About Me

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Since retiring from the process of using my various educational accomplishments and work experiences for the vulgar process of earning money, I have been devoting some time and effort to interesting concepts in teaching medieval history through new technology. Unfortunately, the new technology keeps developing faster than the projects can be completed, but the modern web does allow things to be updated. Apart from that, I am a grandmother of four and donkey owner trying to combine modern technology with living a simple life like we did in the olden days. Yes, that is an old photo. Look at the computer. I've aged better than it has.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cutting Up Manuscripts

  Recently I posted on Twitter a photograph of an isolated medieval manuscript leaf that I own, from a 15th century book of hours. This is all part of the monster process of organising my digital photographic material and easing back into my paleography project which sits forlornly on the website Medieval Writing looking old and daggy because I ran out of energy for keeping up with technological change. This particular leaf had a cursive addendum which I couldn't make out. Here it is.



  This is the bit of added script.




  A keen eyed reader not only transcribed it for me (Pascarii episcopi nannetensis), but recognised the manuscript from which it had been removed, an unusual book of hours from Brittany; not exceptionally fancy or lavish, but which had contained much information about Breton usage. He had tracked down some other leaves from the manuscript, which had been dismantled and sold leaf by leaf by the bookseller from whom I bought my sample.
  I bought a largish number of single manuscript leaves and fragments in the late 1990s, early 2000s to use as exemplars for various aspects of paleography and book design in the Medieval Writing project. At that time, collections of good quality manuscript images on the internet were sparse, and many of them had ferocious restrictions on any sort of re-use. The project mostly relied on old black and white photographs. My budget was modest, so pages, fragments and bits were all that could be acquired.
  Manuscripts have been pulled apart over many centuries. Some of the bits I bought were bookbinders' scraps used in early modern printed books. No respect shown back then. People have chopped out miniatures and initials from old manuscripts since at least the 19th century, leaving the less ornate pages to the oddball collectors' market. I tried to only buy what appeared to be orphaned bits and avoided sellers obviously dismantling books, but a couple of sellers clearly bided their time and only released the odd page at a time. I now know who they are and so does my Twitter correspondent.



  Even fragments can contain a great deal of information when it comes to learning about manuscripts, texts, decorations and illustrations, and how they were assembled and used. The above is a calendar leaf from a different French book of hours containing a load of coded information. Plenty to discuss there.



  An isolated leaf can give information about how manuscripts were made, such as the example from a book of hours above where the initials have not yet been filled in and the prickings are still visible on the untrimmed page.



    They can show some of the tricks of the bookmaker's trade, such as catchwords at the end of a quire to show how the quires should be assembled.




  They can indicate how readers used their books, as in the two sides of this leaf from a book of hours, one side of which shows an image of Veronica's handkerchief which has been much smudged with use and the other shows prayers added into a blank leaf in the cursive hand of the owner.
  So many of the leaves I have acquired show corrections, carried out by various means, that it is easy to debunk the myth that manuscript copies had to be perfect or the scribe was cursed to hell. Either that or there is one hell of a scribal party going on down there.
  The process of pulling manuscripts apart for educational purposes cannot be discussed without reference to Otto Ege, who, in the 1940s, dismantled 50 medieval manuscripts and put individual leaves from them in teaching sets which were then sold to educational institutions. (Click here for a quick description, just google him to find out the various places they got to and where you can see some of them.) Most of the leaves in his sets are from liturgical books, which have been regarded as very stereotyped, not of great individual interest textually, but there is still much to learn from the individualities of books from different regions or traditions. Great efforts are being made to reassemble those manuscripts, in the virtual world if not in actuality, as naturally there is even more to be learned from the whole than from isolated parts.
  Before getting overwrought about the collecting of fragments, just think about how access to these things has changed in very recent decades. Complete medieval books have, over the centuries, crept from the exclusive library collections of the rich and aristocratic to august public institutions. In Britain, some of those private collections were salvaged from monastic libraries at the Dissolution, when they would have otherwise been destroyed. Even in major public institutions, access to these can be difficult and book reproductions of photographs of them have been expensive to acquire and produce. As with much medieval art, there is a tendency for book publishers to reproduce the same pictures over and over again, leading to a false concept of just how much of this stuff there is around.
  Fragments, acquired relatively cheaply and circulated in classrooms and seminars, have provided a sense of reality, and possibly a more accurate perception of the nature and variety of medieval manuscript material than the arty tomes. Not every book of hours was illustrated by the Limbourg brothers. This is not an endorsement of the procedure of cutting up manuscripts, however. Many more options are available if we use them properly. Library collections are being steadily digitised and the restrictions on usage of the images is being eased by major institutions.



