A Head Case


Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 08.44.32Hindsight, my friends, is a wonderful thing.

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.


25 thoughts on “A Head Case

    1. 😀 Cheers Spex. I’ve been watching your site from afar…. I confess to being bowled over by your high-flying antics – abstracts and suchlike…all the best with everything. I look forward to hearing how it goes.

  1. Haphazard judgements on truth in any form grasped by the gullible public continues even more wildly today made easier by social media. It’s ridiculous but I must admit, if I could come up with one idea so stupid it catches like wildfire I would be less judgemental as I reaped riches and fame

  2. I do think that there may be something in it. I have noted for myself that the owners of certain skulls display certain characteristics. I won’t go into that …

    One of Gilbert’s ‘Bab Ballads’ is titled ‘Phrenology’. I learnt the entire thing in my youth for fun – and it still greatly appeals to my sense of humour. Can’t seem to google the text of the wretched thing, but it starts:

    Come, collar this bad man,
    Around the neck he knotted me
    Till I to choke began,
    In point of fact, garrotted me!’

    So spake Sir Herbert White
    To James, policeman thirty-two;
    All ruffled from his fight
    Sir Herbert was, and dirty, too.

    Policeman nothing said,
    (Though he had much to say on it),
    But from the bad man’s head
    He took the cap that lay on it.

    ‘No, great Sir Herbert White,
    Impossible to take him up,
    This man is honest, quite!
    Wherever did you rake him up?

    ‘Observe his various bumps,
    His head, as I uncover it;
    His morals lie in lumps
    All round about and over it …’

    The whole thing winds up with him finding in Sir Herbert:

    ‘Here’s murder, envy, strife,
    And malice too, and trickery
    Unusually large
    Your bump of pocket-pickery!’ …

    and it ends

    … Pleeceman’s scorn grew large
    (Phrenology had nettled it)
    He took that Bart in charge;
    I don’t know how they settled it.

  3. Thanks for pointing out how strange our “trends” happen to be. It’s sort of scary that so many people jump on the bandwagon and go with the latest hoodoo. Our state fair always has a booth which sells rubber bracelets “embedded human frequency.” These are supposed to counteract all the radio and phone waves bombarding us. They quote the physicist Schumann who indeed discovered that the human body emits a frequency, but that’s where the science stops. How they get the rubberband which contains no elements embedded with human frequency is a mystical process, and I was told to “educate myself” when I began asking specifice questions about the physics of the item.
    Maybe they’ll make a rubberband to correct the bumps on my head??

  4. Ha. The mystic power of the rubber band: quackery knows no limits, Barb, does it? I wonder if they make much money….enjoy the rest of your English stay, by the way. The weather has been looking up!

  5. “He tucked the Bede back up in bed . . . ” you always have the best turn of a phrase, Kate, and I’ve missed it. Good to see you posting. 🙂
    As for my cranium, it is, sad-but-true, flat in the back. Good think I still have a lot of hair. My mother insisted she turned me often in the cradle. 🙂

  6. I’m chuckling, Kate, to think that I must really be “that” old, but I actually remember in my younger years when phrenology still gained attention in some places. I remember the dialogue well! Quack medicine and pseudo science is still alive and kicking, but I hope we don’t feel the need to one day go searching for body parts in order to learn more about the practitioners. This was simply fascinating.

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