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The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead

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Published by Bodley Head, part of Vintage Publishing

Format: Hardback


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EAN: 9781847921406
Published: 17 Jan 2013


About the book


We know what happens to the body when we die, but what happens to the soul? The answer may remain a great unknown, but the question has shaped centuries of tradition, folklore and religious belief.

In this vivid history of the macabre, Carl Watkins goes in search of the ancient customs, local characters and compelling tales that illuminate how people over the years have come to terms with our ultimate fate. He discovers what a small Norfolk church has to tell us about the apocalypse; why the greatest minds of the seventeenth century were embroiled in debate over the phantom Drummer of Tedworth; and how a nineteenth-century Welsh Druid completely changed the national view of cremation.

The result is an enthralling journey into Britain’s past, from medieval hauntings on the Yorkshire moors and eccentric memorials on the Cornish coast to séances in Victorian kitchens and gallows tales from a Bristol gaol. Impeccably researched and elegantly told, The Undiscovered Country ventures beyond the veil to bring the dead back to life.

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What the critics say

A first-class study of British attitudes to death and dying from the Middle Ages to the 20th century... A fascinating work of social history that is both scholarly and accessible to general readers
- Financial Times

Watkins has a gift for conveying a feeling of place, and is good at conjuring up the dead, lifting the veil so that we can have a peek into the grave and beyond
- Good Book Guide

Elegant and constantly fascinating
- The Times

Watkins is one of those rare guides who never overstays his welcome. He wears his research lightly as he journeys around the British landscape, teasing out themes and cultural shifts from the particulars of individual lives
- Guardian

Outstanding ... This may be a book about death but, paradoxically, it is one filled with intelligence and life
- Sunday Times

This is a wonderful book: curious, insightful and beautifully written. It has something of the qualities of James Fraser’s The Golden Bough about it – a discovery of life that is not concerned with day-to-day existence but deeper symbolism and meaning. I love the details, from medieval stories of walking spirits to Age-of-Reason sceptics, bodysnatchers and ceremonies of the dead. All in all, it is a walk along the shoreline of death over the centuries, watching the tides of belief change, and hearing the waves of imagination, superstition and wonderment crash on the reality of our lives.
- Ian Mortimer

A scholarly but compelling meditation on the nature of death and dying. Persuasive, humane and beautifully written, Watkins writes like a latter day Thomas Browne - this is Urn Burial for the 21st century. Watkins wears his learning lightly as he conducts us through the nether regions of the underworld. Highly recommended.
- Catharine Arnold

From lost medieval souls to the rattling tables of nineteenth-century spiritualism, The Undiscovered Country is an evocative journey through a landscape of superstition, belief and doubt. It is also a brilliantly perceptive exploration of how our desire to connect with the departed, and with the idea of death itself, shapes who we are. Carl Watkins is a gifted historian and a masterful storyteller - and this is a marvellous book.
- Thomas Penn

Watkins does several things particularly well. He tells a good story, or a string of them spanning the centuries. He makes locations accessible with some very vivid writing about place. But above all, he is good at summoning the spirits of the long gone and mostly unillustrious
- Observer

Abounds with details…conveyed by way of wonderful stories that, taken together, amount not just to a remarkable and engaging history of our beliefs about death, but to a deeply affecting chapter in the history of bereavement
- Spectator

A sensitive and fascinating history of an 'undiscovered country' which, in many ways, mirrors the story of Britain
- Sunday Telegraph

Watkins draws on a wide range of books, monuments and anecdotes, some relatively well know – such as the Phantom Drummer of Tedworth and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – others far less familiar… Fascinating
- Scotsman

An impressive tapestry of social history
- Times Higher Education Supplement

The Undiscovered Country, superbly written, shows how the meaning of life is still everywhere connected to what it means to die. Anyone feeling a bit like death should read it – and feel revivified
- Financial Times

A fine work of literature, dealing with a complexity of issues in an accessible and enjoyable form
- History Today

A well-researched book on our unusual relationship with the idea of the dead and death
- Compass Magazine

Learned, full of interesting material and often moving
- London Review of Books

Wonderfully rewarding
- Times Literary Supplement

About the Author

Born and bred in Warwickshire, Carl Watkins read history at Cambridge, where he is now lecturer in medieval history and a fellow of Magdalene College. He writes about belief and has published on the history of ghosts, the afterlife, saints and folklore. His first book, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, was published by CUP in 2007, and he has contributed to a forthcoming Cambridge history of medieval England. He has also appeared on Radio 3’s Night Waves, in a number of programmes for Radio 4’s series The Long View and on a number of television documentaries. He lives in Cambridge.

Carl Watkins

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