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

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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture