Lifting the Shadow

V.G. Kiernan

  • Death and the Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in l8th-Century France by John McManners
    Oxford, 619 pp, £17.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 19 826440 2
  • Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death edited by Joachim Waley
    Europa, 252 pp, £19.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 905118 67 7

The common reader may feel inclined to lay the same embargo on his writers as the Duke in the Elizabethan tragedy on his courtiers. Great tact, and a sustained intellectual animation to balance the much that is repulsive in the theme, were needed to make a very long book about it as attractive, as well as instructive, as this one is. It is a study of birth as well as death, and among what it shows perishing, besides human victims deserving or undeserving of their fate, are gangrened beliefs and ossified customs, leaving room for a fresher air to blow in. Though an ecclesiastical historian and an Anglican canon, its author treats his anything but lively subject in a lively fashion that helps to dispel its glooms. ‘The stolid battalions of the theologians and the irresponsible cavalry of hell-fire preachers and menacing apologists who skirmished on their flanks’, and their opponents, the philosophes and the esprits forts who were prepared to die without the Church’s aid, are treated with equal tolerance and insight.

Professor McManners very modestly introduces his book, an outgrowth from a set of Birkbeck Lectures, as mainly designed to introduce English readers to the work of some contemporary French historians, whose ‘methodological ingenuity’ he has high praise for. He does draw on them a great deal, but he adds much. Death has unloosed a flood of writings in recent decades, he remarks. It may be tempting to ascribe this to the decay, now as before 1789, of an outworn society, and to the nuclear peril which has haunted more alert minds for a long time before abruptly seizing on the mass mind as well. For the first time since the great plagues, mankind glimpses the possibility of extinction. In the 18th century, the great plagues and famines were petering out, but the physiological scene was still a grim one. A description from 1773 is quoted of a multitude of botched creatures, blind, crippled, hunchbacked, for whose condition bungled child-delivery could be blamed. Village life lay under the sway of ‘a universal, sceptical fatalism’, and of poverty which drove the sick into hospitals where they died because these institutions, too, were poverty-stricken. Higher up in society many afflictions were self-imposed. It may be said that in old Europe, as in India today, everyone ate either far too much or far too little; doctors were concerned chiefly with the well-off, the over-eaters, so an unshakable faith in purging and bleeding had some plausibility. McManners shows how it went back through the centuries to Galen, and catalogues the many ailments of Louix XIV, from gonorrhoea on, and his two thousand purgings, hundreds of enemas, scores of bleedings. Unluckily for his subjects, Louis managed to survive to a patriarchal age, but few lasted much more than half as long. In this sombre setting the Age of Elegance wears a strange look: one may guess at a half-deliberate endeavour, with the aid of the artists, to conjure up a world with all ugly reality left out or transmuted.

In another valuable work of last year, The European Miracle,[*] E. L. Jones counts as one of a ‘mighty triad’ of 18th-century advances, along with administrative reform and technological invention, the control of smallpox by inoculation. McManners is convinced that this must have had a profound psychological effect by fanning hope of better health. Medical publications multiplied after 1760. Doctors were improving in some ways: they could see the value of cleanliness, and links between mental tension and physical disorder, and they could allay pain with opium. Some were sympathetic to the new creed of Nature, one of whose symptoms was the vogue of watering-places. Inscribed in the miniature pump-room of Edinburgh’s Temple of Hygeia is the reassuring motto Bibendo valebis: trust in Nature’s gifts, and in the body’s ability to respond to them, harmonised with the Enlightenment’s optimistic estimate of human nature as fundamentally good. All the same, to remember Mme Bovary’s husband is to realise how sluggishly medical science spread into the provinces.

Population was growing, as it was in China too: why, in either case, is far from clear, and growth was so uneven that, as McManners points out, there was for long a widespread conviction, first challenged in 1763 by Voltaire, that numbers were dropping. In fact, over the whole century the average life-span seems to have grown by ten years. With the stimulus of dealings in annuities and life insurance, statistics were piling up: one of the grand innovations of the time, as McManners rightly calls it, for without figures mankind was as much in the dark about its situation as without maps. Longer life began ‘the lifting of the shadow of death from the human mind’. A less welcome consequence noted here was that men found the pathway of promotion blocked – in the Church, for example. Formerly a junior could count on those above him dropping obligingly into early graves.

