Reading a good paper by Sten Tesch (in Situne Dei 2007) about porphyrite tiles scavenged from Roman ruins and re-used as portable altar slabs in 11th century Scandinavia, I was reminded of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. It’s a really good story about relics, up there with the cross of Jesus being tens of meters tall if all its alleged fragments were actually genuine.
St. Ursula is most likely a fictional character, but according to legend she was a Christian British princess who went on a pilgrimage to Rome before her planned marriage to the pagan Roman governor of Armorica. Early versions of the legend have it that Ursula was accompanied by eleven virgin handmaidens, but for some reason these girls were multiplied by a thousand after a few centuries, thus the 11,000. Anyway, whatever the number of virgin pilgrims, they got in the way of some Huns who were besieging Cologne in AD 383, and slaughtered all and one. If I understand correctly, the idea here is that Ursula is holy because she went on a pilgrimage and got killed by pagans rather than marry a pagan and lose her virginity, and her 11,000 girlfriends are holy because… something about virginity and Huns and stuff.
In the early 12th century, a Roman-era inhumation cemetery was discovered in Cologne (which had been a major city already from AD 50 onward). Soon someone had the idea that the cemetery belonged to the 11,000 maidens, and so every scrap of bone counted as a relic of St. Ursula. How awe-inspiring! And lucrative. For about three hundred years, the cemetery was quarried, supporting a booming trade, until the Pope cracked down on this quite uncommonly silly source of relics.
Tesch reports in a note that Sweden’s first known prose writer, Peter of Denmark (!), studied in Cologne in the late 13th century and bought some relics. Nine skulls of alleged ursuline virgins he brought home to St. Nicholas church in Visby.
St. Ursula is the patron of archers, orphans and students. However, since 1969, not even the Church of Rome believes in her anymore.