Sunday, March 29, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs - Part 9 The Process of Death

  Recent events involving the reburial of Richard III have revived discussion of the handling of medieval bodies. The process was compared by some to the translation of a saint's relics, but it wasn't necessary for the mortal remains to be those of a saint for such processes to take place within the medieval period. Even the fossicking around with his bones beforehand would not have been unusual, or even distasteful, in the medieval era.
  But first, an unusual diversion. Many years ago I undertook postgraduate research work in the area of archaeology and historical anthropology on societies in the islands of Southeast Asia, most notably Borneo. A great deal of this revolved around mortuary practices. Many traditional societies that were not Islamic or Christian practised what has been termed secondary burial, in which immediately after death the body of the deceased was stored temporarily in a coffin or other receptacle, sometimes even in the house or on a verandah. This situation could last for a long time, months or even years, until the corpse was defleshed and perhaps more importantly, resources collected together for a second funeral, the major event of the process. The bones were cleaned amid much ceremonial and placed in a new receptacle, which itself was placed in some kind of cemetery arrangement. These were very varied between ethnic groups.

  The poles with little flat roofs beside a Punan Bah longhouse on the Rejang River in Sarawak once held jars containing the secondarily treated bones of senior members of the community. They were formerly in the jungle, but the poles have been relocated to the village.

  Such practices were also carried out in prehistoric antiquity, as discovered by archaeological excavation. The cemetery above is in the mouth of Niah Cave in Sarawak and contained a range of burials of different types, including secondary burials.

  This is a beautiful secondary burial jar from Palawan Island in the Philippines, from the National Museum in Manila, with the dead person being ferried by a boatman on the lid. These practices refer to death as a process, not an event. There is an extended stage of liminality. 
  Colonial officials and Christian missionaries attempted, eventually successfully, to stamp out these practices, the actual messing about with bodies and bones being replaced with purely ceremonial activities. Arguments against the practice were that it was unhygienic, possibly justified. Christian missionaries also argued that such practices were at odds with Christian practice, in which the body should be disposed of rapidly and definitively; clean and final. They didn't know their history. This was not necessarily the case in the Middle Ages.
  Just getting the body to the funeral could be a protracted affair, depending on the social status of the deceased. The more significant the departed had been in life, the more preparations were required for the funerary festivities. The body was laid out in a public part of the house, surrounded by candles, and watched and prayed for for several days. If it was going to be a long stint, there were various means to prolong the preservation of the corpse.

  This alabaster tomb in West Tanfield church, North Yorkshire, to Sir John Marmion (d.1387) and wife Elizabeth (d.1400), is enclosed by a metal hearse with prickets for candles. This was the arrangement that was used for laying out the body, and it is tempting to see some continuity with the process of watching the body before burial, and the watching of the tomb, extending the liminal aspects of the death process. There is just one problem. I think this is the only example known of an actual tomb with these accoutrements. Whether this is because the metal hearse would normally be removed after an appropriate time, or whether the Marmion family were funerary innovators, I guess we never will know.
  Now we get to some medieval mythbusting. It is sometimes asserted that medieval people had no accurate knowledge of anatomy as the church forbade dissections. Well, this just is not true. They had few qualms about reorganising the remains of the dead, whether recently deceased or long departed. If a person of some significance died a long way from home, internal organs might be removed, either so that the body could be transported with less risk of nasty accident, or to bury the body but send some component, usually the heart, back to its home.

  We have already mentioned, in the blog posting on royal tombs, the burial of Queen Eleanor of Castille's bowels with due ceremony in Lincoln Cathedral and the erection of a series of crosses at the place where her funeral cortege stopped on the way back to London. The battered fragment above is the only relic of the Eleanor Cross in Lincoln. Her effigy in the cathedral is a modern facsimile based on the one on her tomb in Westminster Abbey.

  This small Purbeck marble wall monument with a half effigy holding a heart may represent a heart burial. It resides in Winchester Cathedral.

  The accuracy with which they depicted the process of decomposition on transi or cadaver tombs shows that people of that time were not unfamiliar with went on with bodies after death. The above example is from Lincoln Cathedral and represents Bishop Fleming (d.1431). There are other examples in a previous posting on these kinds of tombs.
  For people from the upper echelons of society, for whom an elaborate tomb was to be made, there was sometimes a need to place them in a temporary repository while the tomb was completed. The bones, or whatever was left, would be moved at the appropriate time, one assumes in a coffin or container. While bodies and tombs were significant things in themselves, it was not necessary for the procedure to be rapid and definitive.
  The cult of saints' relics also indicates that it was not necessary for the body to be complete and orderly. I have myself seen the head of John the Baptist, or at least one of them, in the cathedral of Amiens. Bits of saints ended up all over the place. The same lack of necessity for articulation and order can apply to significant secular bones.

  In Winchester cathedral there is a set of unusual boxes, of Tudor date, which, when I took this photograph in 1979, were perched on top of screens in the choir. They contain the bones of Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings of England, as well as three bishops. These significant individuals were buried with all due ceremony in front of the altar of the Old Minster. In pre-Conquest days that church was demolished to make way for the New Minster, but they were not given new individual tombs in the new cathedral. The chests are currently sitting in the Lady Chapel. As they have had some misadventures over the centuries, the bones are jumbled and scientific studies will be undertaken to see what can be untangled. You can read about if briefly here.
  It is noteworthy that other English monarchs whose places of interment were destroyed over their heads at the Reformation were not exhumed and reburied and equipped with a new monument: Stephen, Henry I, Richard III. Even at the highest levels of society, a monument was not forever. It was part of the process of death.

  While some tombs were removed to safer havens from monasteries that were destroyed at the Reformation, many, probably most, were not. These two plonked on the floor of Hornsea church in East Yorkshire came originally from Nunkeeling Priory. Somebody was presumably brave enough to reclaim their own, but perhaps to some others the tombs of their ancestors had already served their purpose.
  For ordinary folks who were buried in unmarked graves in the churchyard, eternal rest in one spot would have been an even more dubious proposition. I once chatted with a vicar of a church with a very small churchyard of Anglo-Saxon origin. On my enquiring as to how full it was, he smiled benignly and said when they dug a new grave they often found evidence of previous occupancy, but just moved things over respectfully to make room. It must have happened all the time. When there was a bit of a tidy up, bones might be collected together and placed in ossuaries. These are not evidence of plague or disaster, just overcrowding or the need to build a new extension to the church.
  I have a feeling that something similar may have happened with the tombs themselves. When the latest important corpse was required to be buried in the most conspicuous spot in the chancel, then the previous incumbent might be moved. Tomb effigies are often found under arches or on chests where they don't really fit, or they are sitting on the floor in a corner. Some of this may be due to modern church renovations, but this may be only one of the agents of chaos. Effigies have been dug up from churchyards and grave slabs have been re-used in walls or floors.

  This piece of walling in the church at Eastrington in East Yorkshire has been made by roughly squaring off a couple of effigies.

  Some give the impression that they might have spent a few centuries left out in the rain, like this washed, worn and broken crosslegged knight from the church at Routh in East Yorkshire. I must say he rather gave me the creeps while I was rubbing a very handsome brass nearby, especially as it was a remote sort of church with a tendency to creak, but I guess somebody must have brought him in at some stage because he looked swashbuckling and romantic. His current state is a million miles from how he would have looked in the time when he was part of the process of death. The ceremonial of death had a series of time frames, and none of them encompassed eternity.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs - Part 8 Isolated Alabasters

  As promised, this posting will be on the wonderful collection of alabaster effigy tombs in Harewood, Yorkshire. However, if you were expecting a simple cornucopia of eye candy alabasterporn, you may be disappointed. There is a bit to think about how these particular tombs have been preserved and restored and what this can tell us about the valuation of these works in one particular social environment. Harewood is a very particular type of place.
  The former parish church of Harewood is located inside the grounds of the huge country estate of the same name, home to the very grand mansion of Harewood House. Located close to Leeds and Harrogate, the grounds are something of a playground for city dwelling northerners. It is privately owned, and pays for its upkeep by hosting visitors to the house and a range of modern type social activities in the grounds. Read all about it on their official website here.
  The church, a somewhat unspectacular structure, is isolated from the village of Harewood because the village was bodily removed from the park and a new village built outside its border in the late 18th century. That should mean there is a deserted medieval village in there somewhere, and it is noted, but not described on the Hull University Beresford's Lost Villages website. A 19th century antiquarian claimed that there are, in fact, five extinct villages in the manor and township of Harewood. (John Jones 1859 History and Antiquities of Harewood: London, from which the next two pictures are taken.) Harewood held a market and fair from 1209, so was a market town rather than a village.

  There was a market cross standing in the village until 1804, but by then it was a relic of glories past.
  If you travel by road from Leeds towards Harrogate and points north on the A61, the road turns abruptly left around the northeastern corner of the Harewood estate. On the left in a very jungly and isolated corner of the estate you can catch a glimpse of a ruined manor house, Harewood Castle, constructed in the late 14th century and abandoned some time in the early to mid 17th century.

  It was not accessible to visitors to the estate, hidden out of sight in dense forest, but since some recent conservation work is evidently occasionally able to be visited by tour parties. It is just another sign of how a living medieval landscape has been converted to a private estate.
  The first time I visited Harewood church was in 1979, when they informed me that the church was currently closed as the monuments were being renovated, but I was told I could come and photograph them, just ask at the porter's lodge in the gatehouse. One of the tombs was dismantled with the effigies lying on the ground beside packing cases. The second time I visited was in 1998, when the renovations had been complete. It was a public holiday and there was some kind of public festivity going on in the grounds. We still had to enquire at the gatehouse to get the church unlocked, but they were very nice about it and didn't charge us to enter the estate like the other holidaymakers. The caretaker seemed quite bemused that we wanted to poke around a deserted old church full of creepy tombs rather than joining in the fun and frolic outside. There is a separate entrance to the church via the village, but the church is now redundant, under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

  The interior of the church is spare, stripped and empty. The tombs would presumably once have all been in the chapel in the north aisle of the chancel, but they have evidently been moved several times, to the detriment of the condition of some of them. There are six tombs, each containing a male and a female effigy, dating from the early 15th century to the early 16th. The above photograph was taken in 1998, after the restoration. Two of the tombs can be seen to be almost jammed under arches. They were recorded as being in these positions in the early 19th century, but it is probably not where they started out. The tomb in the foreground is in the north aisle, but it has recently been moved back to that position from the south aisle. The current position is where it was in 1816, but more than likely not where it was originally.

  One tomb was jammed into a corner, as seen in a 1979 photograph, squashed against a wall niche where it clearly doesn't fit. It had been there since at least the early 19th century.

