Historical European practices

This second section focuses on the prevailing historical European attitudes involving human bone.[17] It is well known that the trafficking of human bones in the name of Christianity was central to the economy of the Roman Catholic Church. Within a hundred years of Jesus’ crucifixion, the bones of tortured devout followers were being recovered and handled as spiritual treasures.[18] The current Catholic Church continues to officially sanction the worshipping of relics and their associated miracles. In 1974, Pope John Paul II visited Edinburgh and presented to St Mary’s cathedral the shoulder blade of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.[19]

Whether it was the acts of martyrdom or transference of pagan beliefs, the bones of the saints were believed to be pregnant with ‘heavenly’ powers capable of performing miracles, and the subsequent miraculous happenings fulfilled these expectations. Peter Brown suggests that relics were potent because these ‘immortalised’ remains or personal belongings represented the locus in which earth and heaven had met.[20] Throughout Europe human bones were dug up, cut up, exhibited, toured, pillaged, stolen, and faked. The ownership of such treasures brought status and, more importantly, profit.[21] Chaucer’s fourteenth century Canterbury Tales provides an insight into the business of pilgrimage. In his tale, 29 pilgrims are thrown together by their desire to visit the relics of Thomas à Becket. They were not to be disappointed. Canterbury Cathedral had glorified four sites to St Thomas, each exhibiting a bit of him.[22]

The cutting up of a relic to create fragments was common; the fact that Becket’s body was in one location was unusual. A French researcher investigating old church inventories found that St Mary Magdalene must have had six bodies to accommodate all the relics purported to be of her.[23] Because the dispersion of ‘bits of true’ relics could not fill the demand, secondary relics, such as the clothes martyrs and saints had worn or implements used in their torture, were also venerated. The production of fakes and stealing were other ways of acquiring a relic, the possession of which bring renown and monetary rewards to a religious organisation. The transfer of St Foy’s bones from the monastery at Figéac to the Conques monastery is an example of the importance of relics and the extraordinary means some would go to acquiring a relic. Historical legend relates that, in the 900s, a Conques monk spent ten years of undercover work as a Figéac monk until he was entrusted as a guardian of St Foy’s bones, which he then stole, taking them to the Conques monastery and bringing a renewed vigour to the community.[24]

However, trafficking of human bones was not just a religious phenomenon. From the mid 1700s to 1832, the British medical profession was involved in wholesale ‘body snatching’. It was estimated that, in the early 1800s, London anatomy schools were illegally procuring almost 800 bodies a year. London was also supplying Oxford and Edinburgh.[25] There was opposition to the nightly activities of these ‘resurrection men’, as they became known, especially if they dug up a body belonging to the upper classes. Nevertheless, others approved the ‘getting’ of bodies in the name of science. However, intentional murder for anatomy subjects finally forced the Anatomy Act of 1832 to be passed.[26]

The most common established mortuary practice in Europe was interment.[27] By the 1600s, burial meant buying a plot of land within an area designated for the disposal of bodies. In seventeenth century Britain, only royalty and priests were buried in clothes, the rest were wrapped in a shroud, and only the wealthy could afford a coffin.[28] The county council buried paupers as best befitted the pauper’s beliefs, if known. By the 1700s, Vanessa Harding notes the great fear of dying as a pauper. Not being able to afford a proper burial was a social disgrace. The adherence to restrictive mourning customs identified and reinforced the family’s social identity and standing within the community.[29] Nigel Llewellyn notes that all funeral paraphernalia had only one function, ‘…they were designed to display and reinforce the social distinctions of the dead’. He also notes that the mourning paraphernalia not only displayed social rank, it also created visually recognised public and private spaces in which particular outpourings of grief were acceptable.[30]