One of the delights of visiting the Haags Historisch Museum in the mid 1990s was seeing early twentieth-century photographs of our street and house, the 2de de Riemerstraat, just outside the city’s core. It hadn’t changed at all. In fact, it was almost as if time had stood still for the 100 years between the photograph and our residency. And it was, indeed, a magical little street. Uneven cobblestones (hard on one’s backside when one is being doubled on a bike), big flower planters, and tall rowhouses that had, for the most part, really stood the test of time well (that said, I suspect our windows – both glass and casings – were original to the house, which meant that they were always slightly open, even in the winter, which made for a romantic, if chilly, view…)
But the Haags Historisch Museum also held much more ghoulish treasures, these ones related to a long history of public executions. As the story goes, two brothers – Johan and Cornelis de Witt – were executed by a lynch mob in The Hague in 1672. Their bodies were desecrated and pillaged by locals, who not only sought souvenirs – relics that then became part of their family lore and, in their material form, legacies that they could bestow on subsequent generations – but also in particularly gruesome fashion, apparently consumed body parts.
And this is how a glass case containing a petrified tongue and toe made its way into the museum (to be seen here, for those of strong stomachs: http://www.haagshistorischmuseum.nl/archive/2011/03/25/tong-en-teen-in-kleur/weblog)
I remember gazing on this curiosity with morbid fascination. It was certainly, as Robert Darnton would have said, one of those “moments of opacity” when one is confronted by a past that is completely unfathomable.
But as I look back on that encounter, I wonder if it is actually as unfathomable as it first seemed.
In the past week, we have celebrated – with both pomp and parody – the ‘discovery’ of the skeleton of Richard III under a car park in Leicester. An ignominious end for the last of the Plantagenets.
So, too, has The Guardian introduced readers to the curious tale of the headless French king. “Good King Henri” died in 1610, half a century before the Gebroeders de Witt. His remains were buried, but then dug up during the French Revolution, at which point they were tossed into a mass grave. His skull was reported missing in 1817. A century later, it – or at least a skull purporting to be his – turned up for auction. It appeared again at various moments during the twentieth century before its most recent rediscovery, in an attic, in 2008. In the words of Stéphane Gabet, author of a new book that argues that the skull is indeed that of Henri IV:
“In the loft, in an old wardrobe, was a box ….Inside, there was something wrapped in an old towel. Jacques Bellanger folded back one side of the towel, then the other. The mummified head appeared, well conserved, impressive. It was a magic moment.”
The Guardian, too, was where I discovered the tale of Sir James Tillie. Like Madame Necker (whose ghost shall haunt me for the next twenty years, I fear), Sir James left special instructions for the treatment of his body after death.
Madame Necker was embalmed and placed in a tub of alcohol in a tomb on the grounds of the family chateau in Coppet, Switzerland.
She instructed her husband to visit her body regularly and even left a series of letters to be read only after her death. And she requested that, after his death, his body would join hers. And so they have remained. Eyewitness accounts in 1817 (the same year that Henri’s skull was reported missing, interestingly), reported that while Jacques Necker’s head was still above the alcohol, his wife’s had completely submerged.
But back to Sir James.
Sir James died in 1713. Convinced that the end of the world was nigh, “He left instructions that his body should be placed in an open windowed room in the mausoleum on the highest point of his land. He was to be left there fully dressed, positioned upright in his favourite chair, food and drink and a crate of books by his side, until the day of resurrection, which he expected to be imminent.”
However, his servants scuttled these carefully-laid plans. After apparently remaining faithful for two years, they ultimately got tired of the smell and the effort and buried him.
Like Henri IV and Richard III, Sir James, too, has recently reappeared. Not for Sir James the carefully-staged permanence of the self in death, a maudlin staging that recalls the portraiture of the period. No, like Richard III and Henri IV, his end was decidedly less glorious: his remains were found in an “overgrown and crumbling Grade II-listed mausoleum.”
It’s easy for those of us reading such stories today to laugh them off as the eccentricities of an over-privileged elite. After all, what relevance do the stories of Sir James and Madame Necker have in our contemporary world? Why concern ourselves with the various transactions that marked the journey of a skull that may or may not be that of Henri IV? Why bother with the bones of a long-dead monarch?
The answer to this might lie in the toe and tongue of the two Dutch statesmen whose story opened this post. According to the museum’s blog (cited earlier), the relics were on display until 1894; however, many visitors were disturbed by the sight and the museum decided not to show them. Nevertheless, as my own encounter demonstrates, they are back on display. I wonder if new meanings have been attached to them now, at four centuries’ remove. I wonder if their purpose, now, is not so much to memorialize the brothers (and, in relation to this, the individuals responsible for killing and dismembering them), but also to memorialize a particularly brutal event in Dutch history; that is, to act as a reminder of a collective madness that lies just beneath a surface of polished civility. How, indeed, does one explain this act? And how might one prevent it from happening again?
From this perspective, tongue and toe – bodily members and bodily memories – enable what Maggie de Vries has termed a “re-membering” of a past; that is, the making whole of fractured, broken, dismembered stories, in the process crafting something entirely different.
Maggie de Vries uses the term re-membering to reflect on the story of her sister, Sarah, one of the 65 women who went missing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside over a twenty year period. In a classic case of fiddling while Rome burned, the police (collectively as an institution, not individually) buried their heads in the sand (you can read the executive summary of the Commission of Inquiry here: http://www.ag.gov.bc.ca/public_inquiries/docs/Forsaken-ES.pdf). Reflecting prevalent social attitudes regarding sex work and drug addiction, they did nothing as women kept disappearing.
Sarah de Vries’ DNA was found on a pig farm owned by Robert Pickton, a man eventually convicted of the second degree murder of six women (Charges were stayed in the case of 20 other women – including Sarah de Vries).
DNA is all that remains of Sarah de Vries’ body. Bits and pieces are all that remain of others. For some families, there are only memories: no trace of them – not even a hint of DNA – has ever been recovered. By telling the story of her sister, Maggie de Vries is actively re-membering that body, making sacred what was so violently desecrated and defiled. Not for Sarah de Vries an open vista overlooking the idyllic, rolling landscape of Cornwall. Not for Sarah de Vries a carefully staged memorial involving alcohol, embalming fluids and sealed letters.
Re-membering allows us to listen otherwise. To access collective grief. To consider which bodies matter and why. And, as we reflect on 2013 Women’s Memorial March, which wound its way through the streets of the Downtown Eastside on Valentine’s Day, just as it has for the past 22 years, re-membering reminds us, ever so painfully, that horror is not something remote from us; rather, it is something that resides within the very heart of this society that we continue to create together.