  That one is now removed from its spot against the wall, so that you can see the lion foot supporter for the knight and the little dogs at the lady's feet, but some of the panelling of the tomb with weepers under canopies has disappeared, presumably when it was first poked into its corner.

  The fancy 18th century wall memorial in the background is the only large post-medieval tomb or commemoration within the church. It is in the south aisle. The tombs would originally have been coloured and gilded, but have been stripped back to their natural alabaster colour, conforming to the Victorian monochrome aesthetic. Actually, the Victorians were not particularly devoted to monochrome with their own productions, but thought it was the proper look for medieval buildings and sculptures. 
  So what was probably a crowded and colourful assortment of tombs in an enclosed chapel in a corner of a church containing all the paraphernalia of medieval religion has been spread out to turn the whole church into a pale and empty mausoleum; a monument to the ancestors (biological or social) of the owners of the estate. This did not happen abruptly at the last restoration; it has evolved in this direction over the centuries.

 The earliest tomb in the church is that to Sir Willian Gascoigne (d.1419) and wife Elizabeth Mowbray. This was shown in the previous post in this series as an example of a prestige tomb featuring a person in civilian dress. This is a different image showing his sword as a symbol of his knightly status, even though his dress is that of a judge. This allows him to be positively identified, which is not true of the other tombs in the church. The history of the manor of Harewood is well documented, and the list of contenders for the identity of the other effigies is known, but the precise assignment of particular identities for each tomb has changed over time. These are the ancestors and the validating authority for the lordship of the estate, but the identities of individuals are contested.
  In this posting, and in the Flickr tour of the village and the church monuments, I have used the identities as they were presented within the church when I last saw it in 1998. They have been re-assessed several times.  Why is there a problem with identifying the individuals on the monuments? Firstly, the tombs have no surviving inscriptions. Secondly, while the tombs have many places in which heraldic symbolism has been deployed, mostly it has not been carved in three dimensions but painted on to flat surfaces, and therefore lost when the tombs lost their colour.

  The tomb now designated to be that of Sir William Ryther (d.c.1425) and wife Sybil Aldburgh, like most of the rest, has heraldic shields as part of its design, but they are now devoid of information. The weepers or saints in the niches along the side of the table tomb have also been despoiled.
  Clues can be obtained from details in the carving of the effigies. The tombs of knights, as mentioned in an earlier post, tend to reflect very contemporary fashions and events. Heraldic devices are also incorporated into other details of the designs.

  The tomb designated as that of Sir Richard Redmayne (d.c.1425) contains two clues; the crest of his helm, on which his head is resting, is the head of a horse: a rebus on his name Redmayne. No doubt it had a red mane at one time. The other is that he is wearing a Lancastrian SS collar, which would suggest a certain time period.

  The effigy on the tomb designated as that of Sir William Gascoigne (d.1465) is wearing a suns and roses collar,symbol of Yorkist affiliations. This was not in use before 1461. The effigy also displays some traces of colour and gilding, giving just a hint of a more gaudy appearance for the tomb in its heyday. This is the tomb shown earlier which has been moved away from an ill fitting wall niche.

  The most recent effigy in the church is ascribed to Sir Edward Redmayne (d.1510). He bears the horse head family crest on his helm. He is also wearing a livery collar, this time a Tudor collar with Ss and roses The incumbents of the Harewood estate evidently preferred to go with the flow.
  The loss of individual identity of the various tombs is intriguing, especially as they appear to be set up so as to celebrate the lineage of the estate. The tombs have been damaged and rearranged. This doesn't seem to be attributable to a simple wave of Protestant fervour, followed by a late renovation in the interests of heritage. It doesn't seem as if the damage to many of the tombs has been directed at the symbolism decried at the Reformation.

  Angels supporting pillows still have their heads intact. Knocking the heads off pillow angels was a way of removing the symbolism of purgatory while still preserving the ancestral effigies, but it seems nobody policed it here. The praying hands have not been broken off. This is the tomb ascribed to Sir Richard Redmayne (d.c.1425) and his wife Elizabeth Aldburgh. The effigies are particularly handsome. The lady is absolutely the height of fashion of the day. Yet this tomb has apparently been squeezed into an archway where it doesn't quite fit, losing the carvings at the head and foot of the tomb chest in the process.

  Saints and angels have survived, along with secular weepers, along the sides of the chests. I'm not too sure about the originality of the heads in this example, but they have all their recognisable attributes: St Lawrence with his gridiron, The John the Evangelist with his cup of poison, St James the Great with his pilgrim bag and St Michael the Archangel weighing souls with a little demon trying to cheat by clinging to the basket. This is from the tomb attributed to Sir William Gascoigne (d.1487) and wife Margaret Percy.

