The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard
Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London
- ISBN: 9780253021366
- Published By: Indiana University Press
- Published: August 2016
On a chilly autumnal night, I made my way to the gates of a garden on a once-abandoned plot of land in the urban jungle at Southwark, just south of the River Thames in central London. Here, on the 23rdof every month, a group assembles to carry out a ritual to memorialize medieval prostitutes—the “Winchester Geese”—whom they believe are buried at a mass grave on the site. The group is led by John Constable, also known as “John Crow,” a self-described shaman who established the tradition after reporting a visionary experience with one of these Geese. Constable/Crow began the monthly public rites in 2004, and in 2015 the memorial garden was officially opened at the site. During the ritual, ribbons and other items are affixed to the garden gates in memory of these sex workers and the broader “‘outcast dead,” songs and poetry are performed, and the event ends with a procession around the garden and the offering of gin.
It was curiosity—both as a scholar and a South Londoner—that inspired my initial visit, and clearly other academics have also been drawn to the monthly ceremony, with scholars like Anne Harris and Steph Berns producing peer-reviewed articles on the subject in recent years. Accompanying them has been Sondra Hausner of Oxford University, an anthropologist whose previous research has focused on Hinduism in South Asia. In The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard, she explores the ceremony through a framework informed by ritual studies, and pays particular attention to the rite’s relationship with the past, devoting chapters to the medieval prostitutes of Southwark and to the impact of a female monarch in Elizabethan England.
Hausner’s main thesis is that, although “not the explicit message” of the ritual, the Crossbones rites are a challenge to present-day capitalism, invoking a human economy rather than a commercial one and calling the participants “back to a time—and to a kind of market—before the Reformation and before the era of global commercial expansionism began in earnest” (181). Essentially, it is a metaphorical middle finger up at the neighboring Shard and the glistening glass towers of corporate London.
I agree with Hausner’s assessment, although it is important to stress that the ceremony is not openly conceptualized as an attack on corporate power; a gathering of individuals in a small road to memorialize medieval prostitutes is hardly a serious thorn-in-the-side of the powers that be. Thus, I would go beyond Hausner’s thesis and argue that in meeting month after month, the Crossbones ritualists are reiterating something about themselves. By self-identifying with the “outcasts” of the past, they are claiming that identity for themselves and accruing the (sub)cultural capital that such a counter-cultural status affords in certain social milieus. In a way, they are telling themselves: “We’re the ones who stand with the underdog and the marginalized against the rich and powerful. We’re the ones telling truth to power. We’re the good guys.”
Hausner has interacted with Constable/Crow and provides a useful biography of him. She notes that he self-identifies as a “shaman” but does not interrogate this further, instead presenting shamanism as a self-evident, cross-cultural category not requiring definition. Her discussion here would have been aided by reference to the growing body of literature on neo-shamanism or contemporary shamanism and by an exploration of why Constable/Crow chooses to identify as a “shaman,” as opposed to a “magician,” “ritualist,” “priest,” or something else. As well as situating him within the neo-shamanic milieu, it would also have been interesting to see the Crossbones ritual situated within the broader esoteric and cultic milieus, engaging with the vast literature that exists on these topics.
The book also engages little with the ritual’s participants. There is, for example, no direct quotation from these individuals (barring Constable/Crow himself) and it is unclear if Hausner interviewed them. This is a shame; it would have been very interesting to learn more about these people and why they come. For many, like myself, it is perhaps curiosity that first brings them to the ritual, a desire to see something new and unusual. But what about those who are regulars, who come back again and again? What is it that draws them here? Hausner provides a brief assessment of these individuals, although little detail is given. She describes “a notably multiracial, multigenerational” assembly (13), but what struck me on my visits was how overwhelmingly white the participants were. I would estimate that, based on my observations, over nine-tenths were white, which stands out in a city where approximately half of all residents are people of colour. Several of the participants wore clothing suggesting an affiliation with various esoteric and religious traditions (one wore a hoodie featuring the logo of the Church of Satan), and it would be really fascinating to see what other groups these participants involve themselves in.
Hausner’s is an affectionate and sympathetic portrayal of the Crossbones ritualists, and it is excellent to see this tradition receiving scholarly attention. Hausner’s decision to combine her anthropological discussion with a historical overview of medieval Southwark and Elizabethan England is a brave one, although it felt a little forced at times; a whole chapter devoted largely to a biography of Elizabeth I seemed a bit unnecessary. This being said, Hausner has written an important book on this subject that warrants reading and I hope it will provide the impetus for further investigations. There is still much more to be said when it comes to Crossbones. Who is it that is coming to the rituals: are they all Londoners? How does it intersect with other English milieus and communities? And if, as Hausner notes, Constable/Crow is a “charismatic leader” (10), how will the Crossbones ritual continue (if at all) once he is no longer around?
Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at University College London.Ethan Doyle WhiteDate Of Review:May 3, 2018