Almost two hundred years ago, the world was in the grip of a conviction, and it wasn’t about to let go.
It was all Franz Joseph Gall’s fault. A German aristocrat, he was a watcher. He observed people. I cannot think he can have been a particularly pleasant person to pass the time of day with.
At school he found the kid who was great at languages, and noted that he had an odd-shaped skull. He concluded – and you may be forgiven for taking issue with this – that there was a connection between the two facets of the linguist’s person.
Eschewing the family wish for him to train in the priesthood, he went to medical school where he began to draw more unsettling conclusions: not least, that a disproportionate number of his classmates had bulgy eyes, and this must be connected to the aptitudes they displayed.
Off he went on a wild goose chase which would have the world following: the venerable psudoscience of phrenology.
The idea that one’s personality is stamped in plain view on the skull by the soft-tissue organ inside caught on like a forest fire. Pop psychology was born. It had a solid following amongst middle class women, who, it is said, could use it alternately to validate their worth or argue their equality.
Everyone was at it. Including Charlotte Bronte, whose scenes of combative flirtation between Jane and the thunderous Rochester are shot through with examination of the skull:”Criticise me. Does my forehead not please you?” Rochester volleys, and Jane dispassionately notes his skull is deficient in the area of benevolence and philanthropy.
Allow me to sweep you up from Thornfield, and land you unceremoniously in Durham, where the Venerable Bede – father of English history and all-round mediaeval supermonk – had been sleeping peacefully in a bag in the tomb of St Cuthbert (that’s another story for another day) for some 900 years, give or take a small Reformation upheaval.
Antiquarian and clergyman, Dr James Raine, was as excited about phrenology as everybody else. He secured permission to disturb the sleep of the dead, and dug the Bede up.
Not all his bones were still there: but there was a skull. And naturally, Dr Raine saw fit to take three casts of the ancient historian’s cranium.
He tucked the Bede back up in bed and the prized casts began their travels. Their fate has piqued the curiosity of historians – Newcastle University’s Professor Richard Bailey has been trying to trace them since the 1980s.
But one has always eluded him.
Until Leicester academic Dr Joanna Storey found it, in some cupboards at Cambridge University, whilst conducting research.
The cast of the Bede’s venerable skull has achieved superstar status. They have taken a cast of the cast, which is to go on show at Bede’s World (yes, really) in Jarrow shortly.
With hindsight, the craze which swept the world, and which made the cast so very intriguing, is long since discredited and discarded. Any hopes of raiding Bede’s extraordinary mind through his skull are dashed.
Still, it’s never over till the fat lady sings. Who knows but that phrenology might not enjoy a rapprochement of global proportions one of these fine days.
Until then, you can go visit the Bede’s skull here.
To read more about the discovery of Bede’s pate cast take a look here; and to read the hugely entertaining “On the Functions of the Brain and of Each of Its parts: With Observations on the Possibility of Determining the Instincts, Propensities, and Talents, Or the Moral and Intellectual Dispositions of Men and Animals, by the Configuration of the Brain and Head, Volume 1” click here.