Tuesday, April 07, 2015

John Aubrey gets gross

With baseball beckoning, today I'll just share a couple of bits from Ruth Scurr's wonderful new John Aubrey biography-as-diary, John Aubrey: My Own Life. I wrote last week about Scurr's audacious approach; before I quote from the book I'll just remind you that what Scurr is presenting here in Aubrey's voice is mostly drawn from his own writings, with spellings modernized, but that she's likely patched together disparate sources and added some connective or clarifying tissue. If you care to trace her work, the book's notes are helpful (though not as granular as I'd like), and for what it's worth, thus far any time I've tried to find the source lines behind a particularly interesting observation or phrase, I've been able to do so. (Thanks, Google Book Search!)

These entries come from November of 1666, when Aubrey was forty. I'll share abridged versions of three entries that appear consecutively and deal with similar subjects. I'm abridging for maximal disgust!

First, an entry that follows a meeting of the Royal Society that included a report on visits made to the post-Great Fire ruins of St. Paul's to look at the miraculously preserved body of Bishop Braybrook. It had been dislodged from its resting place by the fire, and workmen clearing rubble were charging twopence for a look. "I will go myself," decides Aubrey:
I saw Bishop Braybrook's body. It was like a preserved fish: uncorrupted except for the ears and pudenda, or genitals .It was dry and stiff and would stand on end. It was never embalmed. His belly and stomach were untouched, except for a hole on one side made by the falling debris. I could put my hand in the hole and could see his dried lungs.
Of course, of course: you see a mummified body that's got a hole in it, you're gonna stick your finger in there. Right? (Ewwww.)

Aubrey, who would talk with anyone, asked some questions of the laborers:
They tell me when they took up the leaden coffin of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose sumptuous monument was among those tumbled in to the church, the stink was so great that they took a week to scour themselves of it.
Believe it or not, things gets more disgusting from there. The next entry I'll give you in full:
A little before the Great Conflagration, somebody made a hole in the lead coffin of Dean Colet, which lay above the ground beneath his statue. I remember my friend Mr Wylde and Ralph Greatrex, the mathematical instrument maker, decided to probe the Dean's body through the hole with a piece of iron curtain rod that happened to be near by. They found the body lay in liquor, like boiled brawn. The liquor was clear and insipid: they both tasted it. Mr Wylde said it had something of the taste of iron, but that might have been on account of the iron rod. This was a strange and rare way of conserving a corpse. Perhaps it was a pickle, as for beef. There was no ill smell.
Glad he cleared up that last bit, after the men drank the strange coffin liquid! Good god.

Moments like these, along with accounts of the public display or dissection of hanged criminals, are a reminder of the odd transformation of our attitude toward bodies in the years since Aubrey was poking corpses. Even as--or perhaps because--religious belief has ebbed, our sense that a dead body in some sense retains, and should retain, some rights (of privacy, of inviolability) has grown immensely. I suppose it's largely a result of the combination of a growing awareness (if one that many, perhaps even most, of us kick against) that the physical and the spiritual aren't separate--that the body is not just a vessel, and this world, after all, is our home--combined with our own recent history's growing belief in individual self-determination. Still, even if I can come up with a thumbnail rationalization like that, nonetheless there are few things I've ever read that have made me feel more estranged from the past than these passages.

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