SEPT 1st, 2015

Speaking as an old and ugly academic, I’ve come to realise that sometimes it takes a transfusion of young and energetic blood into an established project to liven it up. In the case of our five-year project, ‘Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse’, funded by the Wellcome Trust, it is the arrival of new post-doctoral research fellow Emma Battell Lowman that has galvanised us into setting up a proper blog. So – welcome to our new project blog! Over the coming months project members will be using this space to comment on aspects of our research and reflect on the journey.

The project is now coming to the end of its fourth year, and over the next twelve months our task is to take stock of what we’ve learned, to synthesise our conclusions and make them available to the people – academics and others – who might be interested in them. To that end, Emma and I are working on a book that knits together elements of the six different research threads that make up the Criminal Corpse programme, as well as launching an online exhibition (watch this space early in 2016!)

Between 1752 and 1832 the bodies of executed murderers were legally denied burial in consecrated ground. Instead they were donated for anatomical dissection or ‘hung in chains’ (gibbeted). These bodies were places of considerable power that could be harnessed for social control by the State, or for the advancement of biological and medical science. The traditional use of criminal bodies, whole or in pieces, for curative or magical purposes was also widespread; criminal bodies had a huge role in folk knowledge and popular culture. Our research programme has brought together scholars from archaeology, medical and criminal history, literature, folklore and philosophy to explore the many forms of power that criminal corpse possessed. The criminal corpse is a focused point from which we can spin out to explore sophisticated and multi-modal ways of knowing and understanding about bodies generally in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. We have also been thinking about how different kinds of power and knowledge affect the use of the criminal corpse in its various contexts.

The research programme has six different strands:

  • Strand 1: The Criminal Justice System and the Criminal Corpse
  • Strand 2: The Criminal Corpse in the Expanding Anatomical and Medical World of Georgian Society
  • Strand 3: Placing the Criminal Corpse
  • Strand 4: The Dead Sustaining Life: Criminal Corpses in European Medicine and Magic, 1700-1900
  • Strand 5: The Criminal Corpse in Pieces
  • Strand 6: The Criminal Corpse Remembered: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Power, Agency, Values and Ethics

Some reflections on interdisciplinary working

The team (l-r): Shane, Richard, Stephanie (our former Administrator), Owen, Elizabeth, Zoe, Pete, Sarah, Francesca. Floris, Rachel and Emma are not in this photo.

I think of my self as a pretty interdisciplinary sort of person. I teach and research in an archaeology department, but my first degree was in English, and my work typically references widely from history, folklore, literature as well as archaeology; and like many people working in the humanities we draw on theory developed in sociology, anthropology, geography and cultural studies too. Despite being the team leader for this research programme, I am the only archaeologist on the team. The other members of the team are: two crime historians (Pete King and Richard Ward), one medical historian (Elizabeth Hurren), two historians of folklore (Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni), one cultural geography type (Shane McCorristine), a moral philosopher (Floris Tomasini) as well as two general social historians (Zoe Dyndor and Emma Battell Lowman). To varying degrees they all work in an interdisciplinary way.

Undoubtedly we have been able to discover things in our interdisciplinary research that we would never have been able to spot if we were working in a more atomised and discipline-specific way. Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni, in their recent publication on the power of the hanged man’s hand, are a case in point. During the eighteenth century the touch of the newly dead hand of an executed criminal was widely believed to cure wens or growths, especially those on the face or neck. But this is not just a piece of folklore: serious medical men also tried to explain this ‘power’ in terms that fitted in with the scientific and medical knowledge of the time. Following either medical history or folklore alone would not necessarily show the way that certain beliefs and practices partook of both traditions, not would they let Matteoni and Davies see the “dichotomy between popular and orthodox medical theory and practice [that] eventually emerges through the period concerned… is not a clear narrative.”

Read Owen and Francesca’s paper here:

But real interdisciplinary working is harder than you think. I guess that up to now my inter-disciplinarity has taken the form of picking bits from other disciplines and using them in my own work. The inter-disciplinarity of this project, though, has meant that I’ve needed, to a greater extent, to go into unfamiliar territory. It has been rewarding, but challenging to have to address issues like what constitutes a research question? what is enough data? how sure of your conclusions do you need to be in order to go to print? Admittedly there are individual differences between people even within a discipline on all these questions, but coming from a discipline where a couple of bits of old rock, dated to within a few centuries, can be all the data you have, I’m used to a fairly high degree of uncertainty. Archaeologists take it as read that ‘conclusions’ are at best plausible constructions from inadequate evidence. But some of the Criminal Corpse team members are used to working in periods with extremely full and explicit textual sources; they worry about, for example, whether we can include Wales in our statistics because we might be missing several case records. So learning to accept that what we are used to is not necessarily right (or wrong) is probably personal growth as well as intellectual development. We have learned, collectively, to embrace approaches that might in the past have sounded either obsessively pedantic or hopelessly woolly and to be guided by the different constraints and possibilities of different kinds of data and approaches. At the same time, we have all, I think, questioned some of our own assumptions about working methods, about epistemology and disciplinary tradition: looking outwards, in disciplinary terms, has helped us see ourselves a little better.

Read Emma’s reflections on the challenges of team working at a distance here: