“Stop, here is the empire of death”

Ancient Romans buried their dead outside city walls to avoid contamination.  Medieval Christians, in contrast, kept their dead close, in churchyards or even within church walls, in crypts below the nave or entombed in the floor.  Later, elaborate above-ground tombs in the great cathedrals commemorated bishops and noblemen, although the “transi” tombs popular from the late fourteenth century into the sixteenth displayed both the pomp of life and the inevitable decay of death.

transi or cadaver tomb of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, 1556, Winchester Cathedral

I mention these gruesome tales to emphasize that in Western Christianity by around 1300 the integrity of dead body was less important than the state of its former inhabitant’s soul in terms of its ultimate resurrection. Concerns about the physical status of the dead body were more about ordinary living people, who believed that recently dead bodies might retain certain powers, and who abhorred the idea of bodily mutilation. Once the body had lain in the ground and had been reduced to bones these concerns were no longer pressing. Therefore, when churchyards became full, the bones of the dead – particularly those of the poor, who were buried without coffins in large pits — were regularly dug up and deposited in buildings known as charnel houses or ossuaries so that graves could be reused. The first charnel houses dated to the sixth century in a Greek Orthodox monastery and became widespread in the West. The charnel houses that surrounded the burial ground of the Church of Holy Innocents in Paris, the largest in the city, dated to the fourteenth century. The soil of Holy Innocents was reputed to be particularly corrosive to flesh, allowing bones to be removed regularly. Skulls and bones in charnel houses, piled to the rafters, gave no indication of identity or status.

Holy Innocents in the sixteenth century, with charnel houses to the left. Wikimedia

The ultimate goal of the devout Christian was the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming, but opinions differed about the fate of the dead body between death and resurrection.  The historian Caroline Walker Bynum, in The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 details centuries of theological wrangling about the mechanics of resurrection.  What if you were eaten by an animal?  What if your bones, in the ground for a millennium, had been reduced to powder? By the fourteenth century, the consensus was that God in his infinite power and wisdom could reassemble bodies no matter what their state of dissolution when the time came for their triumphal entry into Paradise. The relics of saints, often consisting of a fragment of a body part (usually a bone), commonly stood for the entire sanctified body.  Dividing up a body after death and even boiling a dead body to remove its flesh were practiced without fear of punishment and were particularly common among royalty and nobility, needing to transport a body for long distances for proper burial, or wishing to maximize their chances in heaven by burial in a several holy places. Boiling a saintly body could provide relics in the form of its bones. Although Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) was not canonized until 1323, his saintliness was widely recognized long before that time.  Bynum recounts a story that the body of Thomas Aquinas was decapitated and boiled as early as 1302, and his sister received his unboiled and uncorrupted hand, the lack of corruption after nearly thirty years being a sure sign of sanctity.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Triumph of Thomas Aquinas over Averroes, ca. 1470. Wikimedia

The number of dead bodies at Holy Innocents led to complaints about bad smells.  As new medical ideas about contagion emerged in the eighteenth century, bad smells became  associated with infection; the “noxious effluvia” given off by decomposing corpses carried diseases. After close to 1000 years of operation, the Parlement of Paris ordered Holy Innocents –the churchyard and the church — closed in 1780.  But where would its piles of bones go?  Three years earlier, Louis XVI had appointed the architect Charles-Axel Guillaumot as Inspector of the Quarries, following several dramatic collapses of Parisian streets into the ancient quarries below. These limestone quarries had provided much of the stone that built Paris. Guillaumot strengthened the tunnels to prevent their further collapse and suggested transferring to them the bones from Holy Innocents. The quarries were appropriately blessed in 1786, and the transfer of bones, occurring only at night, took fifteen months. The bones were at first simply dumped through an opening on the street, and only later neatly arranged. 

Gradually other burial grounds inside Paris were closed and the remains transferred to what became known as the Catacombs. A tourist attraction by the early nineteenth century, it received bones from the churchyards of Paris until 1859. It contains the bones of around six million people, over 40 generations awaiting the Second Coming.

[all unattributed photographs are by Anita Guerrini]

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