  A left handed would be scribe copies from a genuine medieval exemplar (carefully covered in plastic) at a paleography school in 1996 at the University of Tasmania, conducted by Christopher de Hamel.



  Something similar applies to isolated examples of legal documents, such as the Elizabethan final concord shown above. These also float about on the collectors' market. They can be used to indicate the nature, form and wording of documents of a particular type, but they are usually just one step in the legal process of a case, and don't make a lot of historical sense unless placed with other documents pertaining to the case. Mind you, this contextualisation of documents can be a problem in archival collections as well. If you ask a medieval historian what they did with the medieval legal document collections in the National Archives in London when they recatalogued them in the 19th century, take a box of tissues with you. I believe I have seen British Library catalogue entries for boxes of charters which are not even identified individually.



  Cutting up has occurred in this market too. The French deed of sale above has had the seal hacked off, because there are folks who collect seals.
  I think one answer to the problem is that libraries and institutions which are digitising and distributing images of manuscripts need to concentrate a bit more on the nature of the texts and the way they are written, and not focus quite so strongly on the pretty manuscripts with beautiful illuminations and decorations. These are lovely. We all adore them. But they don't show the diversity of the same text in different manuscripts within this tradition. They don't indicate the range of quality of handwritten copies. They don't show the regional variations and why a scruffy little volume may be of value in its entirety because of its content. And please, put up some more document collections in a freely available format, because these are part of the history of writing as a process.
  Those wonderful academics who post segments from the manuscript tradition on social media could also occasionally venture away from their killer bunnies, monstrous beasties and medieval donuts to show something of why the writing on these manuscripts is interesting and important. It just might inform people as to why chopping a text up into bits and dispersing it is a loss of historical information. Those marginalia bits are fascinating, but the folks posting them understand their context. To many less esoterically educated viewers they are digital cuttings. Fortunately if you collect them in your Tumblr or Pinterest scrapbook, you do no harm to the original.
  It is notable that the British Library has recently digitised the Paston Letters and the Book of Margery Kempe, both collections of writings of words, not art galleries on vellum. More power to them. The National Archives in London has digitised a large collection of wills, but you have to pay for each one you download. This is not helpful if you are not looking things up by personal or place name, but wish to scour through a lot of documents for reference to something in particular, like ownership and disposal of books. Yes, it involves masses of work and a lot of money, but these projects are being done at an ever increasing rate, so it would be nice if they included some diversity of content.



  So there should be no excuse for chopping up manuscripts for profit these days. They can be made available to all without dismembering them. Meanwhile, there is probably still a point in collecting up the genuine orphans, binding fragments and unregarded scraps. You never know what question we might want to ask next. Meanwhile, one little Florentine initial will never find its way home, but at least I liberated it from the piece of brown non-archival cardboard that was eating it from the back.

  Thanks to Jean-Luc Deuffic for the transcription and for inspiring me to write this piece.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Not Just a Big Church: The Index

  A series of posts looking at large churches as living communities, with a changing history and perhaps deceptive surviving remains.

Caen. Abbaye aux Dames
1. Not Just a Big Church
2. Not Just a Big Church: a Building Site

Not Just a Big Church: a Building Site

  As we visit the great churches of yore, whether they are still in use or exist as mere ruins, we see a distorted image of how these buildings actually functioned in the middle ages. They are serene, eternal somehow, decorously quiet except for the sounds of worship, largely monochromatic. They display tangled threads of chronology, as the work of various eras is knitted together. They reflect the end point of something that has evolved. The potential for anachronism when looking at them historically is enormous.



  Every time I see an article about St Hilda illustrated with an image of the much later Gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey, which didn't have any nuns in it and was massively more huge than its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, I feel a (possibly unreasonable) urge to scream. Yes, it does engender a sense of place, but not a very accurate sense of time or circumstance.
  I intend to write a series of posts about how various kinds of medieval buildings, while being beautiful things to cherish and admire, can give us a distorted idea of what these buildings were about in their heyday, and how they themselves changed during the course of their use. This first episode is about the myth of timeless serenity as these massive monuments were constantly under reconstruction, using slow and laborious building methods that meant that many of them were building sites for years, They reverberated not just to the gentle chanting of the offices of monks or canons, but the ring of hammers and chisels, the groaning of winches, the crash of occasional accidents and no doubt the cursing of workers.



  Take a very famous example, York Minster, which has an early English south transept with narrow lancets and a wheel window.



  Then there is the famous Decorated heart of Yorkshire west window set in a much more elaborated setting.



  The great Perpendicular east window is a massive expanse of glass on the outside and an amazing stained glass picture gallery on the inside. The building has become bigger, brighter, lighter.



  Underneath, the Norman crypt is the only evidence for a whole earlier building of which nothing survives above ground, apart from a couple of little isolated stained glass panels. This does not simply mean that the building had periods of change over time. It also means it had extended periods, years and decades, when there was noise and dust and scaffolding and horses and bullocks all around and lumps of partially carved stone lying all over the place. Masons and painters and gilders and glaziers would have been climbing over everything. Presumably the canons and priests just hung in there and did their best.
  This is not the image we have as we potter respectfully through the building today. Indeed, there have been periods of major repair even in my lifetime's experience of York Minster.



  In 1973, great metal braces held up the southwest tower and there was scaffolding all over the place because of major fears for the foundations. Later the south transept burnt out and was inaccessible for a number of years while they repaired it. These were regarded as aberrations caused by time and circumstance, and were dealt with using modern machinery and building practices. In fact, during the medieval era such disruptions must have been just part of the regular rhythm of life. They did not occur in order to restore the building to some conception of an older ideal state, but to upsize and improve it. The building was not static. It was in a constant state of change and chaos.



  Most major churches have had something of a similar history; building, enlarging, accidental destruction by fire, earthquake or human miscalculation, more building, rebuilding, deliberate destruction due to political or religious strife, reconstruction. They look like big, solid, static things but they are living organisms. One of the most peculiar histories is that of Cologne Cathedral. Please pardon the qualities of the photos here, but they were taken during the winter solstice in the evening because I was actually there to do something else in the brief hours of daylight.
  There are folks who will tell you that Cologne Cathedral is not a medieval church at all, as it was largely built in the 19th century. That is only sort of true. With its strange history, it is as much a symbol of place as Whitby Abbey is of the history of the English church.
  It was a Christian site from the 4th century, and remains of a 6th century freestanding baptistery survive. The old cathedral was completed in 818. It acquired the relics of the Magi in 1164, taken from Milan by Friedrich Barbarossa and given to them as a nice little earner. That was how big churches funded their improvements, by promoting pilgrimage to sacred relics. Never mind any dubious aspect to the provenance. It burned down in 1248. However, unlike Chartres, they didn't manage to use their relics and resources to rebuild rapidly. It actually took until 1880 to finish the job. The sequence in which it happened perhaps gives us a peep at what these massive buildings were like during their phases of reconstruction.


