Best known for his contemporary political satire, Christopher Buckley has said that today’s politics are self-satirizing. So, he’s aimed his wit and his crossbow at the politics of the early 16th century and the Holy Roman Empire in his new comic historical novel, “The Relic Master.” Instead of taking on the inside-the-beltway crowd, Buckley recounts an antic picaresque tale about a shady relics trader and a Catholic Church that raises funds by selling indulgences that supposedly shorten a soul’s stay in purgatory.
Buckley’s story begins with a kind of preface: a news story from Aug. 28, 2017, reporting that an artifact resembling the famed Shroud of Turin, thought to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, had been mysteriously found in the tomb of Pope Leo X. It seems 500 years ago, plenty of shrouds, among other faked artifacts, crowded the market.
This sets the stage for Buckley to introduce Dismas, a Renaissance relic master, bone hawker, former soldier, and thief whom Buckley has named after the “Good Thief” of crucifixion lore.
Dismas finds himself empty-handed and on the road after checking out a flea market for artifacts on the wish list of his two major patrons Frederick III and Albrecht, archbishop of Mainz, both powerful electors of the Holy Roman Empire.
With Dismas’s help, Frederick has accumulated one of the biggest relic collections in the world, more than 15,000 pieces, second only to Pope Leo’s 76,000. Albrecht envies Frederick’s assemblage and wants to expand his. He doesn’t care how Dismas acquires those treasures for him. Albrecht knows many of his artifacts are fakes but it doesn’t matter.
The collections are enormous moneymakers for the electors and the pope. Selling indulgences outright for a gulden here or a ducat there is one thing, but the real money comes from fleecing pilgrims with exorbitant fees to worship at relic shrines and granting them, say, 50 years or so off their sentences in purgatory. The pope gets a 50 percent cut, too.
Stuck amid this morass of ethical and moral compromise is Martin Luther, who singularly and vocally finds fault with the idea of purgatory and the selling of indulgences.
Dismas has made a good life off of his two best clients, and, with the help of his banker, he’s amassed more than 2,000 gold florins. But he’s getting older and ready to retire.
After his scoundrel banker embezzles Dismas’s savings and ruins him, the relic hunter and his pal, the painter Albrecht Dürer, nicknamed Nars — short for narcissistic — launch a plot to make and sell a fake shroud to Archbishop Albrecht.
The pair are eventually caught and the fate of Dismas, who is tortured, looks grim. (“We burn blasphemers. So as you can see, the justice of Mainz has been mild,’’ says the holy Albrecht.)
Luckily, Frederick arrives and makes a bargain with Albrecht to release Dismas, so long as Dismas acquires for the priest the shroud of Chambéry, believed to be the most genuine of all the shrouds. It falls to Nars to create another forgery and to Dismas to swap a less-genuine fake shroud for a genuine fake shroud. So, Dismas, Nars, and Albrecht’s guards travel disguised as monks and fight battles along the way to Chambéry.
Luther’s protests will eventually drive the indulgence market to hell. Meantime, there’s plenty of fighting and fakery, deceit and rationalization, to go around. The political posturing, religious hypocrisy, and some of that old-time self-satirizing humor should entertain everyone.Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic
in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his blog at www.josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.