Tag Archives: England

Dem bones – a visit to the ossuary at Rothwell

6 Aug

I usually associate rows of skulls and piles of bones with something terrible – the genocide in Cambodia, for instance.  But last week, I stood looking at the remains of some 1,500 people and, rather than disgust or fear, I sensed respect, care and pragmatism – and, over the week since we visited, I’ve thought so much about the emotions it stirred in me, I wanted to write about it.

The bone crypt at Holy Trinity, the main church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, is one of only two bone crypts that still survive in the UK today.  The other is in Hythe, Kent – but there is every possibility there are others out there that just haven’t been found.

The crypt at Rothwell was re-discovered in the early 1700s – even though scientific analysis suggests it had been used a little over 100 years before.  It is accessible through the interior of the church (itself a wondrous building), and down a spiral staircase through two tiny doorways.

When you enter the room, you’re greeted with an enormous pile of leg bones, carefully laid in a large wooden frame.  I’d estimate the pile was roughly six feet high (taller than me) – and then wider and longer again.  There was also a second frame of an identical size behind it.

Along the walls, skulls were carefully spaced on shelves, all facing forward.

Some were numbered.

The frame and the shelves were not original; the handout we picked up suggested that the bones were originally just mixed in together, much like this small pile of bones on the floor towards the back of the crypt.

The only bones they’ve found in the crypt are skulls and thigh bones, known as ‘cross bones’.  (We’re most familiar with this pairing and terminology from the legendary pirate flag.)  Around 90% of the bones appear to have belonged to men – and, again, scientific analysis suggests the bones derive from two different phases, the older group coming from the 1200s and the more recent from the late 1500s.   Fascinatingly, the analysis of the blood types of the bones shows the same blood groups in the same proportions as modern-day Rothwell.

So what prompted the people of Rothwell to retain only these three bones out of the 200 plus we have?  What prompted them to bury them on mass?  And why mainly retain the men?

The main theory seems to have been that the bones in the crypt were simply the result of two different disinterments.  Rothwell was a busy medieval town – in 1204, King John even granted it a charter to hold a market – and it’s likely that the graveyard quickly ran out of space.  (Bill Bryson writes on the problem of country church graveyards in his recent work Home; he explains that the reason churches sometimes look like they’re sinking is simply the sheer amount of bodies buried in the ground around them.)

So it’s entirely possible the good people of Rothwell, with their obvious sense of pragmatism, decided to make space in their graveyard for more recently-deceased individuals.  And the building of the bone crypt was, to my mind, an act of respect for the dead.  They deliberately chose the bones that were believed necessary for Resurrection, they dug out a crypt – and they built the crypt directly under the Church, keeping the bones on sacred ground.

So while it may look gruesome or careless to ‘dump’ bones in a room, I think the people of Rothwell found a compromise between allowing later generations to continue to use the sacred ground to bury their loved ones, while respecting the beliefs of the dead from generations past by ensuring they’d be ready when the Resurrection came.

And the mystery of the absence of women?  Did that suggest these people didn’t respect their females as much?  As we paid our entrance fee, the lady who took the money whispered to us she reckoned there was another undiscovered crypt on the other side of the church, but couldn’t persuade anyone to dig it up to look.  So if she was right, not only did the people of Rothwell respect people’s religion, they also thought of their modesty and dignity and separated the sexes even in death.

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A linguistic excursion to the north-east – Mackem, Anish Kapoor and a Viking version of Jabba the Hut

1 Jun

We’ve just come back from a lovely weekend in the north east of England.  Sadly, we didn’t make it up to Northumbria, one of my favourite places ever, but we visited Sunderland (to see Take Take), Durham, Middlesbrough, Whitby and York, the latter on the way home.

Robbie Williams did a solo stint in the concert and sang a topical ditty to the tune of ‘Make ’em Laugh’.  Aside from the references to superinjunctions (!) in the song, he also referred to the crowd as ‘Mackems’.  I’ve met enough people from the north east to know there’s an important distinction: Geordies are from Newcastle or around the River Tyne, Mackems from Sunderland or around the River Wear.

It seems like ‘Mackem‘ is a fairly recent nickname for people from Sunderland; the earliest suggested written appearance in the OED is from a printed sports programme for a Sunderland rugby and cricket club from 1973: “We still ‘tak ’em and mak ’em and ye canna whack ’em.”  It’s not until 1981 that the proper word ‘mackem’ appears in print – in a Newcastle Football Club programme of all things! – ” Steve Cole, John Evans, [etc.] took the field against the ‘Mackems’ in a darts and doms double header.

There are a couple of theories on where the word ‘mackem’ comes from; the most popular seems to relate to the shipbuilding industry that was prevalent in the area.  The Wikipedia article on this topic suggests the ships were built in Wearside – ‘we make ’em’ – and then taken to Tyneside for fitting out – ‘and they take ’em’.  This is the theory supported by the OED, which also mentions the complementary theory that the pronunciation of ‘make’ and ‘take’ differed between Wearside and  Tyneside.   (A number of references to ‘Mackem’ online mention the fact it was featured on the BBC’s Balderdash and Piffle – and the OED revised their entry on the topic thanks to the viewers’ input.)    A secondary theory suggested by the Wikipedia article is that the origins of the word could lie in a local beer – the ‘Double Maxim’.