  The eastern end, with the apse, was built first in the Gothic style, very French in conception unlike the collection of massive Romanesque churches that adorned Cologne at the time (and still do, despite horrendous circumstances). 



  The vault was one of the tallest in Europe. But this segment sat there detached for centuries. Work on the west front began, but was halted in 1473, with the bottom section of one tower completed. The building was effectively in two bits, with not much connecting them except the lower section of one aisle.



  The building has the French Gothic arrangement of grand portals with narrative sculpture on the tympana, large column figures and smaller figures around the arches, but this one is the only one that was completed in the 15th century. The whole rest of the west end waited for around 400 years to be finished.

From P. Clemen and W. Ewald 1911 Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln. Im Auftrage des Provinzialverbandes der Rheinprovinz und mit Unterstützung der Stadt Köln: Düsseldorf, Vol. 3.
  This is an impression of it in the 16th century, almost like two separate skyscrapers overlooking the houses and walls of the town. The diagonal structure on the western tower is a crane that was part of the scenes for centuries.

P. Clemen and W. Ewald 1911 Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln. Im Auftrage des Provinzialverbandes der Rheinprovinz und mit Unterstützung der Stadt Köln: Düsseldorf, Vol. 3.

 P. Clemen and W. Ewald 1911 Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln. Im Auftrage des Provinzialverbandes der Rheinprovinz und mit Unterstützung der Stadt Köln: Düsseldorf, Vol. 3.

  Before it could be completed, the building was occupied by French Revolutionary troops in 1794, sustaining internal damage. These two early 19th century paintings show the oddness of the building before reconstruction started again in 1842, using a medieval plan of the facade but some modern materials and different stone. I don't know how detailed this medieval plan was, or quite how closely they stuck to it. But the building process lurched into life again.




From F.T. Helmken 1901 The cathedral of Cologne, its history, architecture...legends. A guide for visitors, compiled from historical and descriptive records.. : Cologne.
  This wasn't the end of its troubles, as the use of poor quality stone necessitated repairs and replacements, and then there was the ferocious destruction of the monuments of Cologne in the Second World War. The cathedral was damaged, but it stood. There is a tale that it was deliberately spared, sort of, because Allied bomber pilots used the towers for navigation. If that isn't true, then it makes a good legend. Many stained glass windows and treasures, such as the reliquary of the Magi, had been stashed away for safekeeping and survived.
  See the reliquary here. It's an amazing survival. It is, in fact, the little golden square blob in the picture of the apse above, but I couldn't get any closer because of the Christmas services going on at the time.
  What happened in Cologne Cathedral in the 19th century must have been something of a recapitulation of what went on in other great churches during the multiple rebuildings of the middle ages. We look at those buildings as things complete and try to preserve them. They saw them as aspirational. Many people would not have seen their local great church in any kind of completed state in their lifetime.
  Our concept of how one should behave in a church is also based around its completeness. Lowered voices and respectful behaviour are a response to the enclosure and wholeness of the building as a retreat from everyday life. For great lengths of time, the great churches were busy workplaces, no doubt with their quiet and respectful corners but in other areas buzzing with their connection to the world of work and daily life outside.
  In this sense Cologne Cathedral is very much a medieval church, just displaced by a few centuries. All the great churches have suffered periods of neglect or damage, and times of restoration. None of them is a time capsule.

The historic pictures of Cologne Cathedral here are brought to you courtesy of the wonderful and fabulous Internet Archive.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Space and the End of the Middle Ages in Britain

  Now I am not a person who likes to indulge in debates about periodisation in history. As far as I am concerned, the middle ages came between the early ages and the recent ages. There is no one set of events, or values, or levels of knowledge, or types of government, or religion which draws a line between different eras. It is all a complicated jigsaw. Scholars of Italian history like to put the end of the middle ages earlier than those of British history for the paradoxical reason that Italian intellectuals suddenly took an interest in the writings of the ancient past. The French seem to like to keep the medieval era going until they all became Enlightened.


