A short history of prosthetics

Prosthetics have both a practical purpose and an emotional one, with some people feeling that they help to make them whole.  In ancient Egypt, there is evidence of a woman with a prosthetic toe that is made from wood and leather and some people say wouldn’t have affected her ability to walk.  Those people hypothesise that because they were a sandal wearing culture, she had felt it important to her identity to have the prosthetic.  Others believe that it will have contributed to her ability to walk.  Either way, I think it’s pretty amazing that we have evidence of prosthetics that old, especially given the materials they were generally made with.  In Egypt they were made from fibre and wood and echoed the importance they placed on wholeness.

Another early example is an artificial leg that dates back to about 300 BC.  It was found in Italy and was made of bronze and iron with a wooden core.  It’s thought this was held in place by a leather belt.

Whilst we tend to think of a prosthesis as replacing a limb, they are used to replace other body parts including eyes, breasts and teeth.  And when it comes to teeth we find a lot more literature.  Did you know, for example, that at one time hippo ivory was used to make false teeth as it was stronger than alternative ivory and didn’t yellow so quickly.

Etruscan false teeth from between 8th and 3rd century BCE have been discovered as have sets of false teeth which were made from animal teeth or even human teeth and were connected to intact teeth with a metal band.  Anyway, I don’t like the dentist and all this talk about teeth is too much for me….

Hook hands, peg legs and iron hands were used from roman times to the end of the middle ages with little advancement in technology.  In the 16th century, a hinged arm and a locking leg were invented.  The heavy iron was replaced by a mix of leather, paper and glue tanks for a French locksmith of all people.  We also have to thank watchmakers for contributing to the development of prosthetics as gears and springs were used and needed a careful approach for the intricate parts.

The history of prosthetics is about the history of the prosthetics of the wealthy, or lucky, as is often the case today.  Knights may have been fitted with them because of their status but possibly also because the history of prosthetics has always been intertwined with the history of wars and the soldiers that fight in them.  We know of a roman general that lost his hand and couldn’t fight, but with the aid of an iron prosthetic that could hold his shield, he was able to retain his identity as a general and presumably return to war…

Around 1800, a breakthrough was made in the mechanics of prosthetic limbs by James Potts.  His ‘Anglesey’ leg had articulated parts and used cat-gut tendons to hinge the knee and ankle, creating a walking motion when the toe was lifted.  This design was further developed by adding a heel spring.

The American Civil War saw many many limbs amputated and the US government supplied these soldiers with prosthetics, allowing them to return to work…. So kind!  This vastly increased demand and presumably there were tweaks to design at the same time.  Midway through the war, a new way of attaching the prosthesis was developed that used suction rather than straps.  Another prosthetic that came from the war was a rubber hand which had fingers and was able to connect to an array of attachments.

World War One also saw an increased demand for prosthetics but poor designs and poor fitting led to many going unused.  Common complaints included pain related to friction between prosthesis and the amputated limb and the weight of the prosthetic.

Throughout most of history, prosthetic limbs were wood or metal although I read about one that was made from plaster and animal glue and another that was iron with a wooden core.  More recently, lighter options have become available.  Lightweight aluminium combined with the suction attachment made for more practical and more affordable options and more recently plastics and electronics have followed.  Another big change is around the look of them.  Historically, prosthetic limbs have been designed to replicate the limb and to make other people feel comfortable but in recent decades, there has been a noticeable move towards function over appearance.

In the 1960s, children affected by thalidomide were born with malformed limbs and technological solutions to medical issues were sought.  These came in the form of personalised prosthetics which sped up the advancement of this area.  Gas powered prosthetics were invented to help children and whilst they may have sounded great, and certainly I’m sure some kids found them helpful, others found them difficult and cumbersome.  They required a lot of time away from home to fit them and teach the children how to use them and this obviously had to be repeated as the child grew.  Further, as the child grew up, they wanted to be able to do more with their prosthesis such as feed themselves, write and go to the toilet by themselves.  To be able to do these tasks would make mainstream school accessible.

