Journeys Among the Dead

The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead
Carl Watkins
Bodley Head   318pp   £25

Carl Watkins’ latest book concerns English beliefs from the Middle Ages to the 20th century about death and the possibilities of an afterlife. Experts in the subject will find little new in it, but even they should enjoy the colour and excitement of the writing, serving up familiar material in an especially vivid form. Newcomers to the field could not hope for a better introduction. The technique Watkins uses is to focus on specific texts and monuments linked to particular personalities and locations to illustrate how attitudes developed over time. The result not only gives a marvellous life to the subject but integrates landscape, textual evidence and physical remains in an especially effective way.

Three themes are gracefully interwoven in the telling of the story. The first is the way in which official theology developed with regard to the fate of the dead: from a late medieval emphasis on Purgatory as the first destination for most souls; to a Protestant one on consignment in perpetuity to heaven or hell; to a gentler Anglican emphasis on reunion with loved ones in heaven and a tendency to play down the threat of hell; to the present situation in which most people seem to have a vague trust in some form of survival after death, without a specific theology to frame it.

The second theme is less linear and deals with the complications and cross-currents that have always swirled about the current doctrinal orthodoxy. Some of these were based in pre-Christian traditions that retained a strong hold on the popular imagination, but they were the more potent because of the ambiguities in Christian teaching on the matter. It remained unclear, on scriptural authority and that of the Church Fathers, whether the dead could communicate in any manner with the living; whether the judgement of souls followed immediately upon the death of the body of each, or whether it was postponed until a final session at the end of the present world; whether the extent to which the physical body was preserved after dying had any bearing upon the owner’s chances of resurrection; whether heaven was a place in which carnal as well as spiritual joys could be experienced; and whether the deceased would know each other and be able to resume their former relationships, if they encountered each other upon the other side. All these puzzles left ample opportunity for differences between established churchmen, as well as the maintenance of popular traditions that had an uneasy relationship with official doctrine.

The third theme, for which the data in the book provides plenty of evidence, is that the English retained certain common assumptions about the dead, which were so deeply ingrained as to be almost instinctual. They shared these with most Europeans, a pattern that could indicate that they were prehistoric, but could – and here anthropological data is suggestive – be widespread among our species. These included the beliefs that the disposal of the dead should be attended by some form of ritual, which aided the deceased as well as the mourners; that individuals who had been especially evil in life or had perished in unusual or shocking ways remained troublesome to the living, either in spirit form or as physical corpses; that deceased people of all kinds hung about their bodies for a time and could occasionally return to bear messages to those yet alive; and that to live on in memory among later generations represented a form of immortality in itself. This is a fine work of literature, dealing with a complexity of issues in an accessible and enjoyable form.  

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol.

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