The Daily

On History

Ghosts Stay Near Home

November 3, 2015 | by

In the third of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the life and afterlife of the churchyard in literature.

John Constable, The Church Porch, East Bergholt, 1810.

In 1806, England’s greatest landscape painter, John Constable, began a series of drawings and oil sketches of the church and churchyard of East Bergholt in the Stour Valley of Sussex, the village in which he had been born. In one of these, a man and two women gather around a tomb and look intently at an inscription that we cannot quite read. Those who saw the final painting would have known the allusion. An engraving published as the frontispiece to a collection of epitaphs the same year makes it explicit: the girl with her back to us blocks most of the text, but we can make out “Here rest / A Youth.” Anyone in the early nineteenth century would have been able to fill in the missing words:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth,
A Youth, to fortune and to fame unknown

from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). They would not have needed the words; any picture of a churchyard evoked Gray. The “Elegy” was an immediate success when it was published and remained resonant for at least two centuries. “Poem of Poems,” Edmund Gosse, the late nineteenth-century man of letters called it in his English Men of Letters book about Gray. Line for line, it has given more words to the English language, according to the attributions in the Oxford English Dictionary, than any other source; it was probably recited by more schoolchildren in the nineteenth century than any other; it was continually translated—thirty-three times into Italian alone by 1850. It was endlessly reprinted and anthologized in English. Read More »

Can These Dry Bones Live?

November 2, 2015 | by

In the second of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the necrotopology of the churchyard.

Henry Alexander Bowler, The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’, 1855.

The churchyard was, with few exceptions, a lumpy, untidy place. Gravediggers have always instinctively known this; they dug in ground that had been turned over for centuries. From very near the beginning they intercut, hacked through, turned over, tossed out earlier tenants to make room for new ones, and every few hundred years or so apparently leveled the ground and started again. In centuries-long cycles, the fact that there were dead bodies in the ground was made evident on its surface. The dead are really there. The lumps we can still see today in a few churchyards escaped one last round of recycling when the bodies stopped coming or when a local landscaper decided to leave them be. Read More »

Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade

October 31, 2015 | by

In the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur explores the necrobotany of the yew tree, “the tree of the dead”—found in churchyards across the United Kingdom, France, and Spain.

William Turner, Pope's Villa at Twickenham, 1808.

A churchyard was adjacent to a church; both held the bones of the dead. The three—the building, the ground, the dead—were conjoined by a common history that made them part of what by the eighteenth century was a given; if ever there were an organic landscape, it was the churchyard.

The long-lived European yew tree—Taxus baccata, the tree of the dead, the tree of poisonous seeds—bears witness to the antiquity of the churchyard and shades its “rugged elms,” and the mounds and furrows of its graves: The yew of legend is old and lays claim to immemorial presence. We are speaking here of two or three dozen exemplary giants, some with a circumference of ten meters, that have stood for between 1,300 and 3,000 years but also of many more modest and historically documented trees that have lived, and been memorialized, for centuries. At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand. Some were there when the first Saxon and indeed the first British Christian wattle churches were built; a seventh-century charter from Peronne in Picardy speaks of preserving the yew on the site of a new church. Read More »

A Brief History of Spacefarers

May 19, 2015 | by

How America imagines its astronauts.


The Mercury Seven, 1960.

One of the things that makes the job title astronaut different from other jobs is that it existed in the collective imagination for centuries before it was ever actually anyone’s occupation. In the second century CE, Lucian of Samosata imagined travelers going to the moon and fighting a war with its inhabitants. In Jules Verne’s immensely influential 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, the word astronaut is never used, but three men seal themselves into a metal capsule in order to fly to the moon. Many of the details Verne came up with were so outlandish as to invite ridicule if they had not become reality a hundred years later in the Apollo program, including a launch from Florida and a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Verne’s three space travelers behave in some ways we now associate with astronauts—they solve problems that arise on their mission, analyze new information they observe outside their windows, and do calculations to figure out their location and speed. On the other hand, they indulge in nonastronaut-like behaviors such as getting drunk, becoming histrionic about unexpected problems, and expressing doubt about the meaning of their journey, about whether they should be doing this at all.

