I have been trying to retrieve some of my more popular posts from the last three years, but it hasn’t been easy. Even with the help of web.archive.org I have only been successful – I estimate – in about 40% of the cases. I apologise to long-term subscribers who may have seen them before, but it does mean that in many cases I have been able to update with new material. This will be new for some people.
The Gynaecological Hammered Penny
Living in the close-knit society of a County Durham pit village in the 1940’s was quite a revelation for a small and inquisitive boy. Lots of everyday happenings like birth and death I tended to take for granted; traditions were just accepted and never really questioned.
There were women in the village, almost always elderly, who were regarded as ‘wise women’. They were trusted and summoned when there was a birth or death. With the latter, they would attend to the body, washing, preparing and ‘laying it out’.
Closing the eyes with the aid of two coins, usually a penny – because they were heavy – was one of those traditions. In earlier times, Matthew Boulton’s cartwheel would have been more than adequate for the job! I always thought it was done so that when we all trooped in to view the body, the deceased looked more at peace and comfortable, as if they were sleeping.
I now learn that if a person had just died, it is almost impossible to shut the eyes because their reflexes are still working, *bowels still move, fingernails and hair continue to grow (please see my update). The tradition may also hark back to the ancient Greeks who put coins on the eyes of dead people in order for them to be able to pay Charon, the ferryman, to take them across the River Styx.
I have just finished reading Liza Picard’s excellent book, Restoration London,covering the period 1660-70 when Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary. She mentions the ‘wise woman’ who gave moral support to their female friends.
I pause my tale just for a moment to introduce (opportunity to show off) a cut halfpenny I have recently found, for such a coin stars in the remainder of my story and is pictured below! Although this is a Henry III coin dating back to 1248-50, it still illustrates the point rather well. If you are of a weak and easily offended disposition, don’t read any further. These are Liza Pickard’s own words.
‘If the membrane bag of fluid in which the baby had developed had not broken by the time the midwife arrived the wise woman would put her hand up … and break the membrane with a specially sharpened fingernail, or a thin coin. At that time, the edges of small coins were not milled and a used groat was rather sharp.’
In an earlier post I exhorted you not to put a newly unearthed hammered coin in your mouth with the express intention of cleaning it. I think I’ve just found another reason why you shouldn’t do it – you don’t know where it’s been!
It has been pointed out to me that I am simply perpetuating a myth by saying that hair and fingernails continue to grow after death. I am happy to make a correction. Peter Uehler of Science Focus quotes from his website and states:
The gruesome idea of nails and hair continuing to grow on a rotting corpse is fascinating. But it’s a myth – at least if you’re thinking of luscious locks and long, curly fingernails growing inside a coffin. Nails and hair may appear to keep growing, but this is because flesh shrinks as it dries out, retracting the skin to make the nails and hair appear longer. There is a little truth in the story though, because death isn’t an instantaneous process. When someone’s heart stops beating their brain cells die very quickly, but cells that use less oxygen can live a little longer. So potentially hair and nails could grow a tiny bit after the brain is dead.