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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.