Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Cromwell's Head and Milton's Hair: Corpse Theory in Spectacular Bodies of the Interregnum

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Cromwell's Head and Milton's Hair: Corpse Theory in Spectacular Bodies of the Interregnum

Article excerpt

This essay begins and ends, as does the long eighteenth century, in two moments when the corpses of famous men, those of Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, are made spectacular and their body parts are collected. (1) Subsequent circulation of these parts and the narratives that accompany them progressively revise the meaning given to the parts and, by synecdochic association, to the lives that played key roles in the Interregnum. On January 30, 1661, as part of the newly restored state's display of power, the bodies of three already deceased regicides--those of Cromwell, John Bradshaw, and Henry Ireton--were exhumed and ritually punished by hanging at Tyburn. At the end of the day, after the heads were chopped off by a common executioner, the bodies were thrown into a common grave at the foot of the scaffold. Speared upon pikes on top of Westminster Hall, the heads were a grisly reminder of the failed Interregnum. Of course, a common fate for those convicted of treason or other heinous crimes against the state involved a display of dismembered body parts. What makes the business of Cromwell's display especially intriguing, however, is how the head moved about England long after its body had been laid to an ignominious rest. First held privately as a family relic and then exhibited publicly as a curiosity, the head continued to circulate until the mid-twentieth century, when it was finally buried in Cambridge. As a relic of abjection that can't be openly worshipped or vilified, this gruesome body part established an uncanny presence, an embalmed trace of the Interregnum that won't rest in peace, and one that came to support eighteenth-and nineteenth-century republican values.

In 1790, another set of traces of the Interregnum began circulating in the form of secular relics, created when a body purported to be Milton's was found in St. Giles' Church. The discovery created a sensation and profits for those who controlled access to it. When the coffin was finally resealed several days after its discovery, most of the hair had been removed from the head, as were the teeth, part of the jaw, and one hand. Some were outraged that the great English poet had been so treated; others were only too happy to have relics from a body deemed so potent, albeit in a vague, secular way. William Cowper, at the time of the exhumation and fragmentation of the body, wrote an indignant poem about implications for literary fame. Ironically, those who seized the body parts, as well as those who protested against such action, placed Miltonic fragments within a celebration of relics. Such placement suggests a granting of power in two ways: only implicitly to a "saint" of the Interregnum, but explicitly to on e of an English literary pantheon.

This essay formulates what we can call "corpse theory," a method of interpreting the nexus of meanings bestowed upon human remains. From the incidents surrounding Cromwell's head and Milton's hair, the following four observations can be extrapolated, applicable to most corpses and their body parts. First, a corpse's status as an object is ambivalent: it exists simultaneously and uncannily as both human and as gross matter, as both itself and as an unsettling image of the once living entity. As such, corpses always act as fetishes, perhaps in the Freudian sense, but certainly in an anthropological sense of an apparently lifeless object that carries mystical power. Even without significance established in a culture of relics, a corpse is always ambivalent, somehow still human and yet not able to maintain a fully human status. It is not a person but something that has a disquieting resemblance to a person. Although Maurice Blanchot uses the corpse as a metaphor for the doubled and regressive nature of literary r epresentation, his description serves well to define the unsettling nature of the dead body. "The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world, where it still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility. …

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