A visitor to Canada may chance to learn that it is more a social duty to visit a bereaved family and view the corpse than to attend its burial: a vestige possibly of older custom. In the 18th century, people died (as royal infants were born) under the public gaze; and a good part of the battle of ideas between Enlightenment and religious conservatism was fought out, so to speak, round the death-bed. It was ‘a place of polite resort and public ceremony’. Anyone was entitled to follow the priest carrying the viaticum into a house, and thus earn 40 days’ remission from Purgatory. There was an extensive literature on how to prepare for death, though the biggest output of books had been left behind in the last quarter of the 17th century. Chapter Seven unveils a fantastic landscape of ideas, fears, phantasms, about the next world. They outdid any horrors woven by ju-ju or mumbo-jumbo in the depths of Africa. Preachers were always harping on death – persuasively, because death was so ubiquitous a reality. When death was close their eloquence about the need for confession, repentance, absolution – the spiritual equivalent of their medical confrères’ purges and bleedings – became more urgent. Hell-fire supplied the illumination. ‘Its lurid terrors had their parallel in the savage penal code of the law courts’; and preachers found far more to say about hell than about heaven. Humanity’s misfortune is to be far more sensitive to pain than to pleasure.

It was easy for the camp of progress to accuse the clergy of tormenting hapless men and women in order to gain a stronger hold over them. The Church was not in all ways monolithic, and from before 1700 there had been liberalising currents of thought. Criticism from the laity must have strengthened them: there were so many issues on which any individual without an iron digestion for dogma was likely to feel misgivings. One was the damnation of children, or of virtuous heathens, whose numbers were being swelled, as McManners says, by high-minded Chinese and Noble Savages newly encountered. Many parish priests might feel reluctant to terrorise their simple flocks, much as a village constable refrains from meddling and quarrelling more than need be with the neighbours among whom he has to live. Still, death and judgment and perdition were a divine’s one opportunity, ‘in a harsh hierarchical society’, to proclaim Christian equality. For his humbler listeners they were, likewise, the sole chance to hear equality proclaimed. A man could be imprisoned in France for marrying above his degree, even though the Church sanctioned any marriage by mutual consent. There is force in McManners’s conjecture that hell was kept hot less by the theological bellows than by the rancour of a miscellany of sadists, self-denying ascetics and ‘the disinherited poor’. The Medieval peasant would have burst, a historian wrote long ago, but for his faith in the devil.

It was in attacking Original Sin that the Enlightenment was ‘sapping the weakest buttress of Christian doctrine’; and the mode of transmission of guilt from Adam to his remote French descendants was only one of many obscurities besetting the grand doctrine of the soul itself. Objectors could point out how sensitive this mysterious entity was to the fluctuating condition of the body. Most questionable of all, the great majority of the myriads of created souls seemed to have been made for no better purpose than to be consigned to eternal flames by their ferocious maker. This eternity was another awkward stumbling-block for the faithful, in an epoch, more and more ‘rational and utilitarian’ in outlook, when all punishment was coming to be scrutinised, in the spirit of Beccaria, from the point of view of its efficacy as a deterrent.

Socialists and Marxists were to acknowledge their indebtedness to the French materialists of the 18th century. Plekhanov drew liberally on them; Lenin suggested that if any religious or other-worldly infections were found in the Russian working class, it would be a good idea to reprint some of those old philosophers’ works for its benefit. Their bent may at times appear negative or superficial, but there was an immense quantity of debris littering men’s minds, and the overhauling of this world and the next had to be carried on together. McManners remarks that the materialism of that age, if at times crude, has to be related to the level of science; and that while medicine was still retarded, anatomy and surgery and microscopy were making great strides. ‘The labyrinthine subtleties of the body’s working were a continual subject for admiration’ – even if no one could decide whereabouts in it the soul resided. Horizons were expanding in another way, through contact with other peoples, as civilised as the Chinese were thought to be or as primitive as Eskimos; much interest was taken, the book shows, in alien notions about life and death and after-life. Frenchmen had come to feel a puzzled curiosity about one strange race close at hand, the English. They were intrigued, we learn, by what was supposed to be a national vogue for suicide, indulged in with all the phlegmatic calm for which Englishmen were so remarkable. Even the word ‘suicide’ was coming into French from English.

