The fat moon stares at me. He looks a bit like Charlie Brown. Soon he will follow his course to the right and vanish behind the house. I am sure to see moon shadows later in the evening.
In the following meandering babble I will mention some obscure, macabre, and disgusting things, so if this evokes the danger of triggering something un-wanted in you, dear reader, just skip now. Thank you.
I read an interesting book about suicide by M. Georges MINOIS : Geschichte des Sebstmords, Düsseldorf Zürich 1996 (first : Histoire du suicide, Paris 1995), and as it is with books, one always finds strange things that need further investigation. In the end it may be curiosity alone that makes us devote ourselves to what is called history. I am not free from this sin.
But what is history else but lived human life ? Homo sapiens sapiens is us, and those who served in the Roman legiones, or lived in the Keltic cities called oppida, the Ancient Greek and their strange invaders (once called “Seevölker”) are not different from the inhabitants of Classic Rome, Renaissance Rome, modern Rome or any other specimen of mankind on this planet.
But we may look at other cultural environments and find them strange – I think the most common descriptor was or is “exotic”. In fact, we are the exotic too. Not only for a visitor from another continent, but for ourselves, when we are confronted with the practices & ideas of those we call forefathers. The fabric, the weave of values, and hence the way we act, in accord with the resulting set of norms, or in dis-accord with, changes.
History is about change (what a banal truism), and if it teaches something, it may teach respect. I am generally sceptical about this idea of “learning from history”, simply because in my understanding a group – call it population or nation – or a set of groups we call society, does not learn. Individuals learn. They may make a difference at times. But it is undeniable that societies change, and have different attitudes to certain things, for example suicide, different from how they judged the same thing one or two generations ago. I still call all this Geistesgeschichte, outing meself as boneheaded conservative unmoved from more or less new changes in the science’ attitude. In fact I am a Volkskundler by trade, so by other people’s definition undeniably, a rotten reactionary.
But I digress. I think it is called “going down the rabbit hole”, years ago an old lady who lived near the Great Lakes introduced me to this formulation.
The discussion about suicide in the end boils down to two positions. Those who definitely refuse the praxis, those who allow it either generally or under circumstances. The arguments & used examples basically stay the same over centuries, the value judgements change. And MINOIS describes this European discussion from the middle ages to the end of the 19th century.
It has a juridical dimension of course. If killing oneself is a crime against the Christian order or the order of the Christian state, the authority must act : A crime needs to be prosecuted, fiat iustitia. This explains why suicidal corpses were punished. Usually by dragging the cadaver face-down through the streets to the gallows where they would be hanged by their feet and left to rot. If they were not thrown on the Schindanger, they were buried at night, preferably (face down ?) with a nice solid stake through the thorax.
This was practice through Early Modern times in Europe.
It is of note that, of course, there were a lot of exceptions. This would not happen to a gentleman of the Last Guinea Club (don’t know if this works for you, try this), or a French notable, but likely to the corpse of a peasant, the plebs. On judicial order.
Maybe a shortage of judges explains what MINOIS mentions on page 410 of his book :
“In the Bretagne alone one counts more lawsuits against corpses than in those regions Albert BAYET investigated : Twenty versus eighteen, the half of them ended with the corpse’s execution. At the start of the Revolution a salted corpse was found in Quimper waiting for its execution for five or six years, in Saint-Malo around twenty“.
(Minois cites CORRE & Aubry : Documents de criminologie retrospective (Bretagne, XVII-XVIII siecle), Paris 1895, p. 378. He mentions A. BAYET : Le suicide et la morale, Paris 1922.)
I know that the Middle Ages and the Baroque were not too delicate in handling dead bodies. Always remember that (the later Saint) Thomas Aquinas was cooked to remove his (fat) flesh from the bones that were kept as venerable relics. One could say they whirlpooled him. A not uncommon practice, especially in the hot South. I think some noblemen who died on the crusades were kept in honey while transported back home for the funeral. But to keep more than twenty brined corpses in storage just for further mutilation seems to be a bit macabre. I wonder how this happened practically ? Did they have a special shed at the hotel de ville, preferably in the basement ? What sad bastid held the maintenance job ? Someone had to refill the salt.
Unsurprisingly MINOIS mentions DEFOEs Journal of the Plague Years (1665), because in times of widespread death Hamlet’s question can come unpleasantly close. This interesting book that one could call the first modern novel, inspired a great, moving, animated short film titled The Periwig Maker (Ger., Eng., viewpure).
And so the circle of this ramble is closed – a little red haired girl features prominently in this picture, unnamed and venerated from afar by the wig maker, just like Charlie Brown will do a little later. It seems to be the little redhead’s fate through centuries to show just up, and then go away, silent and anonymously.