From Sunderland, we travelled to Whitby via Middlesbrough.  We wanted to see the football ground and the famous transporter bridge – but between the two lay Anish Kapoor‘s 110-metre long, 50-metre high ‘Temenos’.  To describe it as spectacular doesn’t do it justice. The photo below hopefully gives some sense of scale – Temenos is dwarfing a football stadium!

Temenos is a Greek word, meaning ‘a sacred piece of land’, or the land around a temple.  It derives from the Greek word ‘to sever’.  I think it’s an interesting choice of name given the location of the statue.  It’s between the football ground (a temple to many!) and the transporter bridge on the other side, surrounded by this incredible industrial landscape that’s undergoing  a regeneration, so is a mix of the swanky and modern surrounded by the grim and hard-edged.  I gather it’s the first of five such ‘giants’ that Anish Kapoor is building around the north-east area.

From Middlesbrough, we took the coast road, crossing into God’s own county, Yorkshire, to arrive at the charming seaside town of Whitby.  It’s definitely somewhere I’d go back to – one night wasn’t enough to enjoy its many attractions!

Whitby is famous for many things – the haunted ‘Hands of Glory’, the whaling industry, Dracula – and perhaps the most prosaic by comparison, Whitby Jet.  Jet is a black stone that was commonly worn in the Victorian period when mourning.  Wikipedia tells me it’s not a proper gemstone or mineral, but is rather a mineraloid as it’s made from compressing decayed wood.  All the mentions of ‘jet’ did make me wonder what jet (the mineraloid) has in common with a jet engine or a jet of water.  Is it something to do with pressure?

It seems like the words, although appearing the same, actually have little in common etymologically.  ‘Jet’ in the sense of an engine or a water jet derives from the French ‘jeter’ – to throw or to cast.   It was first used in English to mean a projection or protruding part; from this meaning, we also derive words like ‘jetty’ and ‘jut’.   The word also came to stand for a particular type of movement – darting or jerking forward – and then came to stand for a stream of water or liquid that spurts out at high pressure, as in this definition of 1696: Jet,‥a spouting forth of Waters.

The sense of ‘jet’ as meaning a spout or nozzle didn’t appear until the 1820s, and it’s not until after Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in the late 1920s  that we see the word applied to a particular type of plane:  “The advantages of the jet are so great that I am sure their development will be rapid.” (1944)

By contrast, the ‘jet’ that we wear in jewellery derives from the Old French, jaiet, which ultimately derives from the Greek gagate (jet).  It’s this sense of ‘jet’ that gives us the adjective ‘jet black’.

Finally, on the way back home, we called into York for a few hours in the pouring rain.  Many of the street names in York’s city centre end with ‘gate’ – Coppergate, Gillygate, Walmgate and so forth.  The ‘gate’ derives from the Old Norse ‘gata’ or street, reflecting York’s extensive Viking heritage.  Having looked up the etymology of ‘gate’, I think I might leave that for a future entry; it’s phenomenally complicated!

I particularly liked this street, Jubbergate, which gave me visions of Jabba the Hut wandering amongst York’s Viking settlers. Sadly, the Vikings didn’t appear to take their inspiration from George Lucas.  The Jubber is perhaps related to the word ‘Jew’, as the street was once known as Jubretgate, suggesting it might have been part of a Jewish quarter within York.

How shopping centres started life as a croquet mallet* (*ish)

18 Nov
Pall mall - Project Gutenberg eText 14315 - ht...

Image via Wikipedia

We’re all familiar enough with the concept of a ‘shopping mall’ and I’m sure there are one or two people who have swung a croquet or polo mallet in their time – but most of us are probably unaware that the two share a common origin

I had a little time to kill recently before a job interview (I didn’t get the job), so was browsing in a nearby bookshop.  They had a specialist ‘London’ section and on flicking through one of the books, I noticed a section on Pall Mall, one of London’s most prestigious addresses.

For those not familiar with Pall Mall, it’s a posh street in central London that has traditionally housed many of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.  Or for those of us plebs, it’s one of the pink streets on the Monopoly board, yours for a mere £140.

The street Pall Mall was effectively a sporting arena in the 17th century; it was the alley where people played the popular game of pall mall or paille-maille, which seems to be a hybrid between croquet and golf.  The terms ‘pall’ and ‘mall’ come from the Italian ‘palla’ (ball) and ‘maglio’ (mallet).

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the game of pall mall as thus: “players use a mallet to drive a boxwood ball through an iron ring suspended at the end of a long alley in as few strokes as possible, or within a given number of strokes.”

Even Samuel Pepys mentions in his diary in 1663 that, on walking through St James’s Park, he had been “discoursing with the keeper of the Pell Mell who was sweeping of itwho told me of what the earth is mixed that doth floor the Mall, and that over all there is Cockle-shells powdered.” And this is a comparatively late reference – the first mentions of pall mall occur about 100 years earlier.

This game of pall mall also gave its name to another nearby London location – the Mall in St James’s Park.  When playing pall mall fell out of fashion, the Mall prospered in the 17th and 18th centuries as a fashionable tree-lined path for promenading – the art of walking about so one could see and be seen.

‘Mall’ then became a generic term for any kind of covered walkway, and in the middle of the 20th century, we start to see this term applied in the US to a group of shops clustered within the same building.  The OED records the first usage of ‘mall’ to refer to a shopping centre in 1959 – nearly four hundred years after the first mention in English of the game of ‘pall mall’.  It’s an extraordinary journey for one little word!