Gas had been chosen as a power source because batteries at that point were impractical.  As time went on, other ideas were considered and someone thought that a more modular system might work and by this point technology had shrunk making batteries more practical.

In the 1990s, knees that used computer chips were introduced.  The chip controlled the speed and swing of the knee joint and sensors provided feedback.  In 1998 the first electric arm was fitted.  The i-limb was the first prosthetic to have individually powered fingers and gave the user more control and more feedback.  As well as limbs that allow for walking, we have seen limbs that are designed for running and other sports.

Today we are seeing a more personalised approach to prosthetics including the alternative limb project which seeks to go beyond the replacement of a limb and creates imaginative and personalised options.

Links

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Rainbows in culture

Part one and two

Having seen in previous blog posts that rainbows are not universally seen positively, it may not be so much of a shock to find that even within Europe, views have been divisive.

“Rainbow superstitions in Britain and Ireland reveal an ambivalence that is difficult to synthesize or explain.”
– The Penguin Guide to the Supersitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud

Modern beliefs tend to be positive – make a wish on a rainbow, the pot of gold etc – but others are darker, with Scotland and Ireland having a pessimistic view.  A rainbow over a house was thought to be a sign of death.  Some people believe that it is unlucky to point at the moon and the stars and this extended to rainbows as well.

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Rainbows are an obvious choice for poetry and it doesn’t take long to find some wonderful lines:

“Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!”
– Lord Byron

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!”
– William Wordsworth

Similarly, rainbows have featured in art for many many years, right back to 2000-4000 BCE.  However, painting a rainbow was not without controversy.  For a lot of history, there was an idea that rainbows were unpaintable and to attempt one “was often a self-conscious act of mastery – or even of hubris – and was usually seen as such by the contemporaries of those artists who dared to try.” (MacCannell)

Flags are another common place to find rainbows, most famously in the LGBT+ flag.  The original flag had eight colours:

  • Hot pink for sexuality
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic and art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Turquoise and hot pink were removed by 1979 for cost reasons.

Rainbows have also been used to symbolise peace and unity.  Since 1921, a rainbow flag has been used to represent the international cooperative movement, with each colour having a meaning.

Today we tend to see rainbows as a scientifically understood phenomena, as awe-inspiring and as kitsch.  To minimise the depth of the rainbow and see them in an emoticon kind of way is to miss out on so much of this incredibly wonder of the natural world.  Rainbows should inspire you to stop, to stare and to wonder.  Perhaps instead of thinking them as light diffracted through a raindrop, we should think of them as miracles drawn on the sky, just for us.  After all, they are uniquely experienced and that is a gift, personalised just for you.

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Resources

Rainbows and mythology

Part one

Rainbows feature in a variety of types of myth, and starting with end of the world myths we find rainbows popping up in a number of seemingly disconnected cultures, including northern India, parts of Canada and Argentina.

In Judeo-Christian lore, the rainbow is associated the flood.  After the flood, God set his bow in the clouds as a “token of covenant”.  In medieval Christianity, they were depicted in art showing the apocalypse as well as as a bow (a weapon, not gift wrapping). This rainbow as a bow concept was the case elsewhere in the world, with the Sanskrit word for rainbow literally meaning ‘the bow of Indra’ (one of the Hindu gods).

“The English language cannot describe a rainbow without reference to [the bow]: the ‘bow-ness’ of the bow intractably, implausibly, indestructibly remains.”
– Daniel MacCannell

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Elsewhere in the world, the rainbow has been seen as part of a deity, such as a mythical belt, a necklace and so on.  Rainbows as cosmic architectures, such as those in the Norse myths, are also well known but there is also the rainbow pathway that the goddess Iris uses to move between the mortal and the heavenly worlds.