  The most exquisite little detail comes from the tomb of Sir Edward Redmayne (d.1510). Kneeling on his foot supporter lion, a tiny monk, or bedesman, says his rosary for the soul of the dead man. His expression and posture suggest that he thinks purgatory could go on for along time. He is still there.
  As with most alabaster tombs, the effigies are not personalised depictions, but generic types represented with the latest fashions, armour and heraldic appurtenances, not to mention livery collars. They embody all the standard reminders of liminality and purgatory, with open eyes and praying hands, angels and saints and weepers. Neither dead, nor alive, they await their final fate. 
  Over the centuries, the message has lost its immediacy, with the tombs being damaged, faded, moved multiple times and even losing their individual identity. Possibly there never was an expectation that each individual tomb would last in all its glory forever. Each generation might move aside its predecessors to a place of lesser importance while placing the most recent tomb in a place of honour. The collecting of them all together, renovation and conservation according to the aesthetic principles of a different age, and setting them up again in splendour even while not being entirely sure who they are, is a reaffirmation of the ancestral privileges of the owners of the estate; a celebration of genealogy in a broader, general sense, rather than the celebration of specific individuals.
  To explore each individual tomb in detail, with before and after renovation pictures and lots more visual detail, visit the Tour of Harewood Flickr album. I don't think I can include this in the Leland project as he didn't go there, or perhaps there is a story in that. I will add some more details to the whole story in the Flickr album.
  The tombs are described in detail, including the reasons for the identification of individuals, in P.E. Routh1976 Medieval Effigial Alabaster Tombs in Yorkshire: Boydell Press, Ipswich.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Medieval Tour of Boston (Lincolnshire)

  In my devious sneaky way I am creeping around some of my larger projects by serving up little snippets on medieval towns visited by Leland and others, but cunningly avoiding the blockbuster epic ones that I tackled in the past in previous incarnations of multimedia technology. Those were York, Lincoln and Norwich, but I have so much material on those that it's a little daunting. Instead, here is a little look at a town which was very important in its medieval heyday, but with changing fortunes over the centuries retains very little of its medieval built past, with one notable exception. So click here to embark on a Flickr tour of medieval Boston.

  You are right. This shot does not show the most famous building of medieval Boston. That's because I was standing on it at the time in order to show the layout of the town and the way it winds along the river Witham, basis for its wealth as a major port.

  This, of course, is the medieval building that everybody knows from Boston; St Botolph's church, also known with Lincolnshire irony as the Boston Stump. It is much more than just a church with a big tower and contains many treasures, especially in the way of woodwork and tombs, some of which may be a trifle inconspicuous.

  It's a bench end. You can make up your own mind as to its significance.

 There are little details from other places, such as these fragments of stained glass now lurking in a window in the 15th century guildhall.

  There are some things that  no longer exist. You just have to conjure up their ghosts from the scratchings on metal plates of past recorders.
  As with the other medieval tours, I have added the descriptions of John Leland and Daniel Defoe into the comments. Celia Fiennes evidently didn't pass this way, but we have picked up an antiquarian with the unlikely name of Pishey Thompson who was full of information and supplied images of places altered or disappeared. Welcome aboard, Pishey.
  There is now a Flickr collection of the various medieval tours which include the commentary of Leland. They can be accessed here. This will steadily expand.
  I now have to decide where to go next with this little enterprise. My thought is to go with a few more of the smaller but interesting places, randomly dotted about. The Family Medievalist wants me to tackle Lincoln. He reckons medieval Lincoln needs a little love. Hmm. Watch this space.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Digital Humanities - At Last?

  In 1995 I found myself with  PhD in Archaeology and Anthropology and no academic job in prospect. Too old for a junior position, too inexperienced for a senior one, too overqualified for peripheral academic positions on offer, and too married for interviewing teams to believe that I would be willing to put in the hard yards to work in a different city to my husband. Yes, a (female) professor actually put the hard word on me about my domestic arrangements if I were to accept a job; illegal according to equal opportunity provisions but she sprung it on me over a "friendly" cup of coffee outside the interview room.
  I put my newly acquired free time to use by investigating ways of using multimedia technology in teaching on behalf of the Family Medievalist, my longsuffering spouse who taught medieval history at the Australian National University. This has always been unpaid. At that time a number of academics at the ANU were trying similar experiments, but all in a disco-ordinated way and without support from higher echelons of the establishment. We held regular meetings in which we discovered we were all using different software, platforms, technologies and we all came from different disciplines. The science bods were amazed to find medievalists in their midst, as if they thought we could not personally progress beyond the quill pen.
  In the late 1990s and early 2000s university management and senior academics alike were quite averse to this kind of activity. Some felt threatened that they would be required to do more work and acquire even more skills if this sort of thing got about. The university thought it ought to be able to make money out of such efforts, even those by an unpaid volunteer. Even archives thought we should have to pay for services that would otherwise be provided for free to any wandering member of the public, because we were obviously going to make a squillion out of it. Occasional meetings and conferences with other excitable cognoscenti punctuated periods of avoiding garlic and silver swords in the corridors from less enthusiastic members of the faculty.
   As I have mentioned in previous postings on these projects, the whole thing fell to custard because of the rapid changes to technology. Without a team of experts updating things constantly, multimedia projects from this era just died of premature senility. Just one of my projects survived and grew, the website Medieval Writing.

