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Foy – The Bodiless Head

“Well Father, we stole a dead girl’s body. Well, her bodiless head. If it is okay with you, we’ll just carry her head around and show everyone how holy we are.”

Saint Foy bows in front of the hand of God which is surrounded by a halo inscribed with a cross.

In this detail from the tympanum in Conques, the saint bows in front of the hand of God which is surrounded by a halo inscribed with a cross. Under this scene the inscription reads “Friends of Piety.” Above, the inscription reads “AD CELI GAUDIA”–joy in Heaven. Photo by Mary Ann Sullivan –

Thus runs the justification of the Benedictine monks who brought the remains of Saint Faith, more commonly known as Foy, to Conques in south western France.

Who Was Foy and Why is She Bodiless?

The Romans didn’t think (it was divine), they just chopped her head off instead.

Foy and her family were wealthy Christians in Agen, Southern France, in the late third century CE. At that time, Aquitaine, where Agen is situated, was part of the Roman Empire. This was a time before most Roman’s held much sympathy towards Christians.

Foy, was baptised. Thanks to her family and their community’s chosen religious outlook, Foy found herself a hapless victim. At 12 years old she would have had little say in which theology she accepted, if any. This young girl perished in one of the last persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire.

The proconsul Dacien decreed Foy was to be burned in 287, or 290, or maybe even 303 according to orders handed down from Diocletian. Foy’s defence was decidely verbose in the manner of the imprecise and wandering verbiage of the day, as impressive for a preteen as it is tedious for a reader.

At Foy’s execution several onlookers saw the flames subside. Subsequently they would decide this was a divine sign. In short, they decided it was miraculous.

The Romans didn’t think so, they just chopped her head off instead.

But the Christians who heard the story, or saw the flames knew it was enough. Foy was clearly a saint. This all happened long before the church had a procedure for saintliness. Back then if people said you were a saint, then you just were.

Conveniently Named

Handily enough, Saint Faith as she is sometimes known, was said to have been martyred alongside two girls called Hope and Charity. This is probably as apocryphal and as prone to suggestion and exaggeration as much of the rest of Foy’s story.

The tympanum at Conques

The tympanum at Conques


Pilgrimmage was big business in medieval Europe. True, it still is, but back then it didn’t mean a quick flight on a nasty plane because you found God after being diagnosed with cancer. Pilgrimmages were mammoth affairs undertaken with as much money as you could muster. Conques was on the path to one of the biggest – Compostela.

Pilgrims on their way to visit the holy bones and leathery corpse said to be Saint Stephen, had to pass Conques. Stick a martyr’s body on their path and you had a guaranteed money spinner.

But the Benedictines in Conques didn’t have a martyr. Not a problem, Agen did.

Agen was about 200 kilometres away, so they sent one of their brothers to live in the commune there. Once he had been there long enough, ten years in some accounts, he saw his chance and hopped it with the girl’s bits. They were brought back to Conques.

But human remains rot when exposed to the elements. Undaunted, and without reconsidering the wisdom of slinging around bits and pieces of corpses, they encased her head in metals, jewels and other fancy stuff. It is thought to be the only extant example of a type of statue-reliquary shrine that was common in the Middle Ages. Its claim to be the oldest surviving statue in western Christianity is obviously bogus.

A man's head in gold, encasing a real dead girl's head. Lovely.

A man’s head in gold, encasing a real dead girl’s head. Lovely.

Interestingly, the goldsmith recycled a statue’s face. The reliquary’s face is possibly that of a Roman emperor, reused as a pubescent girl’s face.

Foy’s relics went on to “perform” the standard miracles expected by the credulous church-going medieval public. Diseases were cured and wounds were healed, sight was restored and paralysis banished. The standard fare of your typical sainted relic.


We tend to think of medieval monasticism as a devout, meditative life only suited for those called to it. But the church was very different then. Being in the church meant having power, being leaders of society, having few worries, a steady income, without proscribed celibacy. Life was good, if you were okay with a little prayer and a little flagellation every so often.

What Relics Meant

From kings to serfs, people could not get enough of venerating saints’ relics. They fervently believed the spirits of the bodies were in communion with God and could intercede on their behalf. They prayed to them, touched them, smelled their fragrance, gathered their secretions and otherwise venerated these corpses. People still hold relics in much the same thrall today, although perhaps not the secretions aspect any longer. It is human to want to come into the closest contact with our heroes possible, even if it is tangental and meaningless.

To the superstitious and uneducated, medieval and pre-medieval masses, these saints were heroes. They had been good people, a cut above the rest. Now they performed miracles and answered prayers; maybe not yours per se, but X knew Y, who heard T, U and V were healed of their afflictions.

Pilgrimages brought in big bucks. Add to that the antipathy between orders and parishes in a fractured church and you have an expolsive mix. So thieving a rival’s crowd-pleasing relic, even if it was the body of a young girl, was not beyond the boundaries of possibility. Not even near those boundaries in many cases.

Agen's cathedral went on to prosper without the reverent presence of the greedy head of a dead girl. All's well that ends well. Photo by Michelle Bartsch and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Agen’s cathedral went on to prosper without the reverent presence of the greedy head of a dead girl. All’s well that ends well. Photo by Michelle Bartsch and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Greedy relic
(Let’s venerate the severed head. With lots of money.)

Foy’s are angry relics. She is “known” to have caused the theft of purses of less than lavish visitors. There is even a story of her, while dead mind you, exacting a gift she had been promised by a dying woman. This woman had promised her wedding ring to the shrine, but her husband used it to get married again instead. The new wife’s finger did not take to the ring and swelled until the unfortunate pair visited the shrine. The woman blew her nose and off shot the ring.

Saint Foy’s remains, or at least a human head and other bits said to be Saint Foy’s, are still to be seen in France. Some bits are claimed in other churches, but Foy’s head remains encased in precious metals in Conques.

The Provenance

Absolutely verifiable and unimpeachable stuff there. Is it really Foy’s head? Who knows, the balance of probability is against it, but does it matter? Believers still claim miracles, non-believers are still fascinated by the sheer, well, horribleness of it all.


Incidentally, it is not strictly correct to call it a decapitated head. This, in the most stringent meaning, equates to headless head. Decapitate comes from two latin words meaning from or off, and head.

Conques by Sacred Destinations, a travel company, proving relic pilgrimages still hold some allure
Wikipedia entry for Saint Faith
Mary Ann Sullivan’s great photos from Conques
Beatified Saints, translated from the Italian, or as they put it “notes about your extended family in heaven”
Foy’s Day
New Advent Catholic encyclopoedia
Wikipedia entry for Agen
Wikipedia entry for Conques
Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, Charles Freeman, Yale University Press, 2011

This article was posted by on Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012 at 23:12.
It is archived in Culture, History, Myth, Religion, Travel, Wild Women and tagged , , , .

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