“Among the American tribes, as well as among the Aryans, the rainbow and the Milky-Way have contributed the idea of a Bridge of the Dead, over which souls must pass on the way to the other world.”
Myths and Myth-Makers, John Fiske (1873 hence language used)

Another way we can see rainbows in myth is as rainbow beings such as the snake-monster from the Mbuti people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – a man killer that creates catastrophes and generally inspires terror.  Another terrifying rainbow creature is the serpent Magalim from New Guinea who causes madness and malaria when not busy swallowing people.  Dangerous rainbow serpents can also be found in South America, including the Panare from Venezuela who use the same word to mean both rainbow and were-anaconda…

There is also the rainbow snake found in Aboriginal Australian mythology and that brings us onto the unexpected subject of dragons

Some historians suggest a link between rainbows and dragons and this is investigated in depth by Robert Blust.  He says that the dragon is the end point of a developing concept which began with rainbows and moved through the rainbow serpent to become the dragons we are more familiar with today, especially those from china.  But this link may seem counter intuitive when seen through a Western lens:

“Within the Judeo-Christian tradition the rainbow is the bow of the covenant, a sign of divine promise and hope; by contrast the dragon is a sinister relic of the pre-Christian past.”
– Robert Blust

The rainbow serpent is a giant snake whose body arches like a rainbow across the sky.  They are associated with the gift of blood, controlling the circulation of blood as well as menstrual cycles.

“The rainbow is most commonly represented in one of four ways:

As a celestial bow

As a bridge between heaven and earth

As a belt, scarf or other article of apparel of a deity

As a giant snake.

By far the most common view is that the rainbow is a giant snake which either drinks water from the Earth and sprays it over the sky (this causing it to rain), or that drinks from the sky (causing it to stop).”
– Blust

It is easy to lean into this idea given that rainbows are often associated with the beginning or end of a rain shower.  As our ancestors sought to explain and understand the world around them, natural phenomena were often personified and given the shape of a rainbow, a serpent is an obvious choice.  Understanding the rainbow as a giant snake, it’s not too far of a leap to see why it might have developed into a dragon, especially the more serpentine Chinese dragons.

Resources

Rainbows, a colourful history

Note, this is part one of three as it turned into a rather long post…  Later posts will look at mythology and superstitions around rainbows.

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed an abundance of rainbows.  I’m doing a little photo project that was sparked as a result of a gorgeous rainbow selection of tea and a day where I saw multiple rainbows, including one that seemed like we were driving through the base of it – spoiler, there was no gold, no leprechauns, just one Irish carer…

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Anyway, alongside that project, I wanted to find out more about how rainbows feature in cultures and how they have been used symbolically, as well as how our understanding of rainbows has changed over time.

One of the things I love about rainbows is how people still view them with awe and how they can bring smiles to tired faces.

If you want to know more about how rainbows are formed, then the Met Office has some brief, easy to understand information.  One of the things I love is that conditions must be just right for a rainbow to be seen, and that feels very special to me.

  • The sun needs to be behind the viewer
  • The sun needs to be low in the sky, at an angle of less than 42° above the horizon. The lower the sun in the sky the more of an arc of a rainbow the viewer will see
  • Rain, fog or some other source of water droplets must be in front of the viewer

Another aspect of rainbows is that no one can see the same one, even if someone is standing next to you, they will not see the exact rainbow you see.  This combined with the specific conditions necessary to create one makes it feel like seeing a rainbow is a personal gift.

“The rainbow that a cloudspotter sees standing in one position is never the same as that observed from another one.  The droplets that are over in the direction of the arc – perhaps a half to one and a half miles away – each sparkle a bit of sunlight into his eyes.  From the drops that fall through the sky off in some directions, it is the yellow-looking part of the spectrum that twinkles at the cloudspotter.  From those in other directions, it is the violet, etc.  This means that, should the observer change position, different raindrops will be the ones sparkling at him.  Hopefully, this will help cloudspotters accept that it is a futile and, frankly humiliating aspiration to seek the end of a rainbow.”
– The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Today we tend to think of rainbows having seven colours, we may remember them through a mnemonic like Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, but the number is actually arbitrary and has changed over time.  Research suggests that the number of colours seen is about the language that person uses, if a language has fewer colour words then they will see fewer colours.