  Medieval Writing was originally designed to teach paleography to students who hated the subject, much to the distress of the Family Medievalist who kept trying to persuade them that it was the key to discovering anything in medieval history. It ended up on the web, rather than a multimedia CD, because by giving it away for free I could keep control over it and develop it in my own way. It expanded to cover aspects of literacy and the nature of things that medieval people did and didn't write about. It has been rejigged technologically several times, but now seems to be coming to the term of its natural life yet again.
  It is also galloping towards 300,000 clicks on the home page. Now that is over a long time, and some folks may keep coming back for return visits. Equally, many others don't go through the home page as they come in through Google searches or have bookmarked their favourite bit, like the index of scripts. It is not a strictly quantitative measure of anything I guess, but I can't help wondering how many copies I would have sold had I written a paleography book, or even how many people might have borrowed it from a library.
  For that matter, what would my odds have been on getting a paleography book published in the first place, not being a member of the academic establishment? Certainly, publishing a book doesn't let you grow and develop a project over many years as a website does. There is no editor, but experts have written to me at times with suggestions and corrections, and they can be fixed instantly if needed. The biggest peer review group in the world is out there.
  Strangely, some people just didn't believe it was real. On more than one occasion I have had a friend or colleague say something like, "I got a recommendation of your website from somebody in America. She found it on Google and asked if I knew you. I must look at it one day." or "I  saw your site listed on X university's link list. Amazing!" or "If you type 'paleography' into Google there's a site called Medieval Writing that comes out on top. That's not yours, is it?" There was a whole bunch of people in academia, not all of them old, that just didn't believe the digital thing was happening. The truly old academics just pined away and died when their copy typing secretaries retired and they had to type and file their own emails.
  An interesting aspect is the feedback that a website allows. Yes, I have had emails from schoolkids wanting ideas for assignments and folks wanting me to identify the coat of arms on the antique set of spoons that they inherited from their greatgrandmother and deluded folks who thought they should inherit a country estate with an abbey on it because they have a document in their possession which belonged to Anne Boleyn's lady in waiting. I have also had some fascinating conversations from people who would never have gone near a paleography book; an international law professor working on digital signatures or a linguist investigating modern urban dialects.
  This is proto-Digital Humanities, I guess, but the tools remained very primitive for a long time. The first manuscript facsimiles on the website were old black and white photographs, either out of copyright or used with permission.

  Yup, that is horrible to the point of totally unusable on a modern computer screen.

British Library, Cotton Tiberius C II, f.34. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica

  Rescanning helped, but the job got bigger and bigger as the site grew. Great thanks to the British Library for letting us have a go back then when things were so experimental. For legal documents, old Public Record Office scanned photocopies have been replaced by digital downloads from the National Archives. Now, of course, the number of high quality digital images of medieval manuscripts available on the web is enormous and growing, and so are the tools to make use of them.
  There was very little on the web on paleography or manuscripts in general in the way back when, but now resources are proliferating. There are general introductions and specialist sites and tools for producing interactive transcripts far more sophisticated than the clunky little exercises that I devised for Medieval Writing. I'd ask if anybody needs a DHTML programmer in Dreamweaver for Internet Explorer 3 or a Flash 5 programmer, but I think I've forgotten how to do it.
  There are communities of scholars interacting through social media and cross-fertilising ideas. This facilitates friendly conversations between people with new ideas, not overseen by a session chairperson with an overriding agenda and a tenured professorship. (Oops. Getting a bit radical here.) It all makes things hopeful that Digital Humanities can actually happen: that it can be an open door to all interested participants, not an elite privilege for high fee paying students in enrolled courses. (Yeah, yeah. Waves red rag and stands on the barricades, yelling.)
  So here's to all 300,000 of you finger clickers who have helped carry the torch through the Dark Ages of Digital Humanities. And here's to the clever young folks who are going to take it to the high Gothic stage of beauty and functionality. If I can find a fountain of eternal youth (or at least eternal late middle age) I may be able to participate in it.
  Ultimately, I think the moral to this story is that any subject, even one which students are reluctant to tackle, can be made fascinating with ingenuity. Before the age of the internet, which I believe is 25 this year, so much, much younger than me, resources for subjects like paleography were hidden away in obscure corners of academic libraries. Those resources are likely to be hidden even deeper in reserve collections and underground bunkers these days, but they can be translated into wonderful concepts accessible to all. Medieval marginalia of cats, killer bunnies, farting priests and nuns picking penises off trees may get their attention, but there is so much more that can engage people. We now have the resources and technology to do it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 7 Civilian Males

  This episode of the neverending tomb saga will look at the tombs of males depicted in civilian dress. Now before anybody gets their feminist knickers in a knot, let me point out that there is no real difference in the depiction of women on tombs, whether they are from the knightly or civilian classes. They all wear the latest fashions, and the styles of memorial change over time, but apart from heraldry there is rarely a specific signifier of aristocratic rank.
  As we have seen, the earliest effigial tombs were made for high ranking clerics and knights. The former were always attired in the very correct vestments for their rank and the latter in the latest style of armour. From around the 14th century a class of people were becoming wealthy in new ways, as merchants and traders in the towns rather than country landowners. For those truly on the rise, their tombs could match those of the knightly classes in glamour, and the same basic iconographic scheme was followed, minus the suit of armour.

  This early 14th century effigy of a man in civilian dress in the church at Birkin, Yorkshire is very much in the style of crosslegged knightly tombs of the period. His robe falls open at the knee to display his shapely calf in the same manner as the knights' surcoats were draped. His feet rest on a dog. He carries no weaponry, but holds a heart in his hand. He lies on, under and beside bare stripped masonry, so there is no way of knowing how elaborate his original tomb arrangement was.

  For those aspiring to use their new found wealth to mix it with the rich and famous, the tombs could be as elaborate as those of any knight. The tomb of William de la Pole (d.1366) and wife Katherine has effigies of alabaster on an arched table tomb adorned with shields. He has a splendid lion at his feet. The de la Poles got on in the world, kickstarting their rise as wealthy Hull merchants.

  The tomb of Thomas Babington (d.1518) in Ashover church, Derbyshire is the standard late alabaster confection. We are in the heart of alabaster country here of course. The tomb has elaborately carved weepers under canopies, angels (decapitated as usual) support the pillows of the effigies and he has a standard lion gazing at him from his feet. He and his wife sport the latest fashions, by this time long baggy robes for men. A notable feature of the figure is his large purse, often used to denote the status of a figure as a wealthy civilian. This may seem a trifle crass, but the virtuous wealthy man was supposed to use his means for charitable purposes, so perhaps this serves to remind those praying for his soul in purgatory that he did.

  Harking back to a previous blog posting on the Corporal Acts of Mercy, the wealthy man, depicted in stained glass in the church of All Saints, North Street, York, is dipping into his purse to aid the plight of the prisoners in the stocks. Wealth can be used for good. Keep praying, people.

  The tomb of a civilian (d.1487) in the church of Glastonbury, Somerset is in similar mode, although only the effigy on top is of alabaster. The base is a coarser stone. His rosary hangs by the large purse in case the passerby has forgotten that he is supposed to be praying for the departed man's soul. The tomb chest has some large and clunky angels holding heraldic shields, but what looks to be a somewhat deformed lamb and flag motif actually is an animal with two humps. The man's name was John Cammel. The rebus, or pun on a name, was a not uncommon medieval trick and sometimes these evolved over time and generations into coats of arms; another appropriation of the significata of knightly rank by the uppity wealthy town classes.

  Effigies of civilians were often not of the totally standardised paint-by-numbers workshop styles as found in most aristocratic tombs. While sometimes awkward, even ugly, they could have some unique character. This quaint bearded gent lies in Beverley Minster, Yorkshire. He is probably late 14th century, but his identity is forgotten. Probably some of these were produced by local craftsmen rather than imported from the major studios.

  This funny little effigy, less than half size, in a floppy 15th century robe, is now set into the wall in Filey church, Yorkshire. Whether he was originally horizontal or vertical is unclear, but that blurry area has been discussed already. As the provision of memorials travelled down the social scale, more modest examples were produced. There are also small half effigies of knights, presumably knights in somewhat straitened circumstances, in niches which may have always been on the wall. This leads me to wonder whether these actually represent burials within the church at all, but serve as the usual reminder to pray for those who may actually have been buried outside in the churchyard. That is another of those thoughts to hold for a later occasion, when we start pondering what they actually did with the bodies.

  The wealthy merchant classes had some networks of their own for provision of high class commemoration. Yes, you've seen this one before but I did say there were some more things to think about. It comes from Boston, Lincolnshire, which was an important medieval port, where they exported and imported things. This black marble incised slab to a civilian and his wife is a bit the worse for wear, but it would have been an impressive thing in its time, especially with its brass inlay in the hands and faces of the figures and the marginal inscription. The stone is from Flanders and the design of the figures is a bit suggestive of that as well. Never mind having a common old English alabaster, we're so rich and important that we can have a fancy foreign tomb slab. Take that, feudalism.

  Tombs depicting civilians could reflect their acquired, rather then inherited, status in life by showing the effigies in robes of office. Sir William Gascoigne (d.1419) is depicted here in his robes as a judge rather than in knightly attire. Note that he carries his large purse, like a civilian, but has a very aristocratic looking lion at his feet. Not visible from this angle is his long sword hanging by his right side, giving a nod to his knightly status. The tomb of the judge and his wife Margaret is one of a series of splendid alabasters in Harewood church, Yorkshire. The above photograph was taken in 1979 when the tombs were dismantled for restoration. (Memo to self: prepare a blog post with a complete set of before and afters for this amazing collection.)

  Mayoral robes are the distinguishing characteristic of this brass of John Wellys (d.1495), now on the wall of St Laurence's church, Norwich. The figure is about half life size. Most of the inscription has disappeared and there is a shield with a woman's head depicted in it below the inscription. The reminder of piety and prayer is embodied in the whomping great set of rosary beads that hang from his belt. With his balding head, there is a temptation to see this as some kind of representation of an individual rather than simply a type. I hesitate to use the word portrait, as that seems to lead to hotbeds of controversy. The slight angle of the head and shoulders seems to take this away from some of the rigid conventions of depiction of funerary effigies and foreshadows a slightly different style of modest funerary brass.

  The tomb of the poet John Gower (d.1408), in what is now Southwark Cathedral in London, Has been mightily restored and colourised up to give it a medieval aesthetic. I'm not too sure how accurate the style of colouring is, but it gives a different impression to that of the inauthentic, stark white or bare stoney look that we see in most surviving tombs. He has a kind of poet's crown and his head rests on a pile of books, indicating that his status is based on his achievements. I have no idea whether the names of his works written on the books represent the original composition of the memorial or a bit of Victorian Romanticism, but I suspect maybe the latter. The tomb is as fine as that of any knight.

  This rubbing is of a brass to Richard (d.1451) and Margaret Byll in the floor of Holy Trinity church in Hull, Yorkshire. It is very worn from centuries of feet tromping over it. It seems to represent a way of getting extra bang for your buck, so to speak, as the whole composition is large enough to be a full sized tomb cover, but the individual brass pieces are relatively small and spread out. The roundels in the corner are the emblems of the evangelists. Under the inscription, displayed in the manner of a heraldic shield, is the owner's merchant mark. These were workaday symbols which identified the goods of particular merchants, but they acquired something of the status of heraldic symbols for the nouveau rich of the towns. They were used by merchants on their seals, for example, when the use of seals spread from the aristocracy to anybody needing to carry out legal transactions. In some cases they were actually converted into coats of arms when members of the mercantile classes ascended the social ranks.
  The knightly symbolism could be turned around for the merchant classes in other ways. Wealthy wool merchants of the 15th century could be shown with sheep or wool bales as foot supporters on their effigies or brasses rather than heraldic animals.

  During the 15th and 16th centuries the use of brass memorials became more widespread and many were of very modest size. This example from Cottingham in Yorkshire commemorates John (d.1504) and Joanna Smyth. Now you can't get a more ordinary name than that. The figures are only 45 cm tall and seem somewhat crudely drawn. The oversized hands may simply be drawing attention to that important reminder to pray. As with grander memorials, they are shown wearing the latest fashions of the day. The memorial is on the wall of the church, and the slightly sideways posture makes it look as if they were always meant to be seen as vertical. The compositional tensions found in the older and grander memorials, indicating liminality and the sense of not being one thing or the other (vertical or horizontal, alive or dead) have disappeared. They are just standing there, saying their prayers. The inscription begins by exhorting us to pray for their souls and finishes with a request to God to have mercy on their souls. This is an absolutely standard wording for inscriptions on brasses and later tombs, where they survive. Perhaps with increasing general literacy in the population these clues could be put into written words rather than enigmatic symbols.

  This little wall brass from Beaumaris in Wales prefigures some of the compositional changes to memorials at the Reformation. It commemorates Richard and Elizabeth Bulkley and dates from around 1530. The composition comprises various little brass inserts in the traditional manner of English brasses. The figures of the man and woman face each other with their children kneeling behind them. They are a family praying together. Later brasses were often incised on a single rectangular plate with the families facing each other, kneeling to pray. They were memorials to formerly living people, not representations of the liminal state of purgatory. That is something else to save for another day.

  Finally, something small and charming and out of chronological order to introduce another thought to save for later. This tiny brass figure is on a wall in Hampsthwaite church, Yorkshire. He is so small that he most likely was once part of a composition within the head of a floriated cross, of which there are numerous examples known. He is from the earlier part of the 14th century, as evidenced by the crazy fashions of the day; very short tunic, excessive buttons on sleeves, extraneous flappy bits which all have specific names - very important if you are a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms. His long hair and beard is early 14th century hipster. He has a purse and a dagger, just in case anybody tries to get nasty about it. He has also been scratched over with an exceedingly crude inscription ascribing him to somebody who died in 1570. Now that seems a very cheapskate way to get a funerary monument. This is just something to ponder about how long funerary monuments were intended to last, and what happened to them when they passed their use by date.
  There are many threads of this topic to follow from here. I haven't decided which one to chase next. Watch this space for the next episode. It might just be a simple feast for lovers of alabasters.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Medieval Tour of Higham Ferrers

  Taking a brief diversion from tombs for a moment, my photograph sorting has brought up another little tour of a small but fascinating medieval place, Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire. There is a reason why we spent a few days there. It is a short drive from Heathrow airport. In 1998 it was the first time we had not had family to pick us up and cart us off immediately to Yorkshire. We were hiring a car, so I checked the map for the most interesting little place within a short and uncomplicated drive from the airport, but heading in the general direction of where we were going. Slight technical difficulty was that although it is a historic little town, it had no tourist bureau and no budget accommodation. Hey, in Yorkshire you can find a B & B in every village. Drove round in circles until we found some friendly digs just over the border in Bedfordshire.
  So here is a little Flickr tour of medieval Higham Ferrers, mediated by jet lag and the unfortunate discovery of a jiggered camera lens in the days of film, not digital imagery. (You only found out a couple of weeks later.) We retraced some steps later.

  It is to be fitted into the great Leland project, but he didn't have a lot to say about it. Our later travelling companions, Daniel Defoe and Celia Fiennes, don't seem to have gone there at all. Perhaps it has always been a little overlooked, at least since the Dukes of Lancaster departed.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 6 Clergy

  This episode of the medieval tombs series will look at the effigy tombs of clerics. Those of the highest ranking churchmen are some of the earliest to be found, and show right from the start some of the distinctive iconographic conventions of effigial tombs.

  This effigy of Abbot Benedict of Peterborough (d.1193) was illustrated in the first blog posting of this series. The figure is somewhat low relief, but that may be a function of the thickness of the slab of Purbeck marble from which he was sculpted. He represents certain conventions that were already in place and persisted with clerical effigies. He wears his mass vestments accurately detailed. The precision of depiction of vestments, whether mass or processional, is as meticulous as the depiction of the latest fashions in armour on knightly tombs. Various grades of clergy had their symbols of status as well as priestly office. He is not wearing a mitre, as abbots were usually portrayed later, but he carries his crosier, which is broken. He is trampling a dragon or serpent and choking it with the end of his crosier.

  The Purbeck marble tomb of Bishop Hugh de Northwold, early 13th century, in Ely Cathedral has certain features which became more common in alabaster tombs of the late 14th and 15th centuries, small figures of weepers under canopies flanking the effigy. The architectural canopy is highly ornate and contains much foliate ornament. Does it need to be pointed out that he is lying down in what ought to be a vertical arrangement? If you have read the previous blog postings on this subject, you will have noted that already. The actual effigy is a bit the worse for wear, but the tomb has one unusual feature.

