history

The History Boys

I’ve been watching the BBC’s astonishingly good productions of Shakespeare’s History Plays (which if you’re not watching, and you can, you really should) and they prompted me to comment on my assorted historical crushes on Twitter. The response to this – from a couple of different people – was that they’re all a bit, well… battlefield-y. (In fact, one comment was that there was a theme of “spur-winning”).

This is me we’re talking about, after all. And, given the four years spent reading assorted medieval stuff, there’s plenty of battlefield action to choose from. So here, in no particular order, are the History Boys.

(I should also add that these are entirely biased sketches, and gloriously coloured by my own opinions. I have wildly overlooked Actual Historical Facts in favour of being generally impressed by this lot. So you can take anything I say with a reasonably large pinch of salt…)

(more…)

Heart Burials

Here’s an interesting thing: the last heir of the Habsburg Empire (who relinquished his claim in 1961) has been buried in Vienna.

At least, most of him has.

In line with Habsburg family tradition, his heart will be buried in an abbey just outside Budapest.

Burials in which the heart is interred separately from the body (or “heart burials”) aren’t all that unusual, historically-speaking. The Ancient Egyptians yanked all sorts of squishy bits out of bodies post-mortem and packed them into canopic jars–albeit for very different reasons. Medieval monarchs also received heart burials: supposedly, Richard and Henry I; Robert the Bruce and Eleanor I all rest in pieces.

From the 12th Century, the separate burial of a corpse’s heart and viscera (or intestines) was remarkably common for English & French aristocracy. As the medieval period progressed, heart burials increasingly ignored the intestines.

Often, hearts were buried at the place of death: a practical solution to the challenge of preserving a body, or were destined to be carried to a place of significance (as was often the case for Crusader Knights: some, who died in battle, asked for their hearts to return home. Others, dying at home many years later, might ask for their hearts to be buried in Jerusalem).

Special heart sepulchres would mark the burial place, while the hearts were buried inside visceral urns engraved with their own epitaphs, such as this play on Luke 12:34:

‘Ubi thesaurus meus, ibi cor meum’

Where my treasure is, there is my heart.

Aside from practical or sentimental reasons, medieval heart burials may be an expression of benefaction to a religious order – the case of a founder of an abbey or monastery, for example, may have donated their heart for burial. More than being a spiritual act, the creation of a bond between the order and the founder’s direct descendants helped to ensure their continued patronage.

But the best story about heart burials involves Thomas Hardy, whose body is interred as ashes in Westminster Abbey – but whose heart is buried in Dorset. Or possibly not. The story goes that following Hardy’s death, his doctor removed the heart and took it for safe-keeping until burial… but there is another version, in which the doctor puts the heart down for a moment… and it disappears. Suspicion falls (as it always does) on the cat. After a thorough search, the heart is nowhere to be found and instead, a pig’s heart is substituted for symbolic burial.

While it’s unlikely to be true, “The Cat Who Ate Hardy’s Heart” would make quite a story…

Defending the Dead

There’s a ghastly story in the news today: the story of two brothers in Pakistan who dug up the body of a young woman and turned some of the flesh into a curry.

Predictably, I heard about this from one of the horror posse–and equally predictably, everyone else (me included) jumped in with less-than-tasteful comments.

That’s not the nicest response to such an appalling piece of news, I know. The thing is, how else do you process something like that? Humour is our only real defence against the real horrors of the world–and for all their posturing, horror writers are generally more appalled by these sorts of stories than they let on. After all, they like to think that they can think up worse than you’d ever dream of; things that you couldn’t ever imagine actually happening… sadly, that’s not always the case.

It’s been a day for the dead one way and another, with the release of photos from the new archeological digs that have opened up along the route of the Crossrail construction through central London. There are currently 20 digs in progress, one of which is directly in the middle of the site of Bedlam – or St Bethlem hospital – and its burial ground.

Any major building project in London always uncovers history: the arrival of the railways at Kings Cross & St Pancras led to mass exhumations from the churchyards around the parish of St Pancras, and the Barbican’s foundations stand in the middle of a large plague-pit (part excavated, admittedly, by the Blitz). When work on One Poultry, close to the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City, began in the mid 1990s, the archaeology uncovered was so valuable to our understanding of Roman London that the dig lasted a full two years.

London is built on the bones of the dead: today’s Londoners literally stand on the shoulders of their forebears.

All of this reminded me of an article the New Scientist ran back in March about legislation governing the display & reburial of bodies discovered at archeological digs. It’s an entirely sensible piece: one which recognises the importance of treating the dead with dignity; of returning identified remains to their family (where possible) and the appropriate handling of bodies which have been requested for reburial on religious grounds. But it also argues that we can learn so much more from the long-dead: those whose names have been lost to history.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

Their names may be lost, but their faces are not. Thanks to modern technology, we can get a good idea of how they looked, what they ate, how they lived and what killed them. Through archaeology, they get to live again – they get to tell their stories; they get to teach and to inspire.

We’re still standing on their shoulders, of course… but this way, we get to see where we come from–not just where we’re going.

Alice of Abergavenny

The lower border of the third panel of the Ros tapestry shows Alice - complete with axe - seeking revenge for her lover's killing.

