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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 three (update: make that four. Might explain some slowing of progress in other things.) and donkey owner trying to combine modern technology with living a simple life like we did in the olden days.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 16 - Memorials in Glass

  So far in this series I have looked at medieval memorials that are essentially grave covers, at least in theory, although some of them depicted people who were buried in other locations, or only certain parts of them were buried at the commemorated spot, or their remains or tombs had been moved. Within churches there were various other ways of commemorating the dead, especially if their good works in life had included donations to the fabric or treasures of the church in question.
  Sally Badham's recent book, Seeking Salvation, gives copious examples of other church works which can be regarded as funerary memorials, indicated by inscriptions on walls and furnishings, church plate and many instructions in wills for donations to the church. Stained glass windows also come in here, and she points out that all of these are visual reminders to the congregation to pray for the souls of the departed to hasten their trip through purgatory.
  Purgatory was a big deal in the 14th and 15th centuries, when church art and commemoration was developing in elaboration, but as I have mentioned before, purgatory was an official church doctrine which allowed expression for concepts of liminality concerning death. Those concepts have been expressed in different ways in other times and in other religions and cultures.
  The 14th and 15th centuries were also a time when traditional social hierarchies were being challenged and social stratification, although well and truly still there, became very competitive. This was evidenced in many aspects of life, including rapidly changing fashion utilising fancy imported fabrics, massively competitive dining habits, more lavish houses for those who could have them, and posh book ownership. In competitive societies, worth is displayed by not only what you have, but what you can afford to give away. In societies with very different religious beliefs, funerary ceremonial could involve large and often complex redistributions of wealth. Funerals and mortuary gifts certainly encouraged others to pray for your soul, but also increased the standing of you and yours in society. Besides, they then made other people obligated to you and yours, should fortunes reverse.



  The simplest easily recognised visual symbol for the folks of the congregation was probably heraldry. The above example comes from St Martin's church in Stamford, Lincolnshire. They shields were often depicted being carried by little angels, which has parallels with the angels carrying the souls of the departed also found in funerary depictions. The heraldic device might indicate that the family concerned had built their own funerary chapel, or had contributed in some other way to the fabric of the church. These are very commonly found, sometimes sprinkled among the more didactic panels of the windows.



  Here is another example from a small northern town, Thirsk in North Yorkshire. I don't suppose the coat of arms actually represents three donkeys but it looks a bit like it. Such panels no doubt encourage prayers for the soul, but they also stamp a certain authority on the congregation.



   The de Mauley window in the south nave aisle of York Minster has eight coats of arms associated with the de Mauley family, sprinkled between the usual scenes of martyrdom and mayhem, and representations of members of the family in the lower panels. It has to be said that this is virtually a copy of the original window after a drastic restoration in 1903, but you get the idea. 
  Occasionally you can find a heraldic shield in a window that matches one on a tomb in the church, indicating that these are not either/or modes of commemoration but part of the whole cornucopia of ways that people could be remembered, respected and hopefully hastened on their way to glory.  
A more personal representation is found in the simple kneeling donor figure, usually found modestly in the bottom corner of the window.



  This somewhat effaced little figure from Thornhill in West Yorkshire is depicted in civilian clothes with his purse slung on his belt, not armour, reflecting the new order of town life when you could have influence with money rather than coats of arms. He is kneeling at his prayer desk with the prayer book open, which is about as clear a reminder of what you are supposed to do as you can get.



  This donor panel in St Michael-le-Belfry church, York has an inscription encouraging you to pray for the donor and his three wifes. The convention of showing successive spouses all kneeling together is not unusual. Time collapses when you're dead. Many donor panels contained these inscriptions, but some have been lost, accidentally or on purpose when the glass was reset in times of religious change. The desire to perpetuate the memories of families outlived the need to believe in purgatory. Similarly the "orate pro anima" part of tomb or brass inscriptions has sometimes been effaced, a symbolic gesture making the memorial correct in religious terms while still commemorating the departed, and reminding folks of the significance of the surviving families.



  This window in All Saints North Street, York has multiple references of this type. The kneeling donor  figures in the lower panels have come from a different window. Stained glass is always mixed up because of the need for regular repairs and renovations. Nevertheless they are two of several representations of this type in this particular church. The six panels above represent the corporal acts of mercy. I have written about this in another blog posting here. The acts of mercy are being administered by a benign looking bearded man who looks much the same in every panel, and it has been assumed that this figure represents the donor of the window; a reminder of how he has redistributed his wealth for the benefit of the parish.



