Thursday, June 14, 2007

A tanner will last you nine year...

I have always harboured suspicions about archaeologists – their vociferous pretensions to exclusive ownership of the past, the endless flexibility with which they manage to discover instructive relevance to contemporary preoccupations (usually climatic, these days), their eager protestations that their discipline is nothing to do with treasure-hunting. (Why don’t they accept that function? When so many artists shun producing the beautiful, they supply a need by digging it up). But above all else, it is the ghoulishness of archaeology that repels me: obsessing over the Ice Man Oeti, the bog people, the mummies, all that fuss about diagnosing of the causes of forgotten deaths…

In February 1647, Mr. Hill, the sexton of St Leonard’s, Eastcheap, was digging in the chancel of the church to prepare a grave for a wealthy parishioner. The anonymous reporter casually writes that the intention was, ‘according to usual custom went to take up, and throw away, the long lying, and fleshlesse, bones’. ‘Throw away’ did surprise me – was that the ‘usual custom’? It seems unexpectedly brusque (‘how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if 'twere Cain’s jawbone!’). But ‘contrary to custom, expectation, or nature, he found a body firm …Much wonder was raised, at the raising of this long dead and buryed body; for all his lims and lineaments, his hair, both of head, beard and other usual places, all as firmly growing, or rather fixt, as it was when he was first buried’

So, ‘search was made, both within and without book, who it should bee that had been so long agone buried in that place’, and it was finally determined that these were the mortal - or maybe immortal - remains of a Mr. Pountney, buried there 34 years before.

I have remarked before in this blog about the unusual crowd-gatherers of mid 17th century, puritan London.
In the general absence of anything better to go and see, this more-or-less uncorrupted body ‘was made, for the more ample manifestation of his miraculous preservation, a general spectacle to multitudes of beholders’.

Did anyone quote Hamlet, as dead body became spectacle? 'How long will a man lie i'th'earth ere he rot?' Then there’s that suggestion of them all simply coping well with the sight of a body which was (counter to the pamphlet’s talk of miracles) in not that good a condition (‘Briefly all parts within and without were compleat and might challenge any thing but life it self, save his face something disfigured and skinlesse, his nose fallen, and his eys sunk into his head or otherwise perished.’)

The usual gentleman virtuosos arrived, and wanted more to see and wonder at: ‘it pleased the honorable spectators who had with admiration beheld the external frame so strangely preserved from corruption to have a view of the internal parts and to that end two men sufficiently experienced in the art of chirurgery were sent for to open him’.

Nobody seems to have blinked at this early manifestation of the archaeological assumption that the dead are fair game, even though it was a fellow Christian buried in the sacred building they still used, and not really that long-dead either. It was found that ‘his intrels with his bowels were as supple and moist as if he had been but newly departed from this life’.

As archaeology does, the relevance of the discovery to its time is announced. Mr Pountney is, ‘by his wonderful and miraculous preservation from common corruption, though dead, become a living Preacher unto thee of the power of God’.

Of course, they were used to the dead as a spectacle, their civic authorities put bodies on view. I've been intrigued by the way Henry V's wife, Katherine of France, had never been buried, and her coffin was still to be seen on the sill of a window in Westminster Abbey (this must be mentioned in Stow's Chronicle somewhere). Those who saw Henry V must have felt oddly familiar with the heroine of Act V.

Title page of:

Immortality in mortality magnifi'd in a strange (yet true) narration of one Master Pountney, merchant, sometimes living in the parish of Mary le Bow in Cheapside, who was buried in the chancell of the church of Leonard East-cheap, anno Dom. 1613. and was found on this present Feb. 15. 1647. whole and sound without any diminution or corruption of his members or body inward or outward, having lain in his grave (according to the precedent date, which is extracted from the register book of the aforesaid parish, Leonards East-cheap) 34 years, published as a wonder of wonders in this age. Printed and published according to order of Parliament, 1647.

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