Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Some burial folklore in literary sources

Whiling away my holiday with some light reading I came across several rather throwaway references to folkloric practice and belief. It is the casual manner of their introduction into literary fiction that makes them compelling as folkloric record. I was particularly struck by some references to burial practice.
The idea that a piece of land has been left undeveloped because it covers a plague burial ground has become a common one in London in recent years. Steve Roud has described the motif as 'a real growth area' (1). It may have developed alongside other similar ideas: in the late 1970s my father told me that a grassy corner of carpark outside the Fox on the Hill pub on Denmark Hill remained bare because it covered a Roman burial ground. (Pragmatism - and access to maps of Roman cemeteries - suggest that it remained undeveloped, rather, because it was awkwardly triangular and too narrow for a parking space). I'd associated the development of the motif with the post-war period, but a passing reference suggests a slightly earlier flourishing.
In Chapter 5 of Sax Rohmer's 1916 sequel The Devil Doctor (US: The Return of Fu-Manchu) we find exactly this kind of emergent pseudo-historical legend. Dr Petrie believes an islet in a south-west London park is naturally occurring. Nayland Smith is scornful in such a way as to point to the creation of authority in a legend:
'Nothing of the kind; it is a burial mound, Petrie! It marks the site of one of the Plague Pits where victims were buried during the Great Plague of London. You will observe that, although you have seen it every morning for some years, it remains for a British Commissioner resident in Burma to acquaint you with its history!'
Thinking folkloristically we might take this last assertion as evidence of the recent development of this legend. (I read this courtesy of Project Gutenberg, so I should also tip my hat here to the recently-departed Michael Hart, its founder and the inventor of the e-book).
This assertion of the 'history' of this legend is in marked contrast to another reference to burial practice I came across in fictional form. In Ambrose Bierce's short story 'A Holy Terror', a gold prospector is tipped off about a plot in a cemetery. He digs through a grave, and with chilling Biercean understatement, finds that 'This frail product of the carpenter's art had been put into the grave the wrong side up!' (2) The lack of explanation creates the effect: the detail relies on a reader's knowledge that burial upside-down is reserved for those likely to cause supernatural disturbance otherwise. (People are buried upside-down to prevent them clawing their way to the surface after death).
This is still a relatively late reference to prone burial. A recent historical survey found the last documented incident of the practice in 1916 (3). Of course, this is the sort of practice that is difficult to establish: it requires a degree of trust in the researcher that may not be inevitable given the rather extraordinary and infrequent practice. Ruth Tongue claimed to have been told of such things in Somerset in the early years of the 20th century (4). There must be some doubts about this: she said she was told of such things because she was a 'chime child', born at midnight. She wasn't. She was evidently a remarkable and gifted storyteller, but her reliability as a witness might be questionable. The Bierce reference, though, does suggest some wider familiarity with the idea.
* * * * *
1: Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (London: Random House, 2008), pp. 117-119.
2: Ambrose Bierce, In the Midst of Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939; first pub. 1892), p. 121.
3: Caroline Arcini, 'Prone Burials', Current Archaeology, 231 (June 2009), 30-35.
4: Ruth L. Tongue, 'Some Odds and Ends of Somerset Folklore', Folklore, 69.1 (1958), 44.


  1. In Lampeter University in Wales in the 2000s there was the myth circulating that our asbestos filled student halls (allegedly based on Swedish prison cells) where also built on top of a plague burial pit! Interestingly ancient diseases and poisons was a real concern for us as archaeologists - lots of drumming into us about washing hands and doing risk assessments before commencing digging. Some places could only be dug by archaeologist in protective clothing. Remember them saying that roman silver mines in Spain (I think) showed up as a layer of toxic metals in the Greenland ice shelf as well!

  2. Thanks very much for this. I suppose real risk concerns for archaeologists can also conveniently be incorporated into burgeoning legend in the same way as different legend motifs and ideas can be blended together.

    I particularly liked the alleged backstory about the prison inspiration for the halls of residence. The story about Girton College Cambridge is that it was built before it received its royal charter as a women's college. In case the charter was not forthcoming, the story goes, the building was designed for possible alternative use as a mental asylum.