Ruins of Lanercost Priory, Cumbria
  In Britain the changes of the Reformation are taken to be a watershed issue that could be considered epoch changing. The family medievalist firmly asserts that the medieval period ended in England in 1540. So there. Much ink has been expended on how much, how comprehensively and how quickly those religious changes got into the mindsets of ordinary people. Not going there. Enough said already and some of it based on modern personal belief rather than much else. What did happen in England was that the use of space in daily life changed. The configuration of town and country was changed forever.


Oxford
  I have always found Oxford a rather unwelcoming place. Nothing to do with the people, although I guess they have their little exclusivities at times, but the ancient layout of the town is a trifle forbidding. Everywhere there are exclusion zones, defined by elegant quadrangles which are not public space. The streets are oppressively walled off and you feel that all the action is going on inside those secluded enclaves from which you are barred. Like many first time visitors, I was lost and confused about where the university actually was, gradually realising that the university is not a bounded entity but a whole bunch of entities dotted around the town, each claiming its bit of space and history.


The vast complex of Blackfriars, Norwich, middle distance behind another large church.
  Late medieval towns were a bit like that. In the larger and more prosperous towns, various types of religious institutions had acquired space within the town walls, built increasingly grand constructions and enclosed them within their own walls. These were communities within the larger community, and those not members of them just walked past and wondered, I guess.


Anglo-Saxon tower of St Mary-le-Wigford, Lincoln, one of three surviving medieval churches.
  This is the pattern for the end of the middle ages, but it doesn't define the whole epoch. Towns which were prosperous before the Norman Conquest had many small parish churches founded by lay patrons, many of which did not survive to the end of the middle ages as parishes consolidated. The constant process of church rebuilding meant that the surviving churches became larger and more elaborate as others disappeared. The monasteries became larger, more elaborate and more powerful forces in the land.


Southwell Minster, collegiate church.
  More recently founded collegiate churches, with colleges of canons rather then monks, rivalled the cathedrals for grandeur.


St Cross Hospital, Winchester
  Hospitals were built, not as places of medical healing but where the poor, elderly and sick could be cared for. In the case of the leper hospitals they were also for protecting the rest of the community against disease and were often located outside the town walls. Within the towns they ranged from little houses of charity, pilgrimage hostels, to some quite grand institutions, often run by Augustinian canons and resembling other large, enclosed church institutions.


Blackfriars complex, Norwich, largest surviving in the land.
  The arrival of the friars in the 13th century added more to the ecclesiastical mix of the towns. The concept of mendicants living like the apostles on charity in the streets gave way to the building of large complexes, each in their own enclave. The massive churches were available for the laity to be preached to, but the borders of the enclaves expanded as town populations took a hit after the bubonic plague of the 14th century.


Ruins of the bishop's palace at Lincoln.
  Bishops and archbishops claimed pieces of towns all over the country, constructing large palaces for when they went rambling around their dioceses. They did it in style, even when they were away from home.


Fountains Abbey
  Even in the countryside large areas were controlled by the church. The Cistercian abbeys set in remote locations for the monks to live the ascetic and contemplative life became large estates with increasingly huge and elaborate buildings. The various abbeys had rural manors all over the place. Some of these places must have seemed like small towns in their own right.
  Essentially the church had space, the church had walls. Then within a very short period of time, those walls came down. The friaries and some collegiate churches seem to have disappeared quite rapidly, their walls pillaged for building materials, their buildings sometimes used for other civic purposes, but steadily running down. Leland, in his travels around England immediately after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, refers to the friaries and urban abbeys in the past tense, which they certainly were in terms of being institutions but probably rapidly became so in terms of fabric. Daniel Defoe, describing Lincoln in the early 18th century, claims that barns, stables, out-houses and "hog-styes" were built "church fashion" using carved stones from old ecclesiastical buildings.


A bit of old stone wall, all that exists of the Austin friary in York.
  York had substantial houses of the four major orders of friars, but barely a stone remains and those not very recognisable. This is not an uncommon fate for these institutions.


Rievaulx Abbey as garden ornament.

  These changes to the use of space were probably less obvious in rural areas. Large rural monasteries were taken over by large rural landholders who nicked stonework to build their new mansions but left ruins for their aesthetic value and swank. You can see how a medieval monastery was laid out and worked in the wild hills of Yorkshire better than in the crowded towns.


Norwich Cathedral with beat up remains of monastic cloisters.
  Even the urban monasteries that were cathedrals, or were turned into cathedrals, lost much of the structure outside the church and their sense of enclosure.


Partially ruined collegiate church at Howden.
  Collegiate churches disappeared or declined. Even the beautiful Beverley Minster was barely rescued from destruction by some engineering genius in the 18th century, as the townsfolk continued to use the town church of St Mary's, as they had always done. There was just too much church around. In Leicester and Norwich collegiate churches disappeared, releasing their enclosed spaces for other urban purposes.


Holy Trinity Hospital, Leicester.
  Hospitals became run down and less able to provide for those they served without the charity of the church, and the obligations the church put on others, to support them. In Leicester Holy Trinity Hospital became steadily more decrepit until it was rebuilt in the late 18th century.


Where a bishop's palace once was, Northallerton.
  The bishops and archbishops had to curb their profligate living arrangements and the palaces dotted around the place  were appropriated, pillaged or disappeared.
  New urban amenities were built, such as grammar schools to replace the teaching functions of the church schools. It does seem that some areas of the towns were ransacked for their materials and became a bit derelict until the renewal of urban amenities in the 19th centuries. Post offices, railway stations, theatres, museums and art galleries so often occupy the sites of medieval religious institutions. Changes to trade, transport and commerce over time caused towns as a whole to open up as walls and gates were demolished. This process has gone to extremes with modern road transport in some places. (I'm looking at you, Leicester and Nottingham.)
  So perhaps we can define the end of the middle ages in English towns not so much by religious change as such, whatever that implies in terms of belief or private conviction, but in terms of use of urban space. This just leaves the question of whether bringing down those old walls reclaimed the space for the town dwellers, or handed them over to a new class of owners.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 21: Brass Rubbings - Perfect Facsimiles?

  In 1973, on my first visit to England, I did over 80 brass rubbings from medieval tombs. A major reason for doing them was that my husband had recently begun teaching medieval history in Australia and realised that students there did not have the familiarity with medieval heritage remains or an awareness of how they fitted into the ordinary landscape of folks in England. It was part of an ongoing project that included increasing amounts of photography over the years, and eventually some multimedia shenanigans. It meant much of our luggage was guide books, OS maps, Pevsners, cameras, paper and wax. We did take the odd change of undies. We were there for eight months on that occasion and I was towing a two year old child around at the time. Most of the rubbings were done around Yorkshire, Derbyshire and East Anglia, which were not so heavily populated with tourist brass rubbers as the more popular areas such as Kent. It was possible to fit each project into a two year old's timetable. The bulk of my luggage coming home comprised four large plastic cylinders solidly packed with rolled up paper. Don't quite know how we got away with that.
  I didn't do any more brass rubbings on our various extended trips after that. The tide had turned somewhat against it among the clergy and besides, how many cylinders full of rolls of paper that can only be got out for occasional special occasions does a girl need?



  This is one of the first rubbings I did, one of several in a strange little isolated church in the village of Harpham on the East Yorkshire wolds, of a knightly member of the St Quentin family. Yes, it's a scruffy phone pic, done under guerilla circumstances. One day I guess I must hire a small hall for a day and photograph them all properly.