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As far back as 3rd to 2nd century BCE, people were trying to describe the rainbow but Aristotle was the first to give a complete description and he identified three colours.  The idea of there being three colours was justified in a number of ways including the three stages of events (beginning, middle and end), the three dimensions of space and the use of the number three in the worship of gods.

Later Newton would claim there were five colours, namely red, yellow, green, blue and violet but he would go on to add orange and indigo.  This created a seven colour scale analogous to the notes in a musical scale.  Despite this being the accepted idea today, it was considered heretical at the time.    Newton would also suggest that all of the colours of the rainbow are found in white light, a concept which provides a great metaphor for humanity.

In my next post I’ll be looking at how rainbows feature in mythology.

Resources

A short history of feeding tubes

Whilst you’re probably vaguely familiar with nose and stomach feeding tubes, it hasn’t always been that way… rectal feeds were once the only way… and up until the 1940s the rectum was used for water, saline and glucose solutions.

The first recorded attempt dates back to ancient Egypt when reeds were used to give rectal feedings of chicken broth, wine and eggs. Rectal feeding was used as there was no way to reach the upper GI tract without killing the patient.

There is a long period before any known, recorded developments in artificial feeding.  In Spain, in the 12th century Ibn Zuhr attempted parenteral nutrition, supplying nourishment intravenously to a human with the aid of a hollow silver needle.  It is unknown how successful it was.

A few centuries later, in 1598, Capivacceus used a hollow tube with a bladder attached to one end to reach as far as the oesophagus.  This thinking was developed and in 1617 Fabricius ab Aquapendente used a silver type of NG (nasal gastric – nose to stomach) tube that went as far as the pharynx for patients with tetanus.

In 1646 Von Helmont used leather to create a flexible, hollow tube that patients would swallow and it would feed into the top of the oesophagus.  A syringe was used to deliver blended food.

By the mid 17th century, thinking was focused back on parenteral feeding:

“The idea of providing nutrients intravenously in humans was first realised when Sir Christopher Wren injected wine and ale in dogs way back in the middle of the 17th century.”
– Ahmad Fuad Shamsuddin

Wren had invented an IV made of goose quills and porcine bladders and was also able to give opiates to dogs through this.  There were issues and in 1710 Courten concluded that fats needed to be manipulated before being administered through an IV.  Despite these developments, IV feeding is a fairly new therapeutic tool.

In the 1700s physicians experimented with blends of wine, eggs, jellies and milk and in 1710 it was suggested that the leather tube could be used to reach down into the stomach.

Another stepping stone in the history of feeding tubes saw John Hunter, in 1790, using whalebone covered in eel skin attached to a bladder pump to feed a mix of jellies, beaten eggs, sugar, milk and wine.  In the early 1800s, food blends included thick custards, mashed potatoes and pre-digested milk, whatever delightful thing that is…

During the first half of 19th century stomach pumps were used to feed severely mentally ill patients in England but it wasn’t a straightforward technique with complications including stomach lacerations and drowning in beef broth…

Apparently it was in 1837 that the first gastronomy was suggested.  That is a tube which goes into the stomach through the tummy.  It was attempted around 1845 but there were many complications including infections which couldn’t be dealt with as antibiotics hadn’t yet been created.

In 1867 Kussmaul introduced a flexible orogastric tube – a tube that goes from mouth to stomach rather than nose to stomach.  Three years later, in 1870, Dr Staton was the first surgeon in the US to perform a gastrostomy with long term survival.  The patient was an 8 year old boy.  Another four years and Ewald and Oser would introduce a soft rubber tube.

It would be 1878 before the first jujunostomy was attempted – that’s a gastrostomy which goes into the duodenum instead of the stomach.  But rectal feeding was still about and in 1881 the US president James Garfield was kept alive after being shot by being rectally fed beef broth and whisky.