  Furthermore he is rich and he wants you to know it, because he is using his wealth for virtuous purposes. Here he is dipping into his large money purse to bail out some prisoners in the stocks. Acquiring wealth is fine if you give it away in a virtuous manner. Pray for his soul please, and look after his heirs.



  The windows in the wealthy church that wool built in Long Melford, Suffolk display more of the symbols of power and less of virtue in the figures of the donors. Sure, they are kneeling praying so please remember to say a prayer for them, but they are togged out in very conspicuous heraldic rig, wearing their coats of arms all over them. They built this church and they are important.



  The nature of the donation can be made quite explicit. This kneeling donor in St Denys church, York, dressed in civilian clothes, is holding the window he has donated, just so that you know exactly the nature of his benefaction. This is analogous to those tomb figures of bishops and knights holding models of churches they have funded. And no, I don't know whether he was a wealthy beekeeper.



  Donors commemorated in glass did not have to be individuals. The guilds of the towns had the function of caring for the spiritual needs of their members as well as their conditions of work. This window in York Minster was presented by the bellfounders and some panels contain representations of aspects of the bellfounders' art. This panels shows the presentation of the window to the archbishop, with the usual supplicatory imagery and a depiction of the window in the glass itself, so everyone gets the point. It symbolises the social importance of the town trades, who are acting like aristocrats of old in their dealings with the community, as well as encouraging prayers for a group within the commnity. 





 The most famous examples of this type of commemoration are across the Channel in France, in the cathedral of Chartres, where all the various craft guilds which contributed to the building of the cathedral are commemorated in the amazing program of stained glass windows. They are not depicted praying or with symbols which specifically encourage others to pray, rather shown just going about their work, but they are included in the lower panels of the instructive windows. The examples above show the furriers and the drapers. Perhaps they somewhat predate the full expression of the concept of purgatory in church art, but their contribution to the church fabric and life is being appreciated.
  It is reasonable to regard these types of windows as funerary memorials in just the same way that we regard grave slabs or effigy tombs. They serve the same purpose and utilise similar iconography. They perpetuate memory beyond the grave.

Friday, January 08, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 15 - Children on Tombs.

  The 18th and 19th centuries produced numbers of commemorative monuments to children who had died young, ranging from exquisitely carved monuments to beautiful youngsters depicted as if asleep to sad lists of names, ages and dates on churchyard headstones. These remind us that bringing offspring to adulthood was a perilous exercise in the days when nutrition and medicine were very imperfect and natural hazards were plenty. When you go back to the heyday of medieval effigial monuments, in the 14th and 15th centuries, monuments to dead children are exceedingly rare.



  This depiction of a slender young man or boy is even less of a portrait than most funerary monuments. It is dedicated to William de Hatfield, the second son of King Edward III and Queen Philippa of Hainault. He died in 1337 in his first year of life. The alabaster effigy, which lies on a tall table tomb under a vaulted canopy, is very much in the style of a knightly effigy, although he bears no arms. It is as if the depiction of an actual child is something the sculptors just didn't get. It has all the significata of liminality; praying hands, angels and lion foot supporter looking up, but it is hard to imagine an infant having earned too much time in purgatory. Like the far more numerous adult effigies, it is an idealised image of a fine human specimen.



 This undersized alabaster tomb in Sheriff Hutton church, Yorkshire, has been identified in the past with Edward, son of King Richard III, who died young in 1484. The tomb is rather the worse for wear and it has been suggested that it may have been moved from the chapel of Sheriff Hutton Castle. It has also been suggested that it is too early in style to be said Edward, but is more likely to be a member of the Neville family (on the basis of heraldry) of the earlier part of the 15th century. It is assumed to represent a young person, as the figure is not in armour or bearing arms, as you might expect of an adult of this social standing.
  Effigies which are less than life sized do not necessarily represent children. Smaller depictions have been known to indicate heart burials, that rather odd (to us) medieval ritual whereby a person's heart, or occasionally other innards, was buried in a different place to the rest of the body. This sometimes happened when a person died away from their home or from some place especially dear to them.



  This little half effigy of a bishop in Winchester Cathedral is actually holding his heart, which is a clue. He has been identified as Aymer de Valance (d.1261). So size doesn't really matter in this case.