  At his feet is a sculpted scene of the martyrdom of St Edmund, along with a couple of wild looking beasties at the side. These tombs had some experimental features, but like those of other orders of society, clerical tombs became quite stereotyped, even at the higher orders. Neither of these tombs, or the other early ecclesiastical tombs in these cathedrals, appear to be in an original setting. The effigies are set out on plain plinths as a homage to the ancient history of the institutions.

  There is no reason to believe that the stark and simple aesthetic in which these tombs are currently presented represents their original state. The very battered 13th century Purbeck marble effigy of a bishop in Carlisle Cathedral has indents carved in his mitre for the insertion of jewels (or imitations thereof) and it can be presumed that the effect would have been rich and colourful.

  The significata of priestly function were also significata of rank within the church. Pope Urban V wears his triple deckered papal tiara where he lies, broken and decontexted, in the Petit Palais museum in Avignon, France.

  Brasses were also employed for high ranking prestigious tombs of the clergy. This is a rubbing from the tomb of Robert de Waldeby (1397) in Westminster Abbey. It sits on a table tomb in the chapel of St Edmund amongst the glorious jumble of royal, noble and generally high ranking tombs in the eastern end of the building. While he is lying on his back in reality, he is depicted as if standing and his hand is raised in benediction. He is still engaged in doing his job, even at this late stage of his departure from this life. His cross and various vestments are depicted meticulously, including those particular to his rank as archbishop. The monument is huge, about 3 metres long, so it is a grand memorial to an important man.

  Incised slabs could also form the monuments for important clergy, as in this one to Abbot Barwick of Selby who died in 1526, fairly late in the era for English abbots. It is quite hard to make out and it seems reasonable to assume it may have had something in the incised lines to make them stand out. Incised slabs are more readily damaged over time and it can be seen that this one has been cracked right across. It also has no other tomb setting but is set into the floor beside a couple of other slabs in even worse condition. It most likely only survives at all because Selby Abbey church was converted into a parish church at the Reformation and thereby saved from destruction. The demolition or damage to so many abbey churches has resulted in smaller rates of survival of monastic effigies, but as with the monarchs discussed in the previous blog, it seems that not many tombs or effigies were rescued and relocated. Some were, but it seems the majority were not. Was it fear of reprisal by nasty Henry on any families that tried such tricks, or had they essentially served their purpose by that time? Hold that thought along with all the others we are filing as we go along through this series.

  This abbot shaped puddle in the ruins of Byland Abbey in Yorkshire is perhaps the most stark reminder possible of what has been lost. It is the indent of a brass to a former abbot. These remote Cistercian sites have more extensive ruins than most monastic complexes (Yes, that's another BIG photography project in the offing.), but tomb remains are sparse.

    The tomb of Rahere in the remains of the Augustinian priory church of St Bartholomew in Smithfield, London seems to be a slightly different concept of commemoration. He was the founding prior in 1123 and evidently died in 1144, but this tomb appears to be much later, at least 13th, maybe early 14th century. As with the preservation of the tombs of the early bishops and abbots of Ely and Peterborough, the tomb has a strong historical association. The prior is shown in plain ecclesiastical attire, but the tomb has all the indicators of purgatory and liminality, as well as a heraldic display.

  His hands are praying. An angel with a heraldic shield stands at his feet ready to help him on his way and two little monks kneel with enormous books beside him, encouraging the onlookers to pray. This tomb survived the partial destruction of the church at the Reformation, not to mention the wartime disasters of the 20th century, although from the modern paintwork it has clearly been restored. Nevertheless, from the date of its construction it must have been conceived as a long term memorial.
  As with lay memorials, the use of effigial tombs travelled down the social scale, so that even ordinary parish priests had tomb monuments. Brasses, sometimes of very small size or even small half effigies, were popular for priestly monuments. Possibly for priests from modest families these may have been funded by the congregation. Who knows?

  This small effigy of a priest in the tiny village of Beeford in East Yorkshire is an example of the modest priestly brass. He is not wearing his mass vestments but a fancy embroidered cope.

  In the simplest form, the priest could be represented by his emblem of office, the chalice. The above shows a rubbing of a chalice brass with inscription to Peter Johnson, vicar of Bishop Burton in East Yorkshire. The chalice symbol appears on incised slabs with a cross, and full sized priestly effigies are also found holding them. In fact, the actual chalice seems to represent the only form of grave goods regularly encountered in medieval Christian burials, of priests of course: chalices, patens, bishops' rings, croziers. Make of that what you will.

  Fancy and elegant tombs do appear for ordinary parish priests, sometimes in modest little places. The above example, which also has the advantage of a surviving inscription, is in the church of Blyborough in Lincolnshire. Presumably wealthy families whose members had joined the clergy funded these as they did for the knightly tombs of their lay family members. This tomb has the standard motifs of angels (decapitated) by the pillow and praying hands (with fingers broken off), as well as the symbols of status in some conspicuous heraldry. His feet rest on a beastie, as do those of a knight.
  Conceptually, the tombs of the priestly caste are the same as those of the laity; the symbolism of purgatory and liminality, the significata of status and some intriguing anomalies in their preservation and display. 
  The next exciting episode will look at the tombs of those who were not of the knightly or clerical classes, and how they expressed their values.