Moving into the 20th century, we the early days of the central line which would lead to IV feeding and parenteral feeding as well as soft flexible tubes introduced to make artificial feeding more comfortable and more successful.

Unfortunately, paralleling this was the forced feeding of suffragettes.  This was a torturous affair made up of brutal attacks.  A primitive method of feeding was used that was painful – the tube through the nose was often too large and any resistance from the prisoner lead to further pushing, if the nasal tube failed, a throat tube was used which involved a metal spring gag.

Around 1910, Einhorn began experimenting with NJ tubes and shortly after, in 1916 continuous and controlled delivery of liquid nutrition was suggested when it became clear bolus feeding was not always tolerated.  The Levin tube, introduced in 1921 was very stiff and thicker than the tubes used today which are made of soft polymers such as silicone and polyurethane but was presumably progress then.  Another development came in the 1930s with feeding via a pump.

The literally life changing discovery of modern antibiotics in the 1940s changed the landscape of artificial feeding dramatically.  Many of the surgeries that had failed because of infection were now viable.  This was developed further in the late 1940s when polyethylene tubing began to be used and the first enteral feeding pump was developed.

In the 1960s, with the focus on space travel, work was carried out on nutrition to help astronauts get the right food and prevent malnutrition.  This information would later be used to create the formulas used today in tube feeding.  These were further developed in the 1970s.

In 1979, the PEG insertion technique was developed and performed on a 6 month old in the US.  This is a common method still used today which uses a cut in the stomach and an endoscopic tube – hence percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy.  It’s this kind of insertion that I had.

I’ve written before about how grateful I am for my feeding tube, it has given me back my life and I am also incredibly grateful for all those innovative thinkers and all those unfortunate patients that have gone before me.  Thank you.

Sources and further reading:

Queen of Pentacles

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Left to right: Top row – Pagan Cats, Lumina, Wild Unknown.  Bottom row – Animal Totem, Our Tarot

Rider Waite Smith and Pagan Cats

With the RWS card, we have a queen looking demurely towards a pentacle that is resting on her knee.  Her throne is surrounded by roses, a detail echoed in the pagan cats tarot.  Similarly, both have a rabbit in the foreground, highlighting the queen’s connection to the natural world.  The rabbit also suggests fertility and fecundity, as well as creation.  In many ways the queen is a minor version of the Empress card although Rachel Pollack also likens this card to the magician, both of which I’ll be writing about at some point.

With the link to the Empress, and with the suit of pentacles, we are thinking about nature, about the everyday, about resources and things we can touch and sense.  As such, we are reflecting on nature and cycles and the rhythms of life.  Being able to enjoy nature and notice the world around us can be a meditative way of life that can enhance our experience of being here:

“the quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight.  The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention”
– Julia Cameron

This queen is the part of you that pays attention and is able to be present.  This means she notices and enjoys the little things that other people often overlook.  Looking at the RWS image, you could interpret her as being focused on the pentacle in a sort of meditative or appreciative kind of way but I’d like to contrast that with the pagan cats card.  The cat has her tail curled around the pentacle and the post feels like she’s much more secure in her resources, she knows they aren’t going to vanish if she isn’t looking at them.

Obviously much of tarot is about how you interpret the cards and I’m trying to guide you to see the cards in different ways so that you can feel what chimes with you.  Sticking with that cat a bit longer, we can feel into themes of trust and security, knowing that the resources we have worked hard for aren’t going anywhere.

Wild Unknown

In the Wild Unknown, the queens are mothers and the kings fathers which feels much more appropriate given there are no animals in the deck.  This deer mother is depicted next to her fawn, protective and comforting but not stifling.  She is there as a secure base and her presence allows the fawn to go out into the world.  We all need a secure base, whatever form that takes.  It might be a person, it might be a place, it might be a very literal security blanket but it is that something that helps to ground you and helps you to feel safe in the world.

