"the body came up into a sitting posture, with a blue broad bonnet on its head, and its plaid around it, all as fresh as that day it was laid in!"
Stefano Maderno’s Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (1599-1600) is a poignant representation of the saint’s uncorrupted corpse - Credit: Sébastien Bertrand
In Christian legend, miraculous preservation is a divine mark of a person’s holiness. St. Cecilia, who was martyred in 177 AD for refusing to perform a sacrifice to pagan gods, was found to be perfectly intact when her body was exhumed in 1559. Similar stories surround St. Cuthbert, St. Catherine of Bologna, Joan of Arc, St. Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi and many others. Of course, the imperishability of Robert’s corpse is attributed to devilish enchantment rather than God’s special favour, but Hogg’s decision to convey Gil-Martin’s continued hold upon him through a phenomenon usually reserved for saints creates an ambiguity that is both mischievous and morally unsettling.
The contemporary zeitgeist also undoubtedly influenced this episode. Hogg was writing at a time when the whole of Europe was swept up in an Egyptology craze. This was triggered in the main by Napoleon’s
returning from Egypt in 1799 with mummified bodies, and the idea of a perfectly preserved corpse had a strong hold on the public consciousness. That Hogg entitled his letter to Blackwood’s ‘
A Scots Mummy’ attests to this. On a more grisly note, these were also the times of the ‘resurrection men’, grave-robbers who stole corpses in order to supply medical schools that needed subjects for dissection. This was such a problem in Scotland, as elsewhere, that bereaved families would watch over the graves of the deceased to prevent them being robbed and churchyards, including Greyfriars (see note for p. 59), were obliged to construct cage-like ‘mort safes’.