Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cross Bones Graveyard Honors Medieval Prostitutes

It was desolate patch of ground in South London, long abandoned, its original purpose forgotten, before Transport for London slated it for redevelopment. But poet, author, and local historian John Constable knew the history of the place, and he was determined not only to preserve it, but to shepherd it toward designation as a world heritage sight.

Now, on the 23rd of each month people gather at the iron gates of Cross Bones, the small plot of land that, from medieval to Victorian times, was an unconsecrated graveyard for prostitutes and paupers. Participants in the monthly ceremony include office workers, prostitutes, artists, and witches. They sing songs, read poems, and tie on the fence offerings of ribbons and the kinds of gaudy baubles a woman of the night might appreciate.

In the Middle Ages the prostitutes in the area were known as “Winchester Geese” for the Bishop of Winchester who granted them license to ply their trade there in the Liberty of the Clink, beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London. When the women died, however, the church wanted nothing more to do with them, and they were buried in unhallowed land.

In 1996 John Constable suddenly received a visitation from what he calls the “spirit of a medieval whore”—or “the Goose,” as she called herself. The result was a long poem written in the voice of this spirit, along with Constable's determination to revivify that forgotten piece of land and the people who once inhabited it.

Hearing about Cross Bones from my friend and colleague Eugene Hughes, who lives in London, was one of the things that inspired me to start this blog in the first place, and the story of Cross Bones was the second piece I wrote for it. Here is a place that for hundreds of years was associated with crime, shame, and immorality and for hundreds of years more was forgotten. Now it has found new life thanks to Constable and the other people who see the beauty of the place not despite but because of what it was. What is particularly important about the re-sacralization of Cross Bones, moreover, is that it lives on not just as a little community park that has been beautified, not even as a series of poems written in the voice of a prostitute from long ago, but through ongoing ceremony, regular community gatherings, and the making of ever new and thoughtful offerings. Cross Bones is an active exchange of stories and gifts.

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