Queen cards are associated with water and so that means the queen of pentacles is both water and earth, very literally she makes things grow.  She is the earth mother.  She is in flow with the planet.  She is nurturing and big hearted, loving and patient.  She is calm and caring and she is an earthly embodiment of the magic of nature.

She is generous and wants the best for all of us and wants to help us get there.  Because of this, she can get her identity wrapped up in her family and friends.

Lumina

The lumina queen is posed similarly to the RWS queen but instead of looking down, she is staring straight at the reader.  At her feet, instead of a rabbit, rests a bear.  For me, a key aspect of the bear is the duality of loving mother and angry momma bear.  She is kind but if you endanger her babies, she will attack you.  In terms of how that relates to this card, I think it’s about protecting your creations or your dreams as they start to venture out of your head and into the world.

The book talks very much about being at home with yourself and your life:

“You look at the life you have consciously created, the people within it and the activities and work you have dedicated yourself to and realise that it’s a true expression of grounded abundance and prosperity.”

To reach this stage in her life, she has had to pull on her resources but also carefully balance competing demands and ambitions in her life.  But to reach this point in life and not acknowledge it would be to miss part of the journey.  Stop, look around you, see how far you’ve come.

Sometimes the balance that this queen needs can get unsettled.  She has the potential to put others before herself; she may over-help and in turn hinder the growth of others – teach a woman to fish and all that!

Our tarot

Our tarot have chosen Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, to represent the queen of pentacles.  She was born in 1729 in Russia and seems to have had a complicated life and over time grew in power and wealth.  She was a strong woman and the time she reigned is sometimes called the Golden Age of Russia.  I hadn’t heard of her before I got this deck so I’m not going to say much about her, but instead will focus on the way that she reflects the essence of the card.

“She is an example of the safety one feels when one’s mother “has their back”: a mother works to keep her child’s environment safe and comfortable.”

This quote from the accompanying book reminds me of the sea serpent from the wild unknown animal oracle deck.  It also echoes the ideas we saw with the wild unknown card above.

To rise to her place in society, Catherine relied on, and used, other people and pulled on the external environment to help.  Utilise your strengths and what is around you.  Pay attention, be resourceful and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Animal Totem Tarot

This deck selected the pig to illustrate the queen of pentacles and I’ve written already about both the pig and the boar so it might be worth checking them out as well.

“There is nothing nicer than the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair.  Time for me is the best time in the whole wide world.  No interruptions, no constant conversation, just me and whatever I need to do for myself.”

Note how the pig queen has hung up her crown for a mud bath?  This card stresses the importance of self care – make time for yourself.  You may want to help everyone out with everything but you need to take care of yourself first – think about oxygen masks on planes.  Do whatever it is that recharges and revitalises you and then care for and help out others.

York Death Tour

Recently I took it upon myself to drag one of my carers around York to learn about death and graveyards.  Don’t feel too sorry for her, it was a warm day and we had stopped for a cup of tea half way through.

The information I used to cobble together the tour came from a York tourist board self guided tour, The York Graveyard Guide and Tyburn Tales (about executions in York).  It was both interesting and educational and I thought I’d share some of what we discovered in case anyone else is fascinated by the history of death in York…

It is estimated that the city of York contains about half a million corpses and skeletons within the walls alone.  In the middle ages, there were about 50 graveyards and over the years, they filled up, were closed and sometimes built on.

We started off the tour in Museum Gardens at St Leonard’s Hospital Arch.  The hospital was erected on the site of St Peter’s Hospital which was damaged in a fire in 1137.  In medieval times, hospitals cared for the sick, the poor, the old and the disabled but also tended to spiritual health as well as physical health.

In one of the arches of St Mary’s ruins, you can see the tomb of William Etty.  Next we headed round the corner and peered over the fence to St Olave’s graveyard.  In 1853 vaults were available in the church but cost a rather steep £100 to discourage people from being buried there.

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Inside Kings Manor there is apparently a couple of find medieval stone coffins but you need to ask the porter’s permission to see them so we didn’t bother.  We did however learn that the coffins were wedge shaped and this was because Christianity stressed that you should leave the world as you entered it – that is without any grave goods.  This was very different to the Roman way of doing things which involved many grave goods such as wine and food and jewellery.  Bodies in the Christian burials were wrapped in a shroud, which in the 17th century had to be made of English wool to encourage the English wool trade…!  Like the Romans, the coffin was made of stone to preserve the body for resurrection.

Next stop was Bootham Bar which has been a gateway into York since 71AD.  It was also one of the places where you could find heads impaled on spikes.  If you were found guilty of treason you would be punished horrifically and your head would be boiled in salt water and covered in pitch to preserve it before it was put on a spike on one of the bars (entrances) to York.

Walking through Bootham Bar and heading towards the Minster you find St Michael-le-Belfry Church.  In front of the church is a triangle of pavement and was once part of the graveyard.  Burials are often still close to the surface so building work can disrupt them; on one occasion, a skeletal hand fell out of the floor.  One of the people buried here was Nathan Drake who died in 1778, 47 years later his wife Mary joined him, aged 92.  Another notable person was Dr Alexander Hunter who was a medical graduate from Edinburgh.  He came to York to take over a medical practice and was one of the founders of Bootham Park Hospital which opened in 1777 and was the fifth purpose build asylum in the country.

There is obviously much that could be said about the minster and death but that feels like an entire blog post (or series of books!) of it’s own.

Monk Bar was the next stop.  It is the tallest of all the bars and home to York’s only working portcullis which was last lowered in 1953 for the coronation of the queen.  The rooms above the gateway give access to so called murder holes which allowed enemies to be attacked from above.  At one stage the rooms were used as a prison and in 1631 held a man called Martin Best.  Best had arrived in York having previously been in London, in a house that was infected with the plague.  He was kept in the prison and his goods were burnt as part of the attempts to mitigate the impact of the plague in York.

This tenuously led on to us learning more about the plague.  The worst plague in York was in 1604 and was blamed on the arrival of the Scots.  York was struck again in 1631 but managed to avoid the great plague of 1655.  Attempts to control the plague included killing the city’s cats and dogs who were thought to spread the disease.  The poor who got ill were moved to camps outside the city and were supplied with food and drink.  Other victims quarantined themselves in their home.  Money was dipped in vinegar and goods coming into the city, especially cloth, were often impounded.

Nearby was St Maurice’s which has since been pulled down to make way for the inner ring road.  The church was near the County Hospital and when you went in for help, you had to pay a deposit to cover your burial fees.  If you made it out alive, you got that money back.  If not, you were buried in St Maurice’s graveyard.

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After a quick chat about St Maurice’s in Monkgate, we moved round the city walls to the sainsburys car park.  Also known as Jewbury which might give more of a hint about its relevance.

Jewbury was a cemetery between 1177 and 1290 when Jews were expelled from England.  Before 1177, Jews had to be taken to London for burial, wherever in the country they lived and died.  In 1177, Henry II gave permission for Jewish burial grounds outside about 10 cities, York being one of them.  This was obviously still incredibly inconvenient but a slightly better situation that before.

When Sainsbury’s car park was being built, nearly 500 skeletons were excavated but it’s estimated that the remains of about 1000 individuals were buried there.  As only one of the skeletons showed signs of a violent death, we know these were not the victims of the 1190 massacre.  Most of the burials were in wooden coffins with a few personal items.

Following the walls again, we headed onto Peasholme Green and stopped at St Cuthbert’s Church whose graveyard is raised above the pavement level.  Graves were originally dug 6 feet down, but as more and more people were buried, the sheer volume of bodies meant that graves got shallower and shallower and began to smell awful.  The authorities dealt with this by heaping earth on the graveyards which meant that the land rose quickly.  Shallow graves were also vulnerable to body snatchers and York was well placed to serve the illegal trade for both London and Edinburgh, being close enough to both to get bodies there before they perished too much.  As a result of this, the rich would pay more to be buried inside churches.

