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

Show Hide image

Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.