Out of the Ossuary

Michael Neill

  • The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare by Steven Mullaney
    Chicago, 231 pp, £24.50, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 11709 6

‘Memory,’ my mother remarked, distress masked by her usual self-mocking humour, ‘is a thing of the past.’ She was 85 and sliding into the dementia that would ultimately erase all remembrance. Increasingly haunted by the fear that she had, literally, nothing to say, nervous of gaps in conversation, she would make things up, their frequently bizarre character a reminder that social inhibition is itself a function of deep-laid memories: ‘Oh, the royal family? Of course they suffer from all sorts of unmentionable diseases, you know.’ ‘Unmentionable’, that mantra of mock-prudish middle-class politesse, had a special poignancy: she couldn’t have mentioned those diseases if she’d tried. Stories, however improbable, were all she had to hold onto. ‘I wonder where your father is,’ she said one day. With some awkwardness, I reminded her that he’d died four years earlier: ‘Oh no, I don’t think so. I think he’s off with some other woman.’ It was a way of bringing him back to life, and with him her familiar self – even if she could do so only by means of a fiction that parodied the pain of a loss that, rendered inaccessible, had become unspeakable.

This undoing of individual identity, in which disremembering becomes a kind of psychological dismemberment, has its social equivalent. Societies can suffer from a condition that resembles a communal dementia, brought on by the trauma of events over which their members had no control, and by the sanctions of enforced forgetfulness. That, at any rate, is the notion that drives the argument of Steven Mullaney’s new book. The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare begins in the prescribed New Historicist fashion, with a telling anecdote:

During the night of 10 April 1549, a procession of carts rumbled through the streets of London on a course that began at the Pardon Churchyard of St Paul’s and ended at a nondescript marsh outside of Moorgate, in the vicinity of Finsbury Field. Without ceremony, one cart after another emptied its contents into the marsh and then returned for another load, in a cycle repeated many times over – ‘more than one thousand cartloads’, according to John Stow – before the carters could be paid and sent home. Afterwards, the area was covered over with ‘soylage of the citie’ … [T]he carts were filled with human remains … [which] had been lodged in the great ossuary of the cathedral … located under the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin.

Mullaney asks us to remember a deliberate act of erasure through which – by order of the Protestant Duke of Somerset, the lord protector of King Edward VI, who was a minor – the occupants of the St Paul’s charnel house were consigned to symbolic oblivion. If charnels had once served as ‘a kind of waystation for the dead as they made their slow progress from this life to the next’, this unceremonious disinterment was intended to signal their terminal displacement: thus evacuated they became refuse indistinguishable from the ‘soylage of the city’. Like other sites of interment, the Pardon Churchyard had functioned as ‘a concrete and material form of social memory … a place where the past and the loved ones who embodied it were granted a lasting habitation in [London’s] affective landscape’. Somerset’s action was an example of what John Weever, the historian of funereal display, would lament as a general ‘rage against the dead’ – a particular kind of iconoclastic fervour that resulted in the mutilation of innumerable monuments and tombs in an effort to expel their inhabitants from communal remembrance. By rendering ‘entire cemeteries … mute, indecipherable and anonymous’, this desecration marked a violent reformation of the ‘felt relations with the past’ that had been central to late medieval culture.

Like the abolition of chantry chapels, where perpetual masses had been sung for the souls of the departed, this vandalism, Mullaney reminds us, was a material consequence of the Protestant denial of purgatory, with its suppression of the whole industry of remembrance and intercession that had for so long governed relationships between the living and the dead. As The Reformation of Emotions sketches this history, it seems to be about to revisit the territory charted by a number of recent studies that trace the imaginative consequences of a change that put the deceased beyond the influence of the living – the best known of them Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), with its extended account of the conflict between memory and forgetting that torments the protagonist of Shakespeare’s theologically vexed tragedy. But the focus of Mullaney’s interest is a little different. Indeed, while the pages of his book are haunted by those cartloads of defiled remains, they serve primarily as a way of sharpening the larger question to which the book several times returns: ‘What did it feel like to be an Elizabethan?’

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