17. Becket's Casket

Object type: A small casket, built to contain fragment of the body of Saint Thomas Becket

Materials: wood, copper, enamel, glass, crystal, gold, blood and bone.

Location: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Notes: formerly belonged to William Stukeley (see Exhibit 12).

© Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen.


The argument of this case is something like this: how do theories of "interiority" and "exteriority" get in the mind in the first place?  That is, how do we develop notions of a private self that is "in here" distinct from a public self that is "out there"?  If, as the Enlightenment catchphrase has it, "there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses," how do we see or experience interiority?  Privacy seems intuitive; interiority seems obvious.  But it was in fact the achievement of an age; the interior self is part of the general invention of the mind as a collection.

As a shortcut to some answers, I'd like to offer a few related facts.  Over roughly the same period that "interiority" becomes a theme in literature and the arts, we also see a shift in the architectural layout of houses.  The period spanning roughly from Shakespeare to Austen also saw the development of floor-plans that featured a gradation of rooms from highly public gathering spaces to highly private spaces of dressing, sleep, and study.  The age commonly called the consumer revolution, spanning roughly the same period, also witnessed the striking uptick in trades specializing in different kinds of enclosure.  This includes the development of the craft that I specialized in before joining the academy: the joiner or cabinetmaker.  People were buying things, but they were also buying things to put things in.  The same period also sees the upsurge of new genres that publicly air out private selves, genres like the published memoir, the account-bookpublished collections of letters, and the biggest one of all: the novel.  (On this point, see Michael Mckean's Secret History of Domesticity.)  The same people that were buying highly visible objects for hiding things away (houses and other kinds of cases) were also buying novels, which likewise offered a public staging of private experience. 

Each of these developments signaled the emergence of new forms of being, modeling ways in which people could think of themselves as private beings.  Each moreover points to a vast ecology at work, of interiority as a mental concept co-evolving with new spaces and forms of expression.  None of these developments, however, emerged ex nihilo; each made new use of old things.  It is this new use of old materials that I'd like to focus on, here.

I'm starting with this little box, a casket which is also a sort of reliquary, because it belonged to someone who specialized in old materials.  This was William Stukeley, who also turns up elsewhere in this museum (Exhibit 12).  Stukeley was an antiquarian; he was interested in the meanings of British antiquities.  Among these was the most striking antiquity of all-- Canterbury Cathedral, the site of the murder of Thomas Becket.  Becket's martyrdom was perhaps the most important single episode in British ecclesiastical history-- at least before the Catholic church was cashiered into the Anglican under King Henry VIII.  And it spun off in tiny fragments like Stukeley's magnificent casket, which, if the story can be believed, at one time contained fragments of Becket's blood and bone.

The display of relics like Becket's body became one of the first major experiments in the paradoxical kind of enclosure in which museums now specialize (i.e. Bann "Shrines and Curiosities").  For the ritual withdrawal of relics like these helped invent their particular power.  I don't want to weigh in on whether the objects themselves had magical properties.  But it seems likely to me that whatever native powers they might or might not have had were wrapped up in massive and complex structural effects that couldn't help but produce potent bodily and emotional responses.  For things like Stukeley's casket were only powerful in reference to the vast machine from which their relics came.  This machine was Canterbury Cathedral, which, though it was among the largest structures in England, was nevertheless organized as a container for a series of redolent objects.  The little ritual of going to a casket like Stukeley's, opening it, and seeing the relics it contained was magnified, on a colossal scale, by a series of architectural finesses in Canterbury.

The cathedral at Canterbury was ancient even by the time that Becket's body became one of England's principal draws.  It was a center of ecclesiastical government and a saturated zone of spiritual significance.  It also became a sort of hospital, as Becket's body was reputed to have certain healing properties.  It is partly for these crossed imperatives, Canterbury as center of Church business but also a zone of intense cultural capital, that Church officials began reorganizing its interior space.  Walls were thrown up, and passages opened, new spaces opened to the public, and others shut off.  The effect was one of England's first major tourist experiences.  (On this point, see Hearn, "Cult of Becket.")  The building, erected in multiple phases of construction over centuries of use, was repurposed into a machine for the experience of Becket as a martyred saint.

This was a museum, but a museum of a special kind, arranged towards a particular end. Pilgrims were impressed by the long succession of spaces, a series of ascents from chapel to chapel.  Chapels along the way had been epmtied out to make space for Becket's shirt and drawers of haircloth; cabinets were built to display fragments of his skull encased in silver, or his handkerchief, clotted with blood.  But all this was meant merely to frame the central exhibit, the shrine of Becket himself. 

What the shrine looked like is unclear; a few drawings survive, but the whole central contraption was destroyed bat the order of Henry VIII, so little else remains.  It is known to have been decorated with jewels, many of which were given to the church in thanks for some minor miracle the body of Becket was believed to have performed.  A viewer of the shrine would hear the stories of these jewels-- where they came from, who gave them, the illness that had been cured.  But, in any case, even as the shrine screened Becket's remains from view, so, too, it seems that even the shrine was not usually on display, and, even if it was, the body of the saint himself was not to be seen.  In other words, a series of blinds stood between the viewer and Becket, but each of these blinds had a paradoxical effect.  Rather than making the experience less powerful, or causing viewers to feel less close to Becket and his body, these devices enhanced the sense of proximity, or, the overall potency of the closeness to Becket's sacred body.  This was a ritual with a purpose, creating and sustaining the cult of Becket that caused it to spring into being in the first place.

Accounts survive of the embodied, individual devotional practices, especially of sufferers who made the trip to visit Becket's body-- for Becket's relics were well-known to heal the sick. People are known to have brought gifts, often related to their own ailments, and to have wound themselves into and around the structures encasing and surrounding the Becket's shrine.  This was a potent site indeed-- the center of gravity of a massive edifice, and an even larger tourist industry organizing visits to this very place.  But it wasn't quite the end of the whole experience; visitors who made it all the way through the tour were ushered quickly out of the cathedral via a different set of steps, emptying them into a lane packed with stalls filled with souvenirs.  Among these were other fragments of Becket's body, especially lead ampullae in wonderfully ornate shapes, said to be filled with Becket's blood.  Many of these have been torn open-- their contents, presumably, consumed, as part of a medical regimen.  Wonderfully, however, a few of these ampullae have survived intact to the present day; radiographic evidence suggests that they contain traces of biological material, possibly a film of diluted human blood.

Display techniques like vitrines or museum cabinets seem to have borrowed from experiments launched at places like Canterbury.  Stukeley of course had a casket which was meant to render the effect of Canterbury portable, but the arrangement of things that Canterbury made possible was smuggled out through other means.  As one example among many, John Bargrave (1610-1680), Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, brought home a collection of assorted objects from the grand tour, it has been plausibly suggested that he arranged things in his own cabinet according to techniques that he borrowed, more-or-less, from the Cathedral in which he lived and worked.  Among Bargrave's friends was John Evelyn (see Exhibit 5); Evelyn visited Bargrave at Canterbury, where he perhaps received the tour, either the tour of the Cathedral, or, more likely, the tour of Bargrave's curiosities.  But the point is that Evelyn, who was himself among the most important early English-language art historians, and the author of a lengthy letter to Samuel Pepys on the organization of a library, seems likely to have taken away some lessons on the display of things.  It is through routes like these that the modern museum learned its display techniques.