Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 July 2014
This section looks at what people actually did in regard to dead bodies in early modernity. Our sources for social practices are varied and help us understand different kinds of beliefs about the dead body. At the most formalised end, legislation was a significant factor in shaping people's practices in early modernity, as aspects of mortuary practice were taken out of the control of individuals or of the church and taken into state control. The law tells us what we can and cannot do, and the judicial system specifies a range of sanctions that may be enacted upon us if we break that law. But the law does not exist in isolation from society. Laws are passed to address our concerns or protect values of societies at a particular time. For example, the Human Tissue Act (2004) was passed largely in response to public outcry over the retention of organs at Alder Hey hospital and the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Some groups and individuals in society do not support particular laws, so legislation is never a perfect mirror of social values. However, especially in large, complex, and highly structured societies like post-medieval Europe, regulation of the body is a matter for politicians and legislators as well as tradition and convention. So legislation is in a recursive relationship with social attitudes: responsive to public feeling but also creating popular practice.
At the same time, many popular and folkloric beliefs about the dead body were not universally shared, even though they betrayed attitudes to the corpse that provide further understanding of apparent contradictions between theological, scientific and judicial approaches. There is no open water between social beliefs of this chapter and folk beliefs of the next. Both chapters consider actual practices rather than formalised traditions of discourse that arose in relation to religious or scientific belief. However, to avoid a single unwieldy megachapter, I have included in this chapter the more mainstream, establishment and uncontested social beliefs affecting death and burial – beliefs about status, gender, legal power and social self.