Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's History, Dig It?


About twenty years ago, transported in a rented car, we took a family vacation in some of the more out-of-the-way parts of Spain and eastern Portugal.  I experienced a curious event in the ancient town of Medina-Sidonia, a name previously known to me only as the seat of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, the unfortunate admiral of the Spanish Armada.  As we approached the town on a rising road, there was a church on a hillock to the right.  One could see from a distance that there had been a major subsidence of the churchyard sloping toward the road, with much of its ancient stone retaining wall collapsed.  I could see that beside the road at its base a group of young boys were languidly kicking around a soccer ball.  Or so it seemed.  As we came beside them and passed them I could see that the “ball” was actually a human skull.  It had obviously come out of one of the collapsed graves in the eroding churchyard.

            An English professor naturally had to think of the graveyard scene in Hamlet (V, I, “Alas, poor Yorick…”) in which two of Shakespeare’s really splendid stage directions are to be found: Throws up a skull and Throws up another skull.  Comparatively few of the “final resting places” of the Christian faithful of old Europe were all that final, actually.  The average grave site seems to have had a half-life about fifty years.  There were always fresh cadavers, like Ophelia’s, needing the space.  Out with the old; in with the new.

            All this returned to memory this week through my random reading, which led me to a writer previously unknown to me, one P. H. Ditchfield, an Edwardian cleric and prolific amateur historian.  I was immediately drawn to the title of one of his works: Books Fatal to Their Authors (1903).  Its ambiguous attractions for anyone who writes books will be obvious.  In the event, the title was the best part of the book; but he has several others that are proving real winners, including The Old-Time Parson (an anecdotal history of the rural English clergy) and The Parish Clerk (1907).

            The parish clerk has nearly vanished from the earth, but he played a significant if supporting role in the Old World.  The words clerk, cleric, and clergy belong to the same family, the unifying idea being that of the literacy once the near monopoly of the clerical state.  In medieval Europe the parish clerk was a sort of hyper-acolyte and general utility infielder for the parish priest, leading liturgical responses at services, attending at baptisms, etc., who might actually himself be an ordained person.  Among the greatest comic characters of world literature is Absalon, the parish clerk of Chaucer’s immortal “Miller’s Tale”, a fellow who knew his way around the town bars as well as around the churchyard.
    In al the toun nas brewhous ne taverne   there was not
     That he ne visited with his solas,
     There any gaylard tappestere was.         jolly barmaid
      But sooth to seyn, he was somdeel squaymous   a little squeamish
      Of fartyng, and of speche daungerous.      hoity-toity
In post-Reformation times, when there was less elaborate liturgical activity in the churches, the parish clerk often assumed the various manual tasks involved in the upkeep of the church and the maintenance of its buildings.  He continued to lead the “Amens” and to read lessons and psalms, but he often doubled as sexton (keeper of grounds and buildings and usually the grave-digger to boot).

            Ditchfield’s book introduced me to Old Scarlett of Peterborough (Cambridgeshire), surely one of history’s more memorable parish clerks.  Robert Scarlett earned the honorific “Old”.  He was born in 1498 and died in 1596.  His clerical career thus spanned the major phase of the English Reformation.  He will have started out chanting his Amens in Latin and continued saying them in English.

            History destined Old Scarlett for greatness in the Annals of Sepulture.  Catherine of Aragon, whom Henry VIII divorced in 1533, lived until 1536.  Her death was treated with considerable solemnity and off course a certain amount of diplomatic embarrassment.  Beautiful Peterborough Cathedral, out in the Tudor boondocks, seemed like an excellent place to deposit the remains.  Bob Scarlett got the contract.   In 1587 Queen Elizabeth was faced with a similar problem.  What to do with the politically sensitive, decapitated body of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots?  Answer: Peterborough Cathedral, with Bob Scarlett, now eighty-nine years old and still at his post.

            His unique role as Celebrity Grave-Digger earned Old Scarlett a unique ecclesiastical monument.  Any visitor of old churches is used to finding more or less elaborate marble monuments erected to the memory of the high and mighty, but in Peterborough Cathedral there is a memorial likeness of Old Scarlett, parish clerk.  Like a medieval saint, he is associated with his proper material “attributes”: the sexton’s keys, the pick and shovel of the grave-digger and (just to make sure you get it) a human skull at his left foot.  Beneath the image are the following funerary verses:

You see old Scarlitt's picture stand on hie,
But at your feete here doth his body lye.
His gravestone doth his age and Death time show,
His office by thes tokens you may know.
Second to none for strength and sturdye limm,
A Scarebabe mighty voice with visage grim.
Hee had interd two Queenes within this place
And this townes Householders in his lives space
Twice over: But at length his own time came;
What for others did for him the same
Was done: No doubt his soule doth live for aye
In heaven: Tho here his body clad in clay.

There is one “token” in Old Scarlett’s picture that is particularly curious: from his belt, on the right-hand side, hangs a whip.  This, Ditchfield convincingly suggests, refers to yet another role of this multitasking parish clerk.  He was probably also the official Peterborough dog-whipper, whose job was to discourage religion among canines.  The architectural innovation of the altar rail probably also has canine associations, the pooper-scooper not yet having been invented.
A sculpted dog-whipper in a corbel, St. Bavo's Church, Haarlem (The Netherlands)

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