Breathing life into a body

by Kristof Smeyers

Here is a story.

One evening a nun sneaks down into the vault under a chapel. She has been contemplating this all day. She shivers: she is a little cold and more than a little nervous. It’s around nine o’clock and she is alone, but she doesn’t feel alone. In the corner of the underground space stands, ‘as upright as a wax candle’, a long-dead body awaiting reburial. The nun kisses its hand, with fingernails ‘as white as those of a living person’. Then she cuts or rips a piece of the thin black veil that covers the body’s pale and intact face, clenches it in her fist, and hurries back up the stairs. Somehow, despite her secrecy, the police find out: the next day an officer stands guard at the entrance to the vault. In the following days, people from far and wide are drawn to the body standing in the vault: it ‘makes a great noise in the city’, the nun writes in a detailed letter about her transgression. So great a noise, in fact, that plans change: the police has the body buried at night in an undisclosed place in the cemetery to deter prying eyes and stealing hands.

What to make of such stories?

It’s a peculiar story, about an incorrupt body, and historians tend to zoom out and weave such stories into a large cultural tapestry so that they make some sort of sense. In answering the ‘why?’ behind the incidental and anecdotic, they become ‘cases’ that illustrate larger developments: here about extraordinary religious phenomena, for example, or about belief (and doubt, and scepticism).

The story of the body standing upright in the corner of the vault, for instance, can then fit rather well into a history of early nineteenth-century Enlightenment practices in the German states. It had belonged to baroness Francesca von Hauserin, General Superior of the Munich branch of the Congregation of Jesus. In April 1809, as the nun sneaked downstairs, von Hauserin was half a century dead. In Munich people sometimes still called members of the congregation the ‘English Ladies’, because it was founded by Mary Ward in sixteenth-century England. The European panorama of post-revolutionary secularization certainly invites us to zoom out from the moment in which the nun kissed the incorrupt hand of the baroness and tore some fabric off her veil. The community’s dead were dug up from the vault in April 1809 to be buried in Munich’s public cemetery, years after the 1803 dissolution of enclosed convents. By 1809, six years of uncertainty and instability drove the ‘English Ladies’ to move relics of English martyrs to their sisters in Yorkshire (where they were subsequently forgotten till much later in the century). Moving bodies out of religious spaces into public ones was, then, a political act – one effect of the dissolution of convents – that illustrates shifting state attitudes to Catholic communities at the time.

But what are the consequences of treating the body in the vault as a snapshot of a much larger history?

One consequence is, often, that people’s stories fall by the wayside. Microhistories can offer a window onto (aspects of) the grand sweep of history, as historians from Carlo Ginzburg to Natalie Zemon Davies have proven with great success since the early 1980s. But historians’ efforts to show that the seemingly anecdotic or inconsequential can have much wider ramifications also sometimes – especially with regards to the supernatural, the miraculous – comes at the cost of stressing just how out-of-context and singularly disruptive an encounter with the inexplicable could be. Putting the uncorrupted body of the General Superior into a context of Enlightenment politics reduces the nun’s experience to a footnote at best. Attention shifts to the ecclesiastical, worldly, and scientific forces that get involved. To the anatomists, for example, who three days later already have the General Superior dug up again for examination and find a bodily interior ‘as fresh as if she had died the day before’. Seemingly self-contained vignettes such as that of the thieving nun or, three days later, of the gravedigger who handled the intact body often remain untold.

A consequence of ‘cultural-historying’ a body in a vault can then be that the body itself – just to remind you: a body that, at the point of being kissed and robbed, had been dead for over half a century and was seemingly entirely intact, uncorrupted, alive in all ways but one – loses its strangeness. Lining up cases of similar phenomena helps discern certain religious or political trends, and can even shed light on larger cultural shifts. But it can also diminish the significance of what it meant for someone to come face to face with the impossible. Zooming in rather than out, and making space for the details of such an individual experience, means to bring in the fundamental, often sensational weirdness of encounters with extraordinary bodies. And to take seriously the exclamations of wonder and confusion that appear again and again, in so many records. ‘I have never seen such a thing in my life!’ the policeman tasked with guarding the vault told his colleague the day after the nun stole the fabric, unintentionally giving away that he, too, had sneaked down.

These individual mini-stories are ‘human interest’ in their purest, historical sense; they breathe life into histories in which extraordinary bodies are often treated as symbols or markers of cultural meaning.

Strikingly, such stories do take centre stage sometimes, in ways that mostly remain unavailable to historians. In 1981 a TV crew interviewed the gravediggers who, two years earlier, had accidentally exhumed the apparently uncorrupted body of an early nineteenth-century girl in a local cemetery in Co Cork, Ireland. Their story brings home the point that so often the currency of an encounter with an extraordinary body is sensation, surprise, and strangeness.

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