I’m still thinking about comics–and how they relate to women, and how women relate to them. And, god help you all, I’ve been reading about it.

Now I’m looking for them, I’ve found some fantastic blogs, articles and general geekery on the subject online, which I’ll come back to tomorrow once I’ve had time to organise the links (there will be many).

In the meantime, how’s this for Fem-Rage? The story of Alice of Abergavenny.

Her Welsh-Norman lover took her with him during the Fitzgerald-led Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170 and although the Normans were massively outnumbered on landing, their tactics enabled them to kill 500 of their opponents and take 70 prisoners. Unfortunately for Alice’s Marcher Lord, the invaders also suffered casualties–and he was one of them.

Alice’s considered response was to pick up an axe, and to personally behead each one of the 70 prisoners in revenge.

You go girl…

The Head Collectors

There’s a wonderful news story on the BBC site today about the king’s head. After years of speculation, scientists now believe an embalmed head discovered in France is almost certainly that of Henri IV.

“The human head had a light brown colour, open mouth and partially closed eyes,” said the scientists, led by forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier. “The preservation was excellent, with all soft tissues and internal organs well conserved.”

King Henri IV was one of France’s favourite monarchs. He converted to Catholicism to end France’s wars of religion, declaring “Paris is worth a Mass”, but was later killed by a Catholic fundamentalist. He built the Pont Neuf bridge and the Place des Vosges in Paris. Henri was the first of the Bourbon line of monarchs, which included his grandson Louis XIV, the Sun King.

His head will now be reinterred in the Basilica of Saint Denis after a national Mass and funeral next year.

(My good friend Andie points out the irony of Henri’s head’s resting place: St Denis was, according to legend, martyred by beheading – but he then picked up his head and walked for miles, preaching as he went…)

The fact it was Henri IV caught my attention: he’s one of the most important figures in arguably the best period of French history, tied up as he was with the Huguenots and the ever-charming Catherine de Medici. It’s all fascinating, and made even more so (not to mention sensationalised) by Dumas’ book, La Reine Margot.

After the excitement faded (I’m a medieval geek. It comes with the territory), I re-read the article on the BBC site, and I kept going back to this line:

A head, presumed to be that of Henri IV, has passed between private collectors since then.

Yes, it’s creepy – a bit creepy even for me. Skulls don’t bother me: I grew up in a medical household with a couple of skeletons knocking around the place… but an embalmed head just comes across as being a bit, you know, yuck. And what would you do with it, anyway? Use it as a paperweight? Bring it out as the surprise guest at the end of your dinner parties? Put it on a mantelpiece and lick it every time you pass (and yes, Gary, I can well imagine you doing that)?

Then I started thinking about these “private collectors” – ironically, they made me think of nothing so much as “The Club Dumas” – possibly my favourite book. Who are they, anyway? What exactly are they collecting: weird stuff, relics of the French monarchy or… well, bits of the dead? And what are they collecting them for?

I love the idea that maybe there’s a whole subculture of pickled-head collectors. And that they get together and have conventions: attend talks on preservation, compare collections – perhaps do the odd swap…

And here’s another thought for you: if you could have (or call dibs on) any head, living or dead, to keep on your mantelpiece – licking optional – who would you pick?

The Curious Legend of Dirty Dick

There’s a funny little pub on Bishopsgate in the City of London called Dirty Dicks. It’s narrow, but it’s easy to spot–partly because it’s got a bright red neon sign above it, and partly because there’s always a stag-night party in one stage of pissheadedness or another having their photo taken outside. It’s called Dirty Dicks (and, by the way, if you’re googling it, I cannot advise you strongly enough to check you have “safe search” enabled. Promise me you’ll check first? Please?)

It always used to fascinate me when I walked past it–usually on the way to the even more exotically-named Woodins Shades… what can I say? They had pool tables… and I figured there had to be a reason for giving a pub a name like that. Besides luring in men of a certain age wearing red polyester wigs, that is.

“Dirty Dick” was, in fact, Nathaniel Bentley, an 18th-Century merchant who owned a hardware shop and warehouse on Leadenhall Street. He was something of a dandy: stylish and well-dressed, he was nicknamed “The Beau of Leadenhall Street”.

This changed with the death of his fiancee: according to legend, he refused to wash or to change his clothes after that day, and became a complete recluse. When his cats died, he left their corpses to rot where they fell. Some versions of the story tell that his fiancee died on the very eve of their wedding and–distraught and heartbroken–Bentley simply locked the door of the dining room, leaving the table laid and the wedding breakfast to moulder within…

Sounding familiar yet?

The long and short of it was that Bentley became a celebrity of sorts–any letter addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse, London” automatically found its way to Leadenhall and that nickname, “Dirty Dick”, stuck.

Bentley ceased trading in 1804, and died shortly after. But his legacy of filth lived on: so infamous had his warehouse become that the owners of the Bishopsgate Distillery in its various incarnations bought the contents of the building and, after its demolition, moved them (cats and all) to another location nearby: the Old Jerusalem pub, which in due course changed its name…to Dirty Dicks.

As for the cats–and everything else–they used to be on display in the bar (in some instances, on the bar), although today they’re tucked away in a glass case.