Growing up in the protestant church I regarded relics as the strangest of the strange which Catholicism had to offer. I regarded it as more bizarre even than petitioning the saints. The end result is that I knew practically nothing about relics outside of the most famous and the legendary.
So when I came across Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics by Thomas Craughwell, my interest was immediately piqued. Just what sort of relics are out there, any way? Well, many kinds, but mostly the bodily remains of the saints are kept as relics, I found.
The work is organized by the name of the saint. For each individual the locations of that person's relics are recorded, as well as a short history of those relics. What comprises the bulk of most articles is a brief description of the life and death of the saint. This can provide some helpful context as to why certain body parts were fixated upon by devotees of certain saints (e.g. St. Apollonia, whose teeth were knocked out in the course of her martyrdom). However in most cases the background information on the saint is not particularly linked to the relics, but is nonetheless interesting. If you are looking for a basic primer on the lives of some the church's most important saints, this book can fulfill that role.
It is interesting to learn how much the various relics have been moved around. "In the 16th century, Huguenot vandals stormed the church of . . ." is a common line in this book, as is "during the sack of Constantinople in 1204 . . ." Relics were given as gifts, stolen, destroyed, vandalized, newly discovered, and lost. The "lost" category has at least one very interesting relic in it relating to the life of Jesus, but I'll leave it to my reader to find out more in Saints Preserved.
Craughwell deals with the question of inauthentic relics with candor. The default position of the book is to take at face value the claims about relics made by the churches which hold them. The main problem occurs when there are more claimants than relics. The highest ratio of claimants to actual relics was for the Holy Nails used to nail Jesus to the cross, of which in reality there were 3 or 4, but which are claimed by "thirty" or more collections. The author leaves those questions open. As a reader I was incredulous about the authenticity of many of the relics described, especially when there there is a several centuries gap between the death of the saint and the appearance of the relic in the record. Blame the skepticism on my protestantism.
I enjoyed this book. As someone not familiar with Catholicism it taught me a lot about the practice of keeping and venerating relics in addition to the specifics of particular relics. Since the book is organized by saint, I could see this being very useful for planning travel in Europe. Want to schedule a visit to the relics of your church's patron saint? Look him or her up in Saints Preserved. It's also an interesting "coffee table" book to share with friends. My one suggestion for a subsequent edition would be an index of relics by location.