top of page
  • Susan Elaine Jones

Things I learnt last week

Last week I spent a couple of days at the Material Bodies conference, where archaeologists and historians got together to share and compliment each other's work. (This is in no way an attempt to accurate record the conference proceedings, it's just some fun things I made notes of).

Hogarth's depiction of Mary Toft birthing rabbits

Things I learnt include:

  • Karen Harvey has a book coming out on Mary Toft, the "woman who gave birth to rabbits". Accounts of Mary Toft turn up in all sorts of places, from the Panacea Museum (and why people believe crazy things) to magicians' texts and history books about why they also work with quiet, pliant animals to produce them from hats. Producing them from a womb is a bit more of a specialist trick.

  • Grave peace is the official term for how long a grave should remain undisturbed for - and that, though not commonly known in Britain, is and has been common practice throughout the UK and Europe. Standard grave peace in Scandinavia is 20 years, but some places go down as low as 7 years. Then the grave can be dug over and reused. (Sian Anthony's talk)

  • That more often, people only go to the trouble of removing the headstones and leave the bodies there to amicably (or not) share the space with the new occupants (one possible problem of this is illustrated here). And though many families may pay a fair amount extra to be buried together, and to have a longer period of grave peace, there is no guarantees that some strangers might not be intruding into that space too. (Sian Anthony again.)

  • And indeed, some historic figures may boast about finding the bodies of dukes and removing them to more prestigious places, but, if later someone finds those same bodies, with all the ducal grave plates and such intact, you can rightly call out the self-promoting weasel as a pure fantasist! (Christian Meyer's talk)

  • Those excavators also had the "fun" of finding a decapitated head in a jar, placed underneath a full body burial.

  • Another head came to light when David Tennant played Hamlet at the RSC used the real human skull of André Tchaikowsky. He was a Polish composer and pianist, holocaust survivor, who donated his skull to the RSC for exactly the purpose of being part of Shakespeare plays (as he hated seeing plastic skulls being used): Despite it honouring his wishes, and being authentic to the play, some people are still offended. (Shawn Rowlands' talk.)

  • Yet more heads. This time Major General Horatio Gordon Robley's collection of the severed heads (Mokomokai) of tattooed faces of Maoris (tā moko). However, now the collection has now been repatriated* to relatives and/or the Museum of New Zealand. (Shawn Rowlands again.)

Madame du Coudray's "machine" for teaching midwifery in the 18th century. Just its existence is enough for me to enjoy! (Thank you Daphna Oren-Magidor for this!)

  • That since 1733, fathers were financially responsible for their children, wed or not. But the Bastardy law, passed in 1834, made illegitimate children the sole financial responsibility of the mother, plunging many unwed mothers into shocking poverty. Combined with the 1803 Miscarriage of Women Act that had made attempted abortion a capital punishment if it was after "the quickening" (when the movements of the fetus can be felt in the womb, around 20 weeks), this left unwed mothers with precious few safeguards compared to the 1700s. The subsequent rise in hysteria about "baby-farming" (offloading all parental responsibility to other people) compounded the moral outrage. Victorians really went backwards on human rights in the name of moral outrage. (Lizzy Craig-Atkins and Mary Fissell's talk).

  • And despite the disaster that pregnancy could be, not just to unwed mothers but also large families who couldn't afford another child, and despite the high mortality rates and claims that parents weren't invested emotionally in children for the first few years, and with no "proper" place in a churchyard for unbaptised infants (and possibly miscarriages), in St Hilda's churchyard in South Shields there are a number of tiny coffins buried in an organised, decent and respectful space, showing just how much infants or possibly miscarried fetuses of as young as 20 weeks were still cherished and cared for (Lizzy Craig-Atkins and Mary Fissell's talk).

  • People went to hospital for broken arms and legs, but not as often for broken fingers and toes (comparing hospital records to skeletal remains). (Madeleine Mant's talk.)

  • Also, there seem to be a lot of rib fractures in the past. I mean, really quite a lot. A woman with 46 healing or healed rib fractures!

  • Male skeletons often present with an array of rib fractures, along with nasal fractures and 1st and 5th metacarpal fractures. Pugilism, or fist fighting, was a common pastime.

  • But women would fight too. My favourite being this image from the British Library showing two woman "verbally abusing each other", an illustration of a real event from the Whores and Bawds of Drury Lane:

One lady is saying "Come out you Bitch, I'll maul you"

And the other lady is saying (Kiss my Arse you Whore. I'll nab your Cuckold."

  • It's nice to see that the world hasn't changed that much, and historical figures are still relatable.

*In regards to repatriation of the maori heads, I had a nice discussion with Shawn about this as the ethical issues are complex - the maoris of the time were quite happy to sell the heads to Robley, and were sometimes done as a humiliation to enemies rather than a kind treatment for loved ones. Though Robley did offer to sell the collection to back to New Zealand in his lifetime, they declined and it was acquired by the America Museum of Natural History. This isn't the awful grave robbing of aboriginal remains and subsequent disrespectful use, but was a open-eyed business transaction - however strange and distasteful that may seem now.

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page