God’s waiting room: residents of Naples still tend to paupers’ remains in the Fontanelle ossuary. Photo: Contrasto
Show Hide image

The Fontanelle ossuary: in Naples’ stacks of skulls, all men are equal

The bones housed in the Fontanelle ossuary speak to the conviction that the obscure deserve comemmoration, too.

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity
Peter Brown
Harvard University Press, 288pp, £18.95

In Naples, the poor have always lived among the dead. Caves carved out from the soft tufa on which the city was founded bear witness to millennia of both settlement and tombs. In 1656, when plague struck the densely packed tenements of a district beyond the city walls called the Valley of the Dead, a vast and ancient quarry was appropriated to serve as a charnel house.

Two hundred years later, the Fontanelle, as it was known, had become an immense jumble of bones and skulls, piled in the gloom of the caves. To Gaetano Barbati, a local priest, this cemetery, filled with the skeletons of paupers, despised and forgotten in death just as they had been in life, offered a standing reproach. So, in 1872, he set to ordering their remains. To him and to the poor who lived beside the Fontanelle the dead housed in the ossuary were potential saints: souls which, once purged of their sins in the afterlife, might intercede with Christ for the living. The duty of care paid to the remains of the indigent promised, in the opinion of those who performed it, nothing less than a chance of heaven.

It was not only visitors to Naples who were liable to find this cult shocking. In 1969, the archbishop of the city officially denounced it as fetishism. Yet the spectacle of rows upon rows of skulls, neatly and lovingly stacked in the Fontanelle, is at least as moving as it is unsettling. It speaks powerfully of an ideal that it is not necessary to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to admire: the conviction that the obscure no less than the great deserve commemoration. Indeed, it is the implication of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, told in Luke’s Gospel, that the poor are likelier than the rich to end up clasped to Abraham’s bosom. The Christian heaven, as it has long existed in the imagination, is thoroughly democratic. It is not a place where the hierarchies that, in the fallen world, had condemned the indigent of Naples to their lives of poverty and hunger, and ultimately to a pauper’s grave, are replicated. In heaven, so most Christians often assume, all souls rank as equal.

This, however, has not always been the case. During the early years of Christianity, the understanding of the afterlife was very different. Peter Brown, in the opening pages of his book The Ransom of the Soul, introduces us to Julian, an archbishop of Toledo who, in the late 7th century, compiled from earlier Christian authors an anthology of writings on the fate of the soul. The result, A Medical Report on the Future World, was a huge bestseller throughout the Middle Ages, and articulates numerous presumptions that are familiar to Christians today; and yet, as Brown engagingly puts it, had its author met many of those whom he cites, “they might have struck him, despite their common Christianity, as strange, almost Jurassic creatures from a world very different from his own”. The afterlife was one of the many aspects of Christianity that had evolved over the course of the faith’s first centuries. Just as Lazarus, in the parable, was gathered up into Abraham’s bosom rather than going straight to heaven, so would most souls, the early Christians believed, be held in an equivalent of a station waiting room until the Day of Judgement. Only martyrs were exceptions. They and they alone passed directly into paradise. In death as in life, there was an elite.

The story of why Christians ceased to believe that most souls “should, as it were, mark time before entering heaven”, and how a recognisably medieval conception of the afterlife came to evolve, is the subject of Brown’s slim but revelatory book. As in his previous work of history, Through the Eye of a Needle, so his theme in The Ransom of the Soul turns out to have much to do with money. Sin, in the monetised world of the Roman Mediterranean, came to be envisaged as a kind of debt. The devil was increasingly cast as a “Scrooge-like accountant”, complete with ominous ledger-book, while God was imagined as a generous creditor, ever capable of waiving sinners’ arrears. Yet how best to ensure that a sinner’s debt was indeed wiped clean in the afterlife? In late antiquity, opinion on that was divided; and only gradually, in the Latin west, did a definitive answer evolve.

Perhaps, some Christians wondered, benefit might derive from waiting for the Day of Judgement beside a martyr? In Naples, on the opposite side of the valley from the Fontanelle Cemetery, there is a catacomb that once contained the mortal remains of the city’s patron saint: Januarius, a bishop put to death for his faith. In the 4th and 5th centuries, following the legalisation of Christianity, the rich were increasingly prepared to pay for the privilege of being buried in the tutelary presence of such a man – with the result, predictably, that the catacomb ended up colonised by their graves. Yet when the bishop of the neighbouring city of Nola wrote in 420 to a colleague in North Africa, asking for his approval of this practice, the reply could hardly have been more of a rebuff. “Burial beside the saints did nothing whatsoever for the soul.” Such was the blunt and ultimately decisive verdict of the theologian who, more than any other, served to set the Christian west on its distinctive course: Augustine of Hippo.

“We should not only pray, but give alms.” Augustine’s concern, in giving this advice, was with the salvation of the vast mass of ordinary Christians. Rather than dispose of worldly goods altogether, as urged by Pelagius, his greatest rival in the field of theology, he urged the faithful to give money to the poor in a quotidian routine of charity. Daily life was defined in his writings as a continuous attempt to stop the bark of the soul from sinking. “It took place against the noise of the steady creak of the bilge pump of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” The dead as well as the living were implicated in this struggle to keep the soul afloat. As Brown demonstrates, moving from Augustine’s Africa to post-Roman Gaul, both needed each other. The bond between them, which even today prompts worshippers in the Fontanelle Cemetery to tend to the skulls arrayed there, “constantly cemented by the rituals of the Church, became a cosmos of its own – a subject of deep preoccupation, the stuff of visions, and the object of the regular prayers and donations of millions”.

With a lifetime of study and reflection behind him, there is no one better at tracing the process of such change than Peter Brown. The Ransom of the Soul shows him to be as sparkling as ever; and it takes us, as his books always do, on a tour of depths that he is uniquely qualified to explore. The outward turn of events, be it the fall of empires or the founding of kingdoms, snarls and swirls on the surface like Neapolitan traffic; but deep underground, lit by flickering torches, there are frescoes, and ancient graves, and rows of skulls to be found. How fortunate we are to have Brown as our guide to them. 

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear