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Afterlives of the Town: Politics of Burial and Personhood in Oxford

Oxford, Not University During our Uncomfortable Oxford tours, we focus a fair bit on the ...

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Antiquity & Middle AgesMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordResearch & Opinion

Afterlives of the Town: Politics of Burial and Personhood in Oxford

Oxford, Not University During our Uncomfortable Oxford tours, we focus a fair bit on the ...

return to all posts

Antiquity & Middle AgesMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordResearch & Opinion

Oxford, Not University

During our Uncomfortable Oxford tours, we focus a fair bit on the intersection of ‘town’ and ‘gown’ in the city. A recurrent theme is how, unfairly, Oxford has become synonymous with the university, pushing townsfolk and their histories to the margins.

The town of Oxford precedes the university. At a crucial juncture between River Thames and River Cherwell, the region has seen settlement since the Saxon era.[1] The university only became firmly established in the 12th Century, rapidly gaining dominion over the English educational landscape. This imbalance between town and gown shows even in the spaces that hold history and stories here, especially the museums. Displays on the theme of personhood and personal objects within Oxford’s many museums and galleries are more often than not a nod to its scholars or scholarship. Indeed, in the previous articles of this series, we have spoken about personal objects (Powhattan’s mantle) and the re-embodiment of human remains on display (shrunken heads and Egyptian mummies) at two university museums, the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers.

Drawing of a crowd in medieval clothes fighting with swords.
Town vs Gown rivalry stretches back centuries, and at times turned violent.

In this article, I’d like to shift the focus on to the Museum of Oxford or ‘MOx’, a non-university-affiliated museum within the city. The Museum of Oxford describes itself on its website as ‘the only museum dedicated to telling the story of Oxford and its people’.[2] This takes the form of two approaches. The first is their collection, which is made up of objects donated and loaned by people living or working in Oxford. The second is their ‘City Stories’ initiative, which facilitates the sharing of lived personhood by recording and publishing people’s memories of Oxford.

Given the particular nature of the museum, it is not surprising that it does not hold any human remains. However, the Museum of Oxford does hold a venerated monument to a particular body: the grave slab of Oxford’s patron, Saint Frideswide.

Saints and Shrines

St Frideswide is a figure with a strong legendary presence in the Oxford imagination. Presented as an Anglo-Saxon princess and later as an abbess, she is credited with starting a monastery and performing a number of miracles.[3] Said to have lived between 650 to 727 AD, she was buried in the vicinity of the city and her grave site was turned into a shrine in the twelfth century. Though an important place of Catholic pilgrimage, it was destroyed in 1538 along with other similar shrines during the process of the English Reformation. The site of her monastery and her shrine were incorporated within what is now the Christ Church Cathedral.

However, twenty-five years later the location of her shrine was re-used for the burial of a protestant woman, Catherine Martyr. Catherine’s body was exhumed three years later when Queen Mary Tudor tried to restore Roman Catholicism to England. Catherine’s remains were relegated to a dunghill due to her Protestant status. During this episode, Frideswide’s remains were restored to a place of honour in the church.

Humanoid face carving in stone
The grave slab of St Frideswide © Museum of Oxford

A decade later, when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne, Catherine Martyr’s remains were ordered to be retrieved from the dunghill and reburied within the cathedral. The cleric tasked with this undertaking decided to mix up the bones of the Protestant woman Catherine and the Catholic woman Frideswide, allegedly in order to prevent any further tampering with their remains on religious grounds. If legend is to be believed, the remains lie within the Christ Church Cathedral to this day.[4]

Frideswide’s purported grave slab was discovered in the Cathedral during its restoration in 1869. It is now displayed at the Museum of Oxford, drawing attention to a period of Oxford’s town history that was marked with religious strife. The incident with St. Frideswide’s grave points to how sites of burial and human remains are often collateral damage to changing political contexts. Throughout history we can see that the desacralization or desecration of final resting pieces marks the denial of personhood based on identity.

The remnants of St. Frideswide’s shrine are now part of the Christ Church College Cathedral. Her iconography can be seen within the diocese and the Anglican religious institution makes note of their contentious history.[5] However, without leaving the grounds of Christ Church college, we can find ourselves on an uncomfortable, less-mentioned walk…

Dead Man’s Walk

One of the walks within Christ Church Meadows adjacent to Merton Fields has the ominous name of ‘Dead Man’s Walk’. Yet as opposed to being an eerie tale, the story behind this name is one of loss and poignancy. The Dead Man’s Walk referred to the route taken by Jewish funeral processions in Oxford up to the 13th century. The Jewish burial site and other holdings of the community were acquired by different parts of the university and its colleges following the expulsion of Jews from England by royal decree in 1290.

Walking path along old wall with medieval towers seen on the horizon.
View of Dead Man’s Walk

The Jewish Burial site stood where the current-day Oxford botanical garden stands. While the Oxford Botanical Gardens are managed by the same central body as the university museums, this part of their history is marked only by a single plaque at their entrance. Most lacunae in this section of history are filled by local community groups such as the Oxford Jewish History Projectand religious societies.[6] While the Ashmolean Museum holds a 22 object collection spanning 4000 years that presents a view into the ‘Jewish Journey’, this is a more meta community oriented look.[7] In the process of physical antisemitic expulsion and the reappropriation of communal land such as the medieval cemeteries, many individual histories and examples of personhood have been lost. These are histories we cannot find in museums and rather see between wall lines, and in names of spaces that have still remained like the dead man’s walk.

The Present and the Absent

In 2021, the Weston Library had an exhibit on the geology of Oxford’s gravestones.[8] Through its curation and presentation, the exhibit explained how histories of wealth, class and transport networks can be understood through the changing geology (or materials used) in the production of funerary monuments. To take the historian’s approach, we can learn as much as from what is present (tombstones, graves, plaques) as what is absent (Jewish cemeteries, Catholic shrines, exhumed Protestant graves).

The local history of a place like Oxford, which is so overshadowed by its prominent university town identity, cannot be exclusively found in crowdsourced oral histories and dedicated museum spaces. There are also lived and even dead histories that interact with the everyday routes occupied by current day populations. The politics of personhood and personal objects is not created in academic institutions and curatorial process, but rather it is an extension of the real world. What is remembered and what is forgotten remains dictated by contemporary social order and our subjective world views. It remains pertinent to keep this in mind as we walk among polished glass cases and temperature-controlled galleries.

Written by Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel

This is the third and final part of a three-part series exploring the treatment of human remains and personal possessions in different museums around Oxford.

Read part one: Inheriting the Mantle: Dedications and Dilemmas in the Ashmolean
Read part two: Bones of Contention: The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains in Museums
Drawing of a sarcophagus with a suitcase next to it and a return ticket.

References

[1] Morris, Jan (2001). Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280136-4.

[2] Museum of Oxford (nd). About Us. Webpage: https://museumofoxford.org/

[3] Blair, John. ‘Frithuswith [St Frithuswith, Frideswide] (d. 727)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/10183

[4] Lys, Laura. (2021). ‘St Frideswide: Patron Saint of Oxford’. Museum of Oxford. Webpage: www.museumofoxford.org/st-frideswide-patron-saint-of-oxford

[5] Christ Church Oxford. (nd) ‘Oxford’s Patron Saint’. Webpage: https://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/blog/st-frideswide

[6] Oxford Jewish History. (nd) ‘About Us’. Webpage: https://www.oxfordjewishheritage.co.uk/about-us/

[7] Abrams, Rebbeca. (nd) ‘The Jewish Journey. Webpage: https://www.ashmolean.org/jewish-journey

[8] Bodelian Libraries. (2021). ‘Visit Us: Weston Library.’ Webpage: https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/geology-oxford-gravestones