Diderot, one of the pioneers we hear most about, won increasing assent for his ideal of survival, not as a ‘soul’, but in the memories of fellow mortals, and this guerdon was being thought of now as earned, not by warlike glory and carnage, but by service to humanity. For the Encyclopedists death was a natural process, and as such not to be dreaded but ‘met with calm acceptance’. Of course, there is always some ambivalence in such arguments – hurricanes and cholera germs are also part of nature. But when Voltaire, the archpriest of reason, was known to be nearing his end, all literate Europe was agog to see what kind of end he would make, and some admirers feared a capitulation. McManners describes his last days, and the old rationalist’s carefully framed answers to clerical questioning about his beliefs. A deist, not an atheist, he could declare a belief in God, but he took good care not to compromise his principles. For a man of 83, coughing blood, it was ‘a masterly performance’.

This really was an age of progress, McManners agrees, and some of its improving ideas were remarkably far-reaching. There were public-spirited administrators who anticipated welfare state concepts of the right of the poor to protection. In the forward move he sees philosophes and spiritual mentors of the kind who drew their inspiration from Fénelon travelling on parallel lines, ‘in the same general direction towards the sun’. ‘Intelligent scepticism’ had its counterpart in ‘highly personal piety’: thus to speak of a ‘dechristianising’ century is too sweeping, and to contrast it with a more religious 17th century misleading. What was happening was ‘conversion to a deeper, interior piety’. Public parade of faith, and private devotion, are ‘two graphs whose curves intersect’. This is a helpful way of putting it, and the sequence may be a recurrent one: the shift in Germany from early Lutheranism to later Pietism offers an analogy. It can be accepted that secular reformers and the more open-minded sort of Christians had impulses in common, among them a middle-class individualism impatient of being shepherded, or herded, unthinkingly by those above them; and the spiritual needle was beginning to turn towards the undoctrinal welfare Christianity of our own day.

How much of the fear of death has been a spectre artificially conjured up, or whether it ever becomes less daunting for the individual whose time is running out, is a question that McManners is wisely cautious of trying to answer. He speaks of areas of past thought ‘where we cannot penetrate except to record without comprehension’, one such being the universal passion for watching executions, often by torture. At any rate, memento mori was being less insistently dinned into men’s minds as time went on. One index was a diminishing taste for pomposity and grandeur in funerals, a subject on which Chapter Nine furnishes much information, often curious, not seldom grotesque. Interments supplied some of the clergy with opportunities for claiming fees, more productive of complaints against them than anything they preached. Among the enlightened there was a growing recognition of the peril to public health of burials inside churches, and cemeteries inside towns, though to get them removed cost a hard struggle against popular sentiment. The story illustrates why reformers pinned their hopes on converting royal autocracy to their views, not overthrowing it.

Perhaps another turning inward, and a substitute for grandiose funerals, can be seen in what McMasters calls ‘the cult of sepulchral melancholy’, with Young’s Night Thoughts as one of its sources; and in the kindred discovery of ‘the aesthetic appeal of ruins’, the sensibilité ruiniste. Painters covered their canvases with dilapidated monuments, castles, temples; the old revulsion from death and mutability was being distilled, it might be said, into artistic sensation. But the turn to funerary simplicity also went with the cult of Nature, and with strengthening ties in the circle of a smaller, more intimate family. Longer life-spans, death receding further into the distance, encouraged the ‘nuclear’ family to take its place as the focus of social affections. Family life is a leading theme of the book, and a sharp contrast is drawn between this newly-kindled warmth and the ‘harsh and loveless world’ of Ancien Régime attitudes.

