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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A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event – not least because of who shows up for interview

My week, including an invitation to Mrs May, grilling a top copper, and the unity of Miliband and Farage.

The harrowing details of the terrorist atrocity in Nice made for a difficult listen. The atmosphere in the media centre at Lord’s that morning as we gathered for the second day of the Test match against Pakistan was muted and sombre; cricket really was the last thing on our minds.

However, there was no avoiding play starting at 11 o’clock, and that I would be on air welcoming listeners to Lord’s. How to get the balance and the tone right at such a time? Bright and breezy in a “life goes on” sort of a way? Or stunned, angry and confused, reflecting the true mood of all of us? Is sport a welcome distraction at times like this, or merely a triviality?

 

Do or Di

Unfortunately, this was familiar territory. Last November I welcomed BBC Radio 4 listeners to a relatively meaningless one-day international against Pakistan in Sharjah immediately after a graphic report on the Paris terror attacks, which had taken place the previous day. If I am honest, that occasion, thousands of miles from home, felt awkward and difficult to justify. I scripted a very straightforward and safe opening line or two, and comforted myself by recognising that, despite the horror in Paris, we were still playing cricket against a team of Muslims in the United Arab Emirates.

But my most difficult broadcast was on the afternoon of 31 August 1997. With the world in a state of shock, and moments ­after Princess Diana’s body was repatriated to RAF Northolt, BBC2 broke away with the solemn announcement: “Now cricket. Here’s Jonathan Agnew . . .”

 

Let ’em eat cake

Theresa May’s succession as Prime Minister continues the healthy connection between politicians and cricket. So far I have interviewed three presidents (Mandela, Mbeki and Musharraf), four prime ministers (Major, Cameron, John Howard of Australia and Gaston Browne of Antigua) and many other senior political figures. I am hopeful we can entice Mrs May, who watches her cricket at the Oval, to visit us next summer.

If my gentle persuasion is not enough, we can surely rely on Geoffrey Boycott’s less subtle approach. Mrs May has already surprised a few by revealing herself to be a fan of the greatest living Yorkshireman, and even delivered a cake to him when she visited Headingley last summer.

 

Be my guest

A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event, which gives me the chance to interview a wide variety of well-known personalities on Test Match Special. Last week’s victims ranged from Harry Potter’s Weasley twins to Britain’s most jubilant mum, the effervescent Judy Murray. Then Michael Parkinson turned the tables on me with an ambushed interview to celebrate my 25 years as BBC cricket correspondent. Wonderful memories.

The rock star Alice Cooper must rate as my most unlikely Lord’s guest (Boycott shook Mrs Cooper’s hand in the honest belief that she must have been Alice), while John Stevens of Scotland Yard gave me my best scoop. After meticulously sidestepping everything John Humphrys could throw at him that morning, Sir John arrived at Lord’s for his lunchtime date with me. Fuelled by a glass of champagne and with the band of the Grenadier Guards playing on the hallowed turf, he carefully considered my question, identical to the one he had faced on the Today programme that morning, about the number of terrorist threats on London that had been thwarted by the Met. “Eight,” he replied. And then, as every mobile phone in the media centre instantly burst into life, he quietly slipped away on holiday.

 

Bowled over

I remain in contact with many of our guests and could not avoid a chuckle when, within seconds of each other, texts arrived from Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. It probably will not be appreciated by either of them, but they are in fact united, albeit through cricket. Farage was wearing a Primary Club tie as he celebrated his victory in a private box in the Mound Stand. Supporting cricket for the blind and partially sighted, the Primary Club is open to all those who have been dismissed first ball in any form of cricket, and the tie is adorned with shattered stumps and flying bails.

Clean bowled! The referendum claimed more than its share of those.

 

Golden glory

So to the Rio Olympics, and specifically equestrianism. Yes, it is an unlikely assignment, earned more through my wife owning a horse rather than any personal involvement, but I am taking my duties seriously and have been learning how to ride – more seriously, it seems, than the world’s top golfers who, one by one, are pulling out, citing concerns about the zika virus.

Twenty-two male golfers have withdrawn so far, including the top four in the world, confirming for many that to include mainstream, professional sports such as golf
and tennis in the Olympics was a mistake. These are highly paid sportsmen on a constant global treadmill and used to playing for serious prize money. Rory McIlroy appeared to speak for many of them before the Open when he confirmed that golfers are not bothered about the Olympics.

Whatever the reason for so many pulling out, the integrity of golf as an Olympic sport has been irreparably damaged. Not only that, but I suspect it has also done for cricket’s ambition to join the fold, which has been its aim. Perhaps it is for the best. In my equestrian circle, five of the eight members of the dressage and eventing teams are female; women are thought to be more vulnerable to the zika mozzie than men. Yet for them, as for most athletes, Rio  can’t come soon enough to fulfil their lifelong dreams of winning not money, but an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Agnew is the BBC’s cricket correspondent and a presenter of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt