Friday, 15 July 2016

Grave Wax, Corpse Liquor and Kissing Dead Queens – the boundless curiosity of the Gentlemen of the 17th Century

John Aubrey in his prime.
I have recently finished reading (with immense enjoyment I should add) Ruth Scurr’s ‘John Aubrey; My Own Life.’ It is a fascinating book, an invented journal constructed of equal parts of erudition and artistry mainly from Aubrey’s own words, culled from his printed books and manuscripts but subtly edited and so cleverly done that it is difficult to see where Aubrey ends and Scurr begins. Like many others of his age and place he was fascinated by mortality and what happens to the body after death. The men (and women) of the 17th century were not squeamish about death or the dead. In Scurr’s book Aubrey’s journal entry for November 1666 conflates accounts of the celebrated dead from Brief Lives, Monumenta Britannica and other works. Firstly, Robert Braybrook, Bishop of London, who was interred in Old St Paul’s Cathedral following his death in 1404: 

Old St Paul's in flames during the Great Fire of London
At a meeting of the royal society, Mr Oldenburg, Lord Henry Howard and others reported on their visits to the ruins of St Paul’s to see the preserved body of Bishop Braybrook, the Bishop of London, who died in 1404. The Bishop’s body, like many others, has been disturbed by the Great Conflagration: when the roof of St Paul’s fell in, the lead coffins below fell through the floor and broke open. Workmen clearing the rubble have put the bodies in the Convocation House and are charging people twopence a person to view them. I will go myself….

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.

Bishop Braybrook's tomb
Remember that part about the uncorrupted pudenda – we will return to the fate of the Bishop’s penis shortly. Dead Braybrook became a 5 minute wonder, for a while everyone wanted to see him, Samuel Pepys amongst them. His diary entry for 12 November 1666 gives an account of his visit:

This afternoon going towards Westminster, Creed and I did stop, the Duke of York being just going away from seeing of it, at Paul’s, and in the Convocation House Yard did there see the body of Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London, that died 1404: He fell down in his tomb out of the great church into St. Fayth’s this late fire, and is here seen his skeleton with the flesh on; but all tough and dry like a spongy dry leather, or touchwood all upon his bones. His head turned aside. A great man in his time, and Lord Chancellor; and his skeletons now exposed to be handled and derided by some, though admired for its duration by others. Many flocking to see it.

Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, mistress of King Charles II (who was the father of no less than 5 of her children) and ‘curse of the nation’ according to John Evelyn, also paid her tuppence to see the body of the desiccated prelate. The wanton bribed the guardians of the corpse to leave her alone with it for a few minutes and shortly afterwards it was discovered that the late Bishop’s shrivelled penis was missing. A witness was later quoted as saying that “although some ladies of late have got Bishopricks for others, I have not heard of any but this that got one for herself.”
Braybrook’s remains may have been dehydrated and inoffensive but according to Scurr’s Aubrey this was not true of the William Herbert, the 1st Earl of Pembroke, “a mad fighting fellow” according to Brief Lives, who was buried beneath an elaborate monument in Old St Pauls when he died in 1570:

I spoke to some of the labourers clearing the rubbish in St Faith’s Church, which was ruined by the collapse of St Paul’s. 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.

The Earl of Pembroke's tomb in Old St Pauls
It takes 400 volatile organic compounds to create the archetypal reek of a rotting human cadaver. The 1st Earl of Pembroke had been dead and buried for just under a hundred years when the seal of his lead coffin was broken in the great fire of London. He would have been sealed into that airtight coffin quite quickly following his death but the lack of oxygen would not stop the process of composition. Enzymes within his cells would have ruptured the cell membrane and allowed the contents to seep out. Anaerobic bacteria already present within his body and no longer held in check by his immune system would run rampant, gorging on the damaged cells and engaging in uncontrolled binary fission. The digestion of a corpse by its own enzymes and microbiological flora creates foetid gases that bloat the body.  The evocatively named chemicals cadaverine and putrescine are the main ingredients responsible for the stench of death but there are a whole host of other reeking compounds that add their own distinctive flavour to the mix. Skatole and indole for example, two chemicals which between them give excrement its characteristic scent.  Then there is Hydrogen Sulphide, a key ingredient in the smell of rotten eggs and flatulence,  methanethiol, which has a starring role in the stench of rotting cabbage, and dimethyl disulfide and trisulfide, a pair of compounds whose odour is most commonly described as putrid garlic.  Interestingly in very small quantities the aroma of many of these chemicals is not unpleasant Skatole, for example, that key component of the odour of ordure, is used, in an artificially produced form, in perfumes and as a flavouring for ice cream and the taste of garlic in garlic flavoured crisps is more likely to be the result of a light sprinkling of dimethyl disulphide than of any extract of Allium sativum. After being concentrated for a hundred years in an airtight lead coffin it isn’t surprising that it took a week to scrub off the stink of the Earl’s corpse.
Sir Thomas Browne composing Urne Buriall - from an engraving by Gwen Reverat

