The Gynaecological Hammered Penny

22nd August 2014 — 9 Comments

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.

 

PicardI 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.’

Henry copy

1248/50 – Henry III Halfpenny – © John Winter

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!

UPDATE

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. 

Author Karen Maitland said:

They also used to put coins in the mouths of the dead in some parts of the country which I suspect, as you said, John goes back to pagan belief. There are several recorded incidents of graverobbers opening graves in the hope of stealing these coins. Again, thinking of what the person might of died of, your warning is one to heed.

There was also the medieval custom of hammering iron nails into the feet of any corpse they suspect might rise from his or her grave and walk as a revenant.

________________________________________________________________________

John

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9 responses to The Gynaecological Hammered Penny

  1. Gruesome yes, but fascinating.

  2. I used to work as a Head Porter in a Hospital and when asked to get a body out for viewing sometimes they hadn’t been laid out properly. the jaw if open needed to be pushed up but again sometimes this caused the eyes to open (not wide obviously) and if the eyes were open already it was hard to get them to stay shut so we also used to put coins on them. I bet the bureaucrats today would have a fit.

  3. I thought that coins placed in the mouth of the deceased were to pay for the ferryman?

  4. I had a job once which involved digging up a Georgian/Victorian cemetery (all at night) to make room for a new road. I still have some of the “Dead Pennies” from the graves. The skulls had the staining from Copper on them. Found some lovely Brass handles too. The Police on site weren’t interested in them. Some coffins contained an inner, sealed metal container. One of these was accidentally dropped and the corpse was pretty much intact with a long red beard but it smelt atrocious. It was quickly placed in another carriage container and removed for re-burial.

  5. Fascinating as usual john keep them coming.

  6. So, money could have been the first and the last thing we have contact with in our lives!

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