Sunday, 28 June 2015

Fighting Cocks and Showcased Skeletons, or Respect in Retrospect

Fighting Cocks and Showcased Skeletons, or Respect in Retrospect

The record of history is a living thing, not just connecting people across time but ever-evolving, reflecting the changing sensibilities of those looking back. Each generation considers the past with fresh eyes, re-selecting the people, events and themes of importance and re-evaluating the motivations, implications and lessons to be learned. Sometimes it is wonderfully surprising how controversial the past can turn out to be.

One of my favourite pubs in my old stomping ground of St Albans has recently been targeted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which claims to be the oldest pub in the UK, dating from the eighth century, has drawn criticism for its historic name. PETA spokesperson Dawn Carr has suggested the pub be re-named to Ye Olde Clever Cocks to reflect a change in society’s attitudes.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
The St Albans pub does indeed sit on the site of an old cock-pit. The round, sunken arena was still evident in the floor when I use to drink there. But although this brutal sport is occasionally still secretly organised in England, it was made illegal here in the 1830s. Today the Fighting Cocks does not celebrate or encourage cock-fighting any more than The Flying Pig in Cambridge promotes porcine parachutists, or London’s The Hung, Drawn and Quartered advocates a return to capital punishment. In fact the landlord, Christo Tofalli, claims that the Fighting Cocks is particularly animal friendly, being near the park and welcoming dogs. 

Signpost to the historic cockpit inside
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
PETA may be a well-motivated organization, but their suggestion completely disregards the value of social history. Sanitizing our past exploitation of animals will do nothing to prevent future abuses; possibly the reverse. Beyond that, such heritage has inherent value, worthy of respect and protection, as landlord Tofalli appreciates. ‘This is an historic building with a remarkable story behind it’ he commented. It is a story that wants to share with locals and tourists and so, I am pleased to report, he is not planning a pub name-change soon.

Sometimes however the clash of interests and perspectives can be more difficult to negotiate. Last month the remains of a German soldier, believed to be those of Private Friedrich Brandt, were put on display in a Belgian museum. Private Brandt was not a soldier of the Second World War, nor even of the Great War before it, but of the Battle of Waterloo two hundred years ago. His skeleton, less skull but with the telling discovery of a French musket-ball between his ribs, was found, traditionally enough, under a car park near the battle-site. It was the curvature of the spine that led to his unofficial identification as Private Brandt, a twenty-three year old, known to have kyphosis, from Hanover. The skeleton was subsequently put on show at the ‘Waterloo Memorial 1815’ display in a Belgian museum.

Skeleton of the Waterloo soldier,
believed to be Private Friedrich Brandt, Belgium
Within days the respected military historian, Rob Schäfer, had launched a petition, Peace for Friedrich Brandt, asking to have the bones removed from display and respectfully reburied. Schäfer is able to picture the young Brandt in the early 1800s, feeling ‘as though he were on the adventure of a lifetime’ as he left his Hanover home to make his way to the ports of the German North Sea. He would have then ventured across the channel and completed his training in the - to him very alien - environment of East Sussex, before fighting alongside his English counterparts at Waterloo. ‘Friedrich’s compatriots would have buried him with honour’, Schäfer argues compellingly, before asking whether it is no less our duty to do the same.

Yet Françoise Scheepers, director of the Belgian Tourist Office for Brussels and Wallonia, has stated that the purpose of the memorial display was ‘not to shock but to pay tribute’. The museum is non-profit making, so there is no commercial exploitation. By humanizing the story of the Battle of Waterloo, their display hopes to engage young people with their history, helping them to appreciate that the soldiers were not just statistics but the ‘people made of flesh and bones’ with whom Schäfer can already empathise so well.

The Battle of Waterloo
(Image courtesy of Rob Schaefer)
Voltaire famously argued that ‘we owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only the truth’. Do we teach disrespect to the living by displaying the bones of the dead, or do we teach history? Private Brandt signed up to fight the French under Napoleon, not to champion the teaching of history or the humanity of his fellow-fallen. However, in life he also sought adventure rather than peace. If he has no traceable descendents, who is to say whether a quiet burial would be a mark of greater respect than his redeployment to promote an understanding of the cause for which he gave his life? I would certainly prefer to be useful post-mortem, but I doubt that such a role was something Private Brandt envisaged or would have aspired to. More broadly, what is it that makes the display of Private Brandt’s remains so much more provocative than those of the Ancient Egyptians, or other human reliquary? At what point, if ever, and under what terms, do bones become historic artifact rather than human remains? Is it the relatively young age of Private Brandt's skeleton, or is it something else that makes this display seem so disrespectful, such as the familiarity of his name? Or is it the fact that we have marked so many military anniversaries recently and honoured so many dead, and because we have developed such a culture of respect for fallen military heroes?

Both animal rights and respect for human remains are important issues that comment on people’s capacity for empathy, altruism, and the value of respect. Engagement with history demands similar qualities. While we must be careful not to impose modern sensibilities on our appreciation of the past, without a degree of respect and an attempt at empathy, any engagement loses meaning. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that sometimes it is the dialogue we have with history itself that is as important as the facts and artifacts of the past. Unless we ask the questions, unless we consider, criticise and debate not just the facts and stories, but the interpretations placed upon them and the uses made of them, history will itself become dead and meaningless.