  Here is a photograph of the same tomb. The proportions look different because I didn't have a hovercraft to get directly above him, so the rubbing is a more accurate depiction in that regard. A piece of his dagger has been broken off at some stage, which is apparent in the photograph but not the rubbing. He clearly had a livery collar in the past, inlaid in a different material to the brass. The slab he was set in also had four separate heraldic shields in the corners, only three of which have survived. These were most probably originally inlaid with coloured material, but that is gone. The colour of the brass itself is a dingy brown, weathered with age, and the whole arrangement is monochrome, a characteristic only emphasised by the stark black and white of the rubbing.




  The slab into which the brass is set lies in the floor of the St Quentin family chapel, amid a miscellany of tombs including other brasses, an incised alabaster slab on a table tomb under a canopy, a beat up old limestone effigy and some later wall monuments, not to mention bits of woodwork and old heating pipes. Whether it is in its original place or setting is impossible to know. These things got moved around and reorganised a lot.
  There were once many more medieval monumental brasses around than there are today, and despite the favourite villains of history often getting all the blame, there have been steady losses over the centuries from natural circumstances, religious change, pillage, church refurbishment and gradual wear and tear. The most vilified despoilers include Henry VIII and his henchmen, Puritans, Civil War soldiers who melted them down for cannons and corrupt churchwardens of later days. Those that survive tend to be battered, worn and often relocated, but they still provide a fascinating visual projection from that romanticised past.
  16th and 17th century antiquarians took a great interest in tombs, including brasses. Their particular focus was on recording epitaphs and heraldry. Detailed and accurate depictions of the figures on tombs and brasses are rare, although their records do indicate the existence of many tombs since lost or damaged. The first direct prints from brasses were taken in the 18th century, by flooding the incised lines in the brass with ink and pressing paper over them. I can't quite see this being approved of by church authorities today. Nevertheless, it produced very accurate monochrome, linear prints of the designs, but reversed of course. Easy to pick if there are inscriptions because these are written back to front. These were used to produce monochrome engravings for publication, and some are the only evidence for brasses which are no longer extant.



  This figure from a brass to Robert Attelath in the church of King's Lynn is known only from such a print by Craven Ord, later published as an engraving in J.S. Cotman and D. Turner 1838 Engravings of Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk and Suffolk, Vol. 1. The image here is taken from Wikimedia Commons. King's Lynn has other surviving amazing Flemish brasses, and this is only part of the one that was lost, but it gives us some beautiful visual information.
  The use of black wax to take impressions of brasses became very popular during the mid 19th century. It produced sharp durable impressions which were the right way round. They were black, because the wax used was black heelball wax, used by cobblers to blacken the heels of shoes. Brass rubbing wax is still often referred to as heelball wax to this day, although folks have generally forgotten why.
  Collections of these historic rubbings survive in such places as the British Library, Bodleian Library, Ashmolean Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in some cases they document brasses which have since disappeared or been mutilated or damaged. They are historical records, and at the level of reproducing linear design, they are accurate.



    This is my rubbing from 1973 of a brass in Cowthorpe, Yorkshire, showing one Brian Roucliff precariously balancing a church on one hand. Various other disordered bits and pieces of the design are scattered around. From memory, he was mounted on the wall at the time.



  The Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue of 1915 has this picture of a rubbing of the same brass, done before somebody ran off with his wife, not to mention the church tower, and the whole ensemble got disarranged. So we know a lot more about the monument than the surviving fragments can tell us.
  The stark blackness made these simple to reproduce at a time when books were largely printed in monochrome, and provided a much more detailed and crisp image than photographic images of three dimensional tombs could provide. The stereotype of the flat, black, negative, monochrome design patterns the mind into thinking that was what brasses were like.



  Flat, black and battered, this knight from Gorleston in Suffolk would have been a handsome fellow in his day, back when he had legs, and a canopy, and some colour in his heraldic shield. As for the brass itself, it may have been polished, or gilded or made shiny and interesting in some way. This rubbing was done on red paper, but as I recall that was a practical decision because the red paper was softer than the white and he was placed vertically on the wall, so it was easier to get a clean print.



