th century doctor of the church Saint Catherine of Sienna claimed that she was the spiritual bride of Jesus, and that in a dream he came to her and gave his invisible foreskin as a wedding ring. She claimed to be able to see it on her hand her whole life. If you ask me, it seems like she got shafted on that wedding gift. In the 15th century, the foreskin went to England to help Henry V’s queen Catherine of Valois get pregnant. There’s a joke here, but I don’t know what it is yet, it’s on the tip of my tongue though.
There were sceptics of this claim that the immaculate jacket was on earth. Some theologians like Leo Allatius in the 17th century wrote a long essay making the case that the foreskin did indeed ascend to heaven along with Jesus’ body, and became the… rings of Saturn
In the medieval and early modern period, relics like the foreskin were the source of big money. Churches collected all the remains and belongings of saints, apostles, and holy figures they could, and watched closely for miracles. Well known relics would draw huge crowds from christians on pilgrimage, and that meant big bucks for big ticket relics. Churches on occasion would even steal relics from each other, in a medieval heist movie we are tragically deprived from. So, it’s no surprise then that you found a few… duplicates. Not only were there as many as 21 godly kenny’s around Europe, and several heads of John the Baptist. Some claimed this was just a miracle, more just didn’t pay much attention to it.
As the enlightenment began to take hold, claims about the holy hood began to experience criticism. Protestants mocked it mercilessly, and the church became more and more uncomfortable with the concept of the foreskin of christ being on earth. It actually caused a lot of theological issues because Catholics believe in something called transubstantiation. Catholics debated to which degree this was literal or metaphorical, but when catholics take the eucharist, eat this bread for it is my body etc, some theologians believed that the wafer actually became a hunk of jesus meat sometime when going down the throat. The Prepuce muddied this debate because it meant that the eucharist could happen in a very literal way.
Another blow to the prestige of the prepuce was when German mercenaries sacked rome in 1527. Among the objects stolen was the seraphic skin ring. It went missing for a number of decades until it resurfaced in a small village called Calcata 30 miles outside of Rome. But more on that later.
The church spoke about it less and less, and eventually in the year 1900 the church banned discussion of the holy foreskin, claiming that acknowledging it would turn it into an “irreverent curiosity”. Speaking about the foreskin would result in excommunication, and during the second Vatican Council, or Vatican 2, they increased the sentence to some sort of special super excommunication.
However, much to the chagrin of the Vatican, the foreskin in Calcata remained a local relic. They couldn’t refer to it anymore as a foreskin, nor let anyone see it except for one day a year. They could only whip it out on January first, during the no longer observed festival of the circumcision of Christ. It was a local oddity for a tiny village and no one paid attention to it, so the Vatican didn’t make a big fuss.
This would change, when Calcata was moved in the 1960s due to fear of an earthquake destroying it. In the new village, 60s beatnik types moved in and curious about the foreskin began to write about it for a wider circle. It became increasingly popular, and the Vatican became increasingly displeased with its presence.
In 1983, the local priest Dario Magnoni claims that his home was broken into while he was away visiting Rome, and the holy foreskin he for some reason kept in his wardrobe was stolen. Who knows, maybe he was trying for a pregnancy. People suspected that the priest sold it, or that thieves took it to sell on the black market. Some blamed neo-nazis or satanists, but the suspect most people believe took the foreskin today was the Vatican itself. They claim that Magnoni took the foreskin to the vatican during his trip, and that they are holding onto it, making sure such an embarrassing relic never sees the light of day again. At least one author, and one National Geographic documentary have circumscribed the globe to find it, but they hit a dead end instead of a bell end.
The holy foreskin is an interesting artefact to discuss, because of the strange relationship christianity has with circumcision. Many churches and artists had paintings depicting the circumcision of christ, and celebrated it for centuries, but had no requirement of it for their own people. Catholics believe that the circumcision has been replaced by the baptism. Moreover circumcision was a symbol of Judaism, and often used as another weapon in the arsenal of anti semitism during times like the Spanish Inquisition. As early as the 5th century, Christians were distancing Jesus from his Jewishness. Some arguing that because his father was not human, he wasn’t really Jewish. The circumcision of Christ was then in an uncomfortable position and needed explanation. Hard to do when there’s 21 foreskins dancing around Europe.
I know this all sounds silly, and it is, but it’s just one example of the power of relics in pre-enlightenment christianity. The foreskin is one of many relics that were not only big business, but to many devout followers of christianity a physical connection between the earthly and the divine. Often they’d be literal sources of protection, or used in healing. People would wear the bones of saints to protect them from harm, and to this day people touch relics for healing purposes. There’s one strange story of monks who dropped a saint’s bones in a barrel of wine and drank it to protect them from a disease outbreak. It’s important to see these practices as an example of how the past really is in many ways like visiting another planet, in this case, the rings of Saturn. We have a hard time imagining it, but the line between natural and supernatural didn’t exist, and scientific ideas on how disease and health worked were centuries from forming. The foreskin is just a strange example of that. Religion is always way bigger, more complicated, and full of way more discussion, debate, and interpretation than they look from the outside.
This video took a lot of very particular expertise. I want to give a special thanks to Andrew Henry from the channel Religion for Breakfast. He runs a channel that’s a secular study on religion and he gave me a lot of help with the research for this video. Check out what he’s up to and tell him I sent you!
If you have any comments about the puns in this episode, some of which may have seemed forced, or force-kin, please direct your complaints and/or tip-of-the hats to myself and ARTexplains in the comments. Don’t worry, we’re already extremely pleased and ashamed at ourselves.