Just pas the church, on the right, is a sign to an art gallery and cafe.  Follow it and amidst the hubub of cars and buses and so on, you’ll find a wonderful garden, a sanctuary.  You’ll also find the friendly York School House Art Gallery and Cafe which had a wonderful turkish apple tea and I’m told the brownies are also great!

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Whilst there are many churches and graveyards in the centre of York, I didn’t want us to get overloaded with death so I’d selected some that were more personal to me, basically just because I had lived near them for a number of years.  They were familiar in the sense that I saw them on a near daily basis going to and from work and yet I didn’t know much about their history and who was buried there.

Starting with St Michael’s on Spurriergate.  This parish covered part of an undesirable area but also shopkeepers.  It had a small graveyard which was reduced in size in 1337 when it was divided into two parts by Church Lane.  The part now split from the church became a public urinal in 1857.

As you cross over Skeldergate bridge and start to head uphill, you pass a church that is now a nightclub.  We stopped here, on the edge of the busy road, to learn more about St Johns.  In the nineteenth century, this was the second most crowded parish and was next to the most crowded parish.  This busy area meant that the graveyard was reused many times and had to be closed in the mid 1800s.  The graveyard was paved over in 1966 when increased traffic meant the road needed to be widened.

Heading further up the hill, we came to St Martin-Cum-Gregory’s which was once one of the richest parishes in York.  Quite a different congregation to Spurriergate only a stones throw away.  This area was home to nobility but because the graveyard was crowded, in hot weather the smell of death was in the air… Amongst those rotting corpses, there are two monuments to the Cave family.  Thomas Cave was the founder of a dynasty of engravers and his grandson, Henry Cave, created a book with 40 engravings of York buildings which was published in 1813.

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Nearby is St Mary Bishophill Junior, confusingly older than St Mary Bishophill Senior.  Anyway, St Mary Junior, had what might be one of the most overcrowded graveyards in York.  Burials meant breaking coffins and disturbing remains.

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A little further on is St Mary Bishophill Senior which dated back to to the eleventh century.  By the 1930s, worship had ceased and the church began to fall into ruin.  In 1963 it was pulled down and some of its stones were reused to build Holy Redeemer on Boroughbridge Road.

York was a place for the fashionable members of society and the hair styles of the late eighteenth century meant combs were in demand.  To keep piles of hair upon the head, the comb industry was essential and at this time they were made from horn.  Traditionally, comb makers were found near the source of the materials, that is the Shambles which was a street of slaughter houses.  Increased demand meant that new workshops were established around Micklegate Bar and Tanner Row.  The invention of a comb making machine in 1796 would see the end of the combmaking in York.  Anyway, the point of this detour into combs was all to say that one of the families buried in St Mary Senior were the Rougiers.  Joseph Rougier founded one of the largest and longest lasting firms of combmakers in York.

Other people buried there included George Benson, a cheese and butter seller and James Cawthorp who died in 1852 aged 37.  Cawthorp was a prison governor at the nearby gaol.  Thomas Gowland was killed on 3rd November 1851 when a train he was working on was hit from behind by another train.  He was crushed and died two hours later.  The coroner’s jury noted that no one was to blame and that it was bad luck and in 3 out of 4 cases, the second train would have come off worse and the guard wouldn’t have been harmed.

 

We did try to find the headstones of a few people who were executed.  At one point, executed criminals could be buried in church yards and Tyburn Tales does record the burial location of many of the executed people.  As such, we knew that on Wednesday 2nd August, 1672, Robert Driffield (aged 24) and Mark Edmund (22) were executed for setting fire to six corn stacks.  Many people gathered to watch their execution and their bodies were later interred in St Mary Bishophill Senior.  Given the age of the burials, it’s not surprising we didn’t find any trace of them.

And thus concluded this particular portion of my death tour of York!