  With the fancy brass rubbing waxes that were being produced in the 70s it was possible to get a shiny, metallic finish, as in this rubbing of Sir Robert de Bures from Acton in Suffolk. The colour is entirely false though. It is an artifact of production and still provides only a monochrome outline of what was probably a much more colourful affair. Interestingly, the purveyors of brass rubbing supplies back then said that some rubbers preferred the metallic waxes because they looked more brassy, and others preferred the "authentic" black and white look. In other words, the visual characteristics of the old rubbings were determining authenticity, not those of the original brasses. The little Shire Library book S. Badham with M. Stuchfield 2009 Monumental Brasses has lovely colour photographs that illustrate a number of brasses with spectacular survivals of colour.



 Something else that can be lost is texture. This little figure of a priest from West Tanfield in Yorkshire, here shown without his inscription, shows blank spaces where the brass was clearly scraped out and roughened for some sort of inlay, probably representing fur, on the garment below his cope. Similar things are seen on the collars and cuffs of ladies in elaborate gowns.



  This knight from Aldborough in Yorkshire looks to me like one that would once have had some colourful adornment, with both his jupon and shield covered in heraldic designs. Both this example and that from Gorleston were mounted on the church wall, which brings up another issue. The engraved sheet of brass and its base stone, even with shields, inscriptions, canopies and other adornments, were not necessarily the totality of the monument. Brasses could be on tomb chests, under canopies, part of larger compositions. The brass rubbing isolates the design of the engraved brass from its setting, once again creating a stereotype that does not reflect the complexity of the original.



  This canopied tomb chest in Higham Ferrers church supports a very famous brass to a priest, Laurence de St Maur, which cannot be seen from this angle. It appears that somebody has put a vase of flowers on him. (Ulp.) The whole arrangement may have served as an Easter Sepulchre as well as a tomb, which is something that cannot be deduced from looking at the many black and white illustrations of the rubbing of the brass.
  Back in 1973 some facsimiles taken from moulds of monumental brasses were being sold. These were taken up by brass rubbing centres as a way of taking the heat off churches while letting people have the brass rubbing experience. The actual sellers of these appear to have changed several times over the years, but it does seem that the core repertoire of brasses treated in this way has remained fairly constant. Some brasses have become more famous than others.



  This picture, taken in 1988 in the Norwich Brassrubbing Centre shows people getting up close and personal with some medieval heritage using these facsimiles. We also bought a bunch of them over the years so that Australian students thousands of miles from the place they were studying could have a bit of the experience. They were very popular at end of year parties as cash strapped students used their rubbings for Christmas presents. 
  Now these were claimed to be absolutely accurate, producing a rubbing that was unable to be differentiated from one produced from the original. Certainly they look pretty good. One indignant lady at a university open day accused us noisily of pillaging churches. However, for practical reasons many are miniature versions, and some extract details rather than show complete compositions. Our crosslegged knight from a full sized effigy is only about half a metre high. There are even some that are based on historical figures who never had brasses made. This is fine if they are accepted for what they are, homage to brass memorials not reproductions of them.



  This little facsimile is of a small group of daughters of the main figures on a brass from Dinton, Buckinghamshire. There is a brief description on the back, but no image of the complete composition. It's a little memento, not a recording, but that is also what you find out in the field.



  Sometimes all that is left is the ghosts, as in this indent of a lost brass in Chichester cathedral. You just have to use your imagination, and not just think in black and white.



  A couple of times we have pulled them all out to display some of the best ones for university open days. I still get a thrill when I open up one of the tubes to look at the shiny precision of them, but then it takes about an hour to roll them back up again for storage. They are precise copies of original art works at one level, but at another they are mere shadows.