Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Dem Bones, Dem Bones...

There was something I didn’t understand in that documentary I watched about Shakespeare’s head being possibly missing from his tomb. The historian/presenter went waffling on about how terrifying people found the prospect of having their bones removed to a charnel house because they feared being trapped. Trapped how? Did I miss something? (I admit that I might have done because the sound on my TV is crap.) It’s just that I don’t see how spending your post mortem existence in the convivial company of the hamlet’s rude forefathers is any more ‘trapped’ than lying alone in a box – or even just a winding sheet – under a ton of earth. In fact, it strikes me that a charnel house is a veritable social club in comparison. And if it's the Second Coming they're worried about, I'm sure Jesus will have the presence of mind to give them a knock.

On a more positive note, I’m now consumed with a desire to find out whether my local church has a charnel house. It should do; there’s been a church on that ground since before the Norman Conquest (and possibly even before the Danish Great Army came a-rampaging and demanding protection money) but the oldest gravestone is 17th century, so they must have done something with the bones to make way for fresh bodies (insofar as a body might be described as ‘fresh’ you understand.) All of which means that if it doesn’t have a charnel house, what did they do with bones? (And did the owners feel untrapped or merely re-located?)

 My local church and some of its freshers


Madeline said...

It could be that it had something to do with the belief that when Jesus returns to Earth, all the dead will rise. Perhaps when this happens, it will be easier to rise out of the ground than from a charnel house? Not sure though. I would assume that people would be concerned with the desecration/disarticulation of the skeleton, as it's difficult to be resurrected if your skull is in one place and long bones another. That being said, the disturbance of all but the most elite graves was all but a given before the 18th century. My guess is that the fear of removal to the charnel house had more to do with anxieties over status than anything else.

JJ Beazley said...

This raises a couple of questions for me:

1. Would pre-20th century, non-elite Europeans have been concerned with status? I doubt it, somehow. Of course they would have been concerned about the consequences of low status – the poverty, inequality and hardship which gave rise to revolts and protest movements – but not status per se. I should imagine they were well conditioned from the cradle to accept their place within a tightly defined social scale up which there was no realistic prospect of climbing, even though they might have been moved occasionally to take direct action in the hope of improving their condition within the system. I think, therefore, that the status argument would have to be taken together with the other hypothesis and extended into a wider equation:

Low status = prospect of charnel house = fear of dismemberment.

2. But that raises another question: I realise that people were taught that they would rise from the grave at the Second Coming of Jesus heralding Judgement Day, hence the practice of having headstones pointing to the east. Even so, I wonder whether people were really so convinced that spiritual validity was somehow tied to physical completeness. Surely, they must have had questions:

‘What happens is I get blown apart by a canon ball or eaten by a wild beast? Would that mean I couldn’t hope for salvation? And what about the Christian martyrs who were burned to ashes? Would they, of all people, also be denied a place in heaven?’

I don’t know the answer to either of these questions (and the practice of mummification in certain cultures adds another) but the question I have of the programme presenter is: why use the word ‘trapped.’ Why is a charnel house any more of an entrapment than the earth above a grave?