God, Gold, Corruption and Poverty
In March 687, on a barren islet off the Northumbrian coast, a lone man was dying, his feet ulcerated and his body badly wasted by malnutrition. It was bitterly cold and for five days the seas had been so rough that no one had been able to get to the islet. When they finally reached him, the man had not been able to rise for five days and his only food had been a few onions. His death shortly afterwards can hardly have been unexpected. Bede, the greatest historian of Anglo-Saxon England, commemorated that man, Cuthbert, as a saint. His self-sacrifice and lack of concern for his own material needs were such as to place him as a worthy disciple of Jesus. Cuthbert’s bodily remains, however, were to be the focus of intense attention and adorned in the richest way possible. He was re-interred several times, the most recent exhumation revealing a remarkably well-preserved Anglo-Saxon silver altar and golden pectoral cross, together with a variety of later medieval silks.
Early and medieval Christianity lavished splendour in the context of death, something which can be difficult fully to understand today. Many people no longer appreciate grand celebrations of death, but assume that funerals should be austere occasions. Such differences in attitudes are partly a result of cultural aesthetics. For example, George Bernard Shaw, an inveterate trouble maker, wrote against the tastes of his times when he talked of `earth burial, a hideous practice, [which] will some day be prohibited by law’. It was only in 1884, after much opposition from clergy who thought it might interfere with resurrection, that cremation was legalised in Britain. Since then, a rising horror of the corpse has ensured the spread of crematoria.
This has been less the case in America, perhaps because of greater faith there in the powers of technology to hide the terrifying reality of decay and so to make the corpse presentable for viewing at the funeral. Elaborate embalming, park-like cemeteries, grand monuments and rampant consumer marketing were held up to scholarly analysis tinged with amused distaste in Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963).
Modern society is divided in its attitude to display in the context of burials. Not everyone, evidently, would share the feelings of fascination and disgust with which I recently examined the cabinet of relics in a church in Arles. Greyish lumps of bone rested in semi-darkness on dull velvet. Gold-covered caskets shimmered in the candlelight. If the monks of Lindisfarne had felt similar disgust they would hardly have been keen to reopen Cuthbert’s tomb, as they did a few years after his death.
It is easy to find the medieval attitude peculiar and our own natural. Our fear comes from a skull’s power to remind us of our mortality, against which we feel powerless. But for the medieval Christian, human bones displayed the contrast between corporal weakness and the immortality of the soul which represented true life. Yet the corporal remains of saints were treasured. What makes the medieval relic cult hard to understand is not simply the valuing of bodily remains, but their encasing in gold and jewelled reliquaries. The effect is to deliver an aesthetic shock. Gold has a strong range of positive associations in modern society, of power, beauty and success. Corpses, by contrast, are now largely emblematic of powerlessness, ugliness and defeat. How was it that these two elements came together in the Christian tradition?