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Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead Hardcover – March 31, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

You have to love a book with sentences like this: Things got rough for the foreskins of Jesus as the Middle Ages matured. Author Manseau (Vows) lavishly scatters gems like this as he travels the world in search of the bones, teeth, hair and other scraps from the religiously renowned. The result is a lively lope among fragments from famous faith figures – Buddha's tooth, Muhammad's whiskers and the aforementioned foreskin, or foreskins, as many people and places have claimed ownership of this fragment. Manseau never gives over entirely to the snarkiness that sometimes marred some of his previous work, especially Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Instead, he provides a rich history of each of the, ahem, items he considers and examines their effects on contemporary believers. Occasionally, Manseau's pilgrimages feel a little cursory; he writes that some of his visits to the relic sites were shorter than he would have liked. Yet he listens well. When he meets a Pakistani man praying before the supposed whiskers of Muhammad in an Aleppo mosque, Manseau asks if the man has come to be close to the Prophet. Close? I cannot be close, the pilgrim replies. I come to remind me how far it is I must go. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

This is a peculiar book about a peculiar subject, the veneration of the sacred remains of saints and other holy men and women called relics, which every Roman Catholic church possesses. Manseau looks at relics through the prism of history. The Reformation denigrated their use, accentuating the differences between Catholics and Protestants and triggering schisms within the church. But relics aren’t only a Christian tradition. Muslims also revere relics. Nor are relics strictly remnants of the past. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he sequestered himself in his apartment with the heart of Saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, patron saint of priests. The eight chapters of Manseau’s book focus on various body parts—a toe, a leg, a whisker, teeth, and nails—of a holy person as a way of commenting on their contemporary relevance. To some, venerating relics may seem a strange custom, but, Manseau somberly points out, people fight and die over these very artifacts. They are certainly not to be taken lightly. --June Sawyers

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (March 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805086528
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805086522
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,740,254 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Manseau is the author of the history One Nation Under Gods, the novel Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, the memoir Vows, and the travelogue Rag and Bone; he is also the co-author, with Jeff Sharlet, of Killing the Buddha. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He holds a doctorate from Georgetown University, and is currently curating an exhibit on American religious history for the Smithsonian Institution.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There are at least three good reasons to read Peter Manseau's latest book, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. The most quickly apparent reason is the way Manseau writes. Disguised as a travelogue, Rag and Bone is actually a history of the role relics play in the world's religions. Of the few remains of Joan of Arc Manseau writes,

"The bits and pieces that may have once belonged to the Maid of Orleans, the most popular saint the church ever killed, have been placed inside three glass jars, slid into cloth cozies, and arranged within a pale wooden case the size of a toolbox... First on the the RER commuter train, then the metro, she rides up out of the darkness like a body exhumed, despite the unfortunate fact that she never had a grave to begin with."

Manseau strikes the delicate balance of humor and awe through the book's eight chapters. While not overlooking the odd moments that are bound to take place while traveling the world to view pieces of dead people, the author is careful to treat the relics and those who venerate them with deference and admiration.

The stories that emerge when the reporter's search intersects with those who see something transcendent in old bones and bits of skin is the second reason Rag and Bone is so enjoyable. The best travelogues entertain even while showing the reader fascinating scenes and unknown histories; both are abundant in these pages. Manseau mixes his own adventures of traveling to places like Jerusalem and Syria with the stories of the once living saints whose bodies- or what's left of them- continue to influence the faithful.

There's another reason I so thoroughly enjoyed this book, though I'm not sure the author intended this reaction.
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Format: Hardcover
We take it for granted that people will revere their dead, memorializing or sentimentalizing them. We might view as old-fashioned the practice of keeping a lock of the dear departed's hair, but there is nothing too strange in that. But what if the keepsake was the dear departed's tongue? Veneration for body parts has a long history. "Whether a tooth, a heart, a whisker, or a calcified tear, these items have exerted a remarkable and complicated influence in the world for such tiny, often frankly repulsive, things." So writes Peter Manseau in _Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead_ (Henry Holt), a strange, reflective, and amusing tale of a very weird but universal practice. Manseau has traveled all over the world to peep at some of these objects, the ways they are put on display, their influence, and the people who adore them. Manseau is a writer on religion and other subjects, and throughout brings a humorous but always sympathetic view to relics and believers, and his insights into human nature through this peculiar subject are always interesting and sometimes profound.

He starts in Goa, for a look at the corpse of St. Francis Xavier. Francis stayed whole and undecayed until his return to Goa, where he was put on display and in 1554 a "pious Portuguese woman" was so filled with religious fervor before the relic that she not only kissed his toe but bit it off. That was a spontaneous removal, but in 1614 his right lower arm was cut off, split, and sent to Italy and Belgium to benefit Jesuits there; then later Jesuits in Japan got the rest of the arm, and then a shoulder blade went... well, you get the picture.
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Format: Hardcover
Exactly the book I hoped it would be, at exactly the right time. I was looking for a well-written, somewhat humorous travel memoir with a more literary bent. So much of what I've been reading lately has been so heavy, and I needed a short break from that. Manseau's book fit the bill perfectly.

The subject of religious relics is probably covered in more depth elsewhere, in a nonfiction book that perhaps goes into more detail. But that's not the book I wanted to read. Manseau's less-structured romp through the world of relics, and light foray into what makes them important to some, was appealingly sweet and informative enough it satisifed my need to know just the surface facts. Indeed, at times his musings were more deep than others, and I enjoyed that as well. For me, it was just the right book for the point I'm at in my reading.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Ritualized burial of the dead extends back at least fifty thousand years and is probably (at least one of) the oldest signs of mankind's emergant civilization.

In this brief and free wheeling book Peter Manseau makes a whirlwind tour of some of the world's hotest relics spots and shows you, among other things:

The Mosque of Muhammed's Beard Hair: Located in the Kashimar region of northern India, this site features a single hair reputed to come from the beard of Islam's Prophet himself.

The Temple of the Tooth: Located in Sri Lanka, this Temple contains a tooth reputed to have been once located in the mouth of the Buddha himself.

The Church of John the Baptist's Father's Head: Located in Aleppo Syria, this church contains an organ reputed to be the head of the father of John the Baptist.

Along the way, Manseau introduces you to the individuals who run the various relic sites, the money they make from their trade and the faithful who come from far and wide to visit and worship.

For my part, the book resembles video vacation footage in that it all too often places its focus not on the objects themselves and the history which surround them but rather the incidental individuals who've happened to wander into the camera angle. Also, Manseau's on the scene research often fails because he doesn't know the local language and therefore you know you're probably missing out on a lot of the story. Also, I honestly don't think photos would have hurt to give readers a better idea of what the items looked like. Indeed, such an addition probably would have fit in nicely with the travelogue nature of this book.

That all being said, it's still a good book for what it is and very much worth reading.
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