What was coming about was a ‘subtilising and refining of the relationship between the sexes’, and a fresh appreciation of the young Children, that is, could be looked at as harbingers of a better future, instead of as imperfect copies of their elders and betters, to be hammered rapidly and forcibly into the same shape as theirs. At the other end of the human scale there was a novel respect for old age, hitherto looked at askance. Diderot thought 56 a ‘terrifying’ age to reach, and wrote sadly of old people withdrawing into themselves, shrivelling up. Today this may be happening again, as the family disintegrates. For McManners, warmth of family feeling was ‘the greatest contribution of the 18th century to the advance of civilisation’; and Rousseau is held up as its most gifted exponent.

No doubt a new vision of the family was genuinely a landmark in human progress. In it middle-class feeling for the natural – a perennial mark of dissatisfaction with obsolescent institutions – and humanised Christianity could find common ground. It is equally true that no institution is built for ever, and all have lurking weaknesses which time will bring to light – even in old China, where the family had been idealised and old age venerated since time out of mind. Before very long the young Karl Marx would be penning his strictures on ‘the miserable illusions of the bourgeois domestic hearth’. There is a great deal in a book like this for Marxists to ponder, much flesh and blood to clothe the bare bones of historical theory. Fresh emotion stirring, as we read here, within the hard shell of the old order accompanied the stirrings of a new mode of production, constricted by the integuments of the old, that Marx fixed his attention on; and McManners’s ‘revolution in personal relationships’ was an integral part of the altering class relations which were pushing the old regime towards the precipice of 1789.

With this the book is not concerned, and there is little in it from which the sequel could be anticipated. In the field of religion the cahiers of 1789 asked for no more than reforms in Church structure, and careers open to talents. But other glances forward show us the Revolution sweeping away the Church and secularising life, much as it decimalised everything on scientific principles. Royal tombs in St Denis were stripped to provide lead for the artillery; Marshal Turenne was kept in a box in the sacristy to be exhibited for a fee, and his teeth sold as souvenirs, before he found his way to a museum and at last to the Invalides. The theme of suicide returns: a striking number of revolutionaries, first Girondins and then Jacobins, ended their lives, like Cleopatra, after the high Roman fashion. Frenchmen, like Englishmen, were educated on Classical lines, and Cato was a heroic model.

One may wonder how much the Revolution’s profane treatment of the dead, more unceremonious than the monarchy’s banishment of cemeteries, helped to hasten religious revival. There was, as McManners says, a revulsion against burial in the fosse commune, and Napoleon authorised families to buy burial plots and own them in perpetuity, thus giving expression also – a comment Marx would have endorsed – to ‘the bourgois instinct for annexing everything possible into inalienable property’. It is another weighty observation that the old corporative or ‘multicellular’ society was being polarised between small family and omnipotent state, with today’s weakness of community life as a consequence: the family unit could not by itself be an adequate bulwark. Good and bad faded together. With belief in hell, the confraternities and collective rituals that shielded men against it also waned, ‘and with this decline began the loneliness of our modern way of dying’ – and of living, it may be needful to add. Faith survives as personal devotion, but ‘it is hard to see how it can become a community religion again.’ A more cheerful note is struck towards the end. After this long delving in the charnel-house, Professor McManners has come to think that, in spite of the clamours of the pulpit, ordinary folk probably spent not very much of their time thinking about their latter end. ‘People are concerned essentially with living, and not with dying.’

Many of his readers will be glad to have a kind of epilogue to turn to, his essay on ‘Death and the French Historians’ in the handsomely illustrated collection edited by Joachim Waley. Here he is able to cast an eye over a wider range of epochs, as he surveys the contributions made to the subject by scholars like Bremond, Vovelle, Le Bras, Morin and, of course, the doyen of contemporary authorities, Philippe Aries. Waley’s introduction emphasises the antithetical viewpoints represented by Ariès, whose observations ‘are never related to any demographic or economic background’, and Vovelle, with his meticulous analysis of the evidence provided by wills drawn up in Provence, for whom attitudes to death are above all ‘indicators of social change’. A comment by Professor McManners on these two deserves to be borne in mind: both ‘have concentrated too exclusively on Catholicism’.

[*] The European Miracle by E. L. Jones. Cambridge, 286 pp., £15 and £4.95, 23 July 1981, 0 521 23588 X.