We saw on the page about burials, how the city's cemeteries were unable keep up with the many dead. Every time people were buried, the diggers would encounter the remains of their former clients.
So what happened to these old bones? They were placed in a ossuary like the one in the picture to the left. Here the dear departed would lie and wait to be resurrected at Judgment Day.
The ossuaries would typically be long houses enclosing the cemeteries. The picture to the right shows a burial, and in the background is such an ossuary full of skulls.
Here is another example of such a burial. In the background we see the ossuary (see detail to the right), and as Sophie Oosterwijk notes: »the skulls of the long dead almost seem to be watching the burial scene below through the apertures in the roof space«.(1)
Philippe Ariès(2) writes:
Around the fourteenth century it became common procedure to dig up the more or less dried-out bones in the older graves in order to make room for new ones and to pile them in the attics of the galleries or above the arches, if any. Sometimes the bones were concealed […] But generally speaking, the bones were visible.
Here in Scandinavia there are very few medieval ossuaries. According to Danish WikiPedia there is one in Øsby Church at Haderslev (Denmark), and there might have been one in St. Olofs Church in Sigtuna (Sweden) and St. Petri Church in Malmø. The latter is especially interesting because St. Petri church has a dance of death.
There is also this illustration from a Danish book of hours.
One more example. At the top is the legend of the three living and the three dead.
Below (and shown to the right): a burial takes place surrounded by long ossuaries with a row of skulls watching under the roof.
And yet another one. Here the skulls seem to divide their attention between the burial and the battle to the left where an angel and a devil are fighting for the soul of the departed.
In French, two words are used that don't have the exact same meaning.
Philippe Ariès(2) writes:
These galleries and the ossuaries that surmounted them,
"the place in the wall of the church that contains the bones
of the dead,"67 were called charniers (charnels). "At les
Innocents," writes Guillaume le Breton in his Paris sous
Charles VI, "there is a very large cemetery surrounded by
houses called charnels in which the bones of the dead are
Le Trésor of Ranconnet-Nicot, dated 1606, defines charnier as "the place where the bones of the deceased are placed, ossuaria."69 According to Richelet, it is ossium conditorium, "the bone yard," "the place in a cemetery where the bones of the dead are stored in orderly rows," but also a synonym for cemetery, as in les charniers Saints-Innocents.70
According to these passages, charnier refers to the ossuary above the gallery, as well as to the gallery itself. At les Innocents, each arch of a gallery had its corresponding covered space, which was known as a charnal. Each was like a chapel, with the name of its donor carved on the wall: "This charnel was built and given to the church for the love of God in the year 1395. Pray to God for the dead." "With what was left of his worldly goods, Armand Estable had this charnel built to shelter the bones of the dead."71 And in the seventeenth century, Sauval writes, "The most remarkable feature of this cemetery [les Innocents] is the tomb of Nicolas Flamel and his wife, Pernelle, which is near the door on the side facing rue Saint=Denis, under the charnels."72 In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wills, people asked to be buried "under the charnels."
We often meet ossuaries on the present site.
Holbein's dance of death alphabet (picture to the left) and his great dance of death both start in an ossuary.
The same thing goes for the dance of death in Basel (picture to the right) and Kleinbasel.
The most famous, however, was the one at St. Innocents' cemetery in Paris:
St. Innocents' Church was enclosed by four of these ossuaries.
The picture to the left shows St. Innocents in the year 1552. In front to the left is the (later called) Vieux Charniers, at the far left is the church. The place of la Danse Macabre has been marked with red.
The picture to the right shows the church. To the left we again see Vieux Charniers. The Danse Macabre was situated in la Charnier de Lingèries, but only the start of these buildings is shown to the right in the picture.
The image to the left is a detail from a painting of St. Innocents from about 1570. On the right side of the picture there's a glimpse of la Danse Macabre, and this is the only contemporary depiction we have. Notice the piles of bones and skulls that can be seen through the hole in the ceiling. The ossuary in the background was build one story higher to contain an extra floor of skeletons.
The picture to the right is an artist's suggestion of how la Danse Macabre might have been painted between the arcades of the ossuaries.
St. Innocents (and several other Parisian churches) were closed down late in the 1700ies, and the cemeteries and ossuaries were emptied.
In order to empty the cemeteries and ossuaries, the ancient catacombs were used. They had earlier been used for quarrying building materials, but now the empty mine shafts received the many skeletons from the old ossuaries of Paris.(3)
The number of skeletons is unknown. Gert Kaiser says there were 1,200,000,(4) while Paul Fassy estimates the number of skeletons in the catacombs to be 6,000,000.(5); The latter figure, six millions, also include skeletons from four other old churches as well, but St. Innocents' cemetery was the largest and it had served St. Innocents' Church as well as those 22 churches that did not have a cemetery of their own.
The bones from St. Innocents were transported to the catacombs in 5 batches: December 1785 - April 1786 (picture to the right), December 1786 - March 1787, October 1808, July 1809 and January - March 1811. Later on, in 1842-1860, another 826 carloads of bones arrived, that to begin with had been relocated to the Cimetière de Vaugirard (Fassy, pages 59-60).
Here they are once again resting and waiting for the Resurrection, and unless the world has ended, they are still lying there.
This essay is a continuation on the subject of Burials in the Middle Ages.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Sophie Oosterwijk, 'Depicte ones on a walle': the Danse Macabre in late-medieval Paris, page 60. See also the illustration on page 61.
The rumors would have it that the rebels were hiding in the catacombs, and one way to impede their advance would be by filling up the catacombs with 6,000,000 skeletons.
Gert Kaiser, Der tanzende Tod: mittelalterliche Totentänze, 1983, page 71.