Aubrey was not the only 17th century figure fascinated by the process of putrefaction. As well as Ruth Scurr I have also been reading Hugh Aldersley-William on Sir Thomas Browne. He reminds us that the author of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk is credited with the first mention of grave wax or Adipocere. This is a waxy organic substance produced by the chemical process of saponification, the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fatty acids in the corpse, which instead of rotting away, produces a wax like cast of body parts, even entire corpses in some circumstances. Browne’s mention comes in the middle of a passage of in which he notes that despite the commonly held view that we all end up as food for worms, the earthworm is not easy to find in a churchyard at any depth below a foot; it goes without saying of course that all burials take place much deeper than this:

Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents; In carnall sepulture, corruptions seem peculiar unto parts, and some speak of snakes out of the spinall marrow. But while we suppose common wormes in graves, 'tis not easie to finde any there; few in Church-yards above a foot deep, fewer or none in Churches, though in fresh decayed bodies. Teeth, bones, and hair, give the most lasting defiance to corruption. In an Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap; whereof part remaineth with us.

The tomb of John Colet, Dean of Westminster in Old St Paul's
Scurr rewrites a celebrated passage of Aubery which describes the indignities practiced by a pair of his acquaintances, Ralph Greatrex and Mr Wyld, on the corpse of John Colet, Dean of Westminster and friend of Erasmus, who had died of the ‘sweating sickness’ in 1519 (see below for the original of this passage, comparison of the two gives you a better idea of her method of composition than any description[1]);

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. 

They had no fear of microbiological contagion in the 17th century. Infectious disease was the thought to be the result of miasma; if something didn’t smell bad they were surprisingly willing to stick in in their mouths, no matter where it came from. The medical professions saw no need to arbitrarily restrict examinations of patients to the senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell and would often take a swig of their patients urine or lick their sweat in their efforts to arrive at a diagnosis. It would have seemed natural enough to have a little taster of corpse pickle if the chance arose; how disappointing it must have been to find that it tasted ‘insipid’. The stalwart men of the 17th century were less squeamish than their descendants, that much is clear. We shall finish with Samuel Pepy’s famous account of how he spent his 36th birthday, the day he “did first kiss a queen.” Living queen’s being notoriously choosy about whom they snog Samuel had to gain his initial experience of regal labial osculation with a dead one, Queen Catherine of Valois.   The wife of Henry V and mistress of Owen Tudor had died in 1437, 232 years before Samuel, in front of his wife, fondled the upper parts of her body and gave her a playful peck on the mouth:  
Catherine of Valois' funeral effigy -
but you wouldn't be kissing a queen
Up: and to the Office, where all the morning, and then home, and put a mouthfull of victuals in my mouth; and by a hackney-coach followed my wife and the girls, who are gone by eleven o’clock, thinking to have seen a new play at the Duke of York’s house. But I do find them staying at my tailor’s, the play not being to-day, and therefore I now took them to Westminster Abbey, and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone, there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday; and here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen. But here this man, who seems to understand well, tells me that the saying is not true that says she was never buried, for she was buried; only, when Henry the Seventh built his chapel, it was taken up and laid in this wooden coffin; but I did there see that, in it, the body was buried in a leaden one, which remains under the body to this day.


[1]After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr. Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and t'was of an insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast. The Coffin was of Lead, and layd in the Wall about 2 foot 1/2 above the surface of the Floore. This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps: perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose Saltiness in so many years the Lead might sweeten and render insipid. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like boyled Brawne.”