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.

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