One of the first uses of the word astronaut to refer to a human traveling in space was in Neil R. Jones’s short story “The Death’s Head Meteor,” in 1930.

The young astronaut entered the space flyer, closed the door, and was alone in the air-tight compartment just large enough to accommodate him. On the instrument board before him were dials, levers, gauges, buttons and queer apparatus which controlled and operated the various features of the craft. He turned on his oxygen supply and his air rejuvenator so that the air could be used more than once, after which he shoved his starting lever forward. The craft raced suddenly off the roof and into the cloudless sky above the vast city of the twenty-sixth century.

Jones was probably as surprised as anyone to learn how soon his new word became an actual job title, only twenty-nine years later. In between, during World War II, the first actual rockets emerged. This was the beginning of a new era in which the astronaut became a consistent character to tell stories about, if still speculative. Though the rockets weren’t ready to safely contain humans, their streamlined hulls brought with them a clearer image of the astronaut fantasy. Part fighter pilot, part frontiersman, the helmeted spaceman climbed into sleek machines and left Earth in the black-and-white television shows of the fifties. In 1954, Walt Disney created Man in Space, a series intended to promote his new Disneyland, which was set to open the following year. In the opening shot of the series, Walt himself speaks into the camera. “One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel,” he tells us with an avuncular twinkle. “Until recently this seemed to be an impossibility.” Read More »

Roger That

May 13, 2015 | by

The complicated sex drive of William Byrd II.


Hans Hysing’s portrait of Byrd, ca. 1724.

William Byrd II was a colonial Virginia gentleman who, on occasion, was no gentleman at all. Writing about himself in the third person, in 1723, he bemoaned “the combustible manner in his constitution”; he cursed the innate passions that “broke out upon him before his beard,” making him a “swain” before all women. Byrd’s carnal drive underscored the eyebrow-raising vigor of his lust. On a trip to London in 1719, according to his secret diary, he “rogered”—an easy enough euphemism—no fewer than six women in nine days. Of one woman, he (proudly) recorded having “rogered her three times” in a single evening. That same night, Byrd, aged forty-four, noted with a tinge of sadness that he had “neglected my prayers.”

When he wasn’t on a whore-chasing jag in the metropolis, Byrd was back on his Virginia estate, called Westover, with his wife, Lucy. At Westover, his sexual proclivities certainly raged with similar, singleminded intensity—he wrote in his diary about having urgent sex with Lucy on a billiards table—but it was also tempered by a healthy desire to achieve mutual pleasure with her. He was just as inclined to “give my wife a flourish”—bring her to orgasm—as he was to “roger” her, a semantic shift suggesting that Lucy’s response to their sexual union mattered as much to Byrd as his own physical gratification. On April 30, 1711, he noted in his diary that although he discovered his wife in a “melancholy” mood, the “powerful flourish” he delivered filled her with “great ecstasy and refreshment.” He recalled one morning during which “I lay in my wife’s arms” while, during another, his wife “kept me so long in bed” that “I rogered her.” That evening he got around to saying his prayers—before rogering her again. The man could be a virtuous, even tender, Tidewater lover when he wasn’t being a London sleazebag. Read More »

Madness and Meaning

April 22, 2015 | by

Depictions of insanity through history.


Nebuchadnezzar turned into an animal, 1410.

Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.

Western culture throughout its long and tangled history provides us with a rich array of images, a remarkable set of windows into both popular and latterly professional beliefs about insanity. The sacred books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are shot through with stories of madness caused by possession by devils or divine displeasure. From Saul, the first king of the Israelites (made mad by Yahweh for failing to carry out to the letter the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, and all their animals, too), to the man in the country of the Gaderenes “with an unclean spirit” (maddened, naked, and violent, whose demons Christ casts out and causes to enter a herd of swine, who forthwith rush over a cliff into the sea to drown), here are stories recited for centuries by believers, and often transformed into pictorial form. Read More »