  The Roger de Felbrigg of Felbrigg, Norfolk, commemorated on this approximately half sized brass effigy of the late 14th century is not buried here at all as he died in Prussia, as it says on the tomb inscription. This is part of a brass composition to four individuals, only two of whom were buried on the site. Brasses particularly tended to get smaller over time, particularly over the course of the 15th century. Size did matter, but as a signifier of wealth and influence, not of the age of the deceased.



  Given this, there is no real reason to assume that small three dimensional effigies, especially quaintly unique little figures, out of context, in out of the way rural places, such as this miniature effigy stuck up on a wall in the parish church of Filey, East Yorkshire, represent children. They may be heart burials, commemorative depictions of somebody buried somewhere else or just modest little efforts produced for folks of less lavish means.



  There are occasional depictions on brasses of the late 15th and early 16th centuries of infants who died in childbirth, frequently along with the mother. This tiny brass from Blickling in Norfolk shows a mother with twins, an eventuality which must have increased the perils of childbirth. The newborn state of the babies is signified in these monuments by the fact that they are firmly wrapped in swaddling clothes. The inscription begins with a standard expression "Orate pro anima" (Pray for the soul of ...), which relates to the necessity for prayer to get the soul of the deceased out of purgatory. This is a theme which permeates so much of medieval tomb iconography, even without the specific wording. But, the inscription only asks us to pray for the soul of the mother, not the departed infants who are identified simply as a boy and a girl.
  As I keep saying, the concept of purgatory is simply a late medieval Christian formulation for the more general concept of liminality in death. It is necessary to create a space and a time frame for the living to accommodate themselves to a sudden and drastic change of state in their personal lives. Death is just too abrupt. It happens in many and diverse cultures of different religious persuasions. The same applies to birth. There is a pervasive idea that infants who die at birth have not actually made it into the land of the living. In some cultures it was believed that they actually went to a separate place to return when the next pregnancy occurred. The corpses of infants were sometimes treated differently to those of others to indicate that they were not gone forever.
  There is a temptation to see something of this in the depiction of newborn infants in swaddling clothes. Perhaps it is a sort of reminder to God (who as we know is a forgetful old duffer who has to be constantly reminded of his obligations in the affairs of humankind) that these little souls didn't quite make it to earth.




  Children were often enough depicted on the tombs of their parents, but they weren't depicted as children and they weren't necessarily dead at the time. This 15th century tomb in Burton Agnes church, East Yorkshire, shows a miniature knight in plate armour lying beside the effigy of his mother. This was not a bizarre fashion in infant clothing. The suit of armour was an indicator of his social status. The tiny size does not mean this this is a representation of a dead baby, even one in a symbolic suit of armour. Children depicted on tombs were simply drawn that way; smaller. The weeper figures arranged around the tomb chest are figures of saints, but sometimes representations of the children were used for this purpose.



  Photograph from Pratt, Helen Marshall (1914) Westminster Abbey: Its Architecture, History and Monuments: New York via the fabulous Internet Archive.

  Children were deployed in this way on the tomb of Edward III in Westminster Abbey, which brings us back to where we started. Originally the tomb had all his multitudinous children arrayed around the chest, but time was no kinder to royal tombs than to others and only six remain, of which the one on the far right is William de Hatfield. The living and the departed children are depicted no differently. They are symbols, but of what? Fertility? Succession? Family obligation to the soul of the deceased? All of the above?


  This tiny little brass from Blickling, Norfolk, shows firstly, the prolific reproduction and by inference, sturdy physical robustness of many late medieval women, and secondly, the way that children on brasses were rendered as identical symbols without any form of individuality. They are shown as small, but they are dressed as adults. They do not represent mass family extinction. Just because they were depicted on a tomb does not indicate that they were dead. Perhaps, harking back to the liminality theme, they represent a transition from the family united and alive to the family parted by death, readjusting to a new reality.
  The question has to be asked as to how children were commemorated in death. In the absence of physical evidence that is rather hard to answer. Perhaps the deaths of children were regarded as a matter for private grief, not for public display either for religious or social reasons.


  Post medieval tombs could depict women who had died in childbirth with their dead babies in their arms, but apart from the little chrysom brasses, this is not found in pre-Reformation tombs, which is one of the reasons the sculpture above, of a woman named as Constantia de Frecheville in the church of Scarcliffe, Derbyshire, is most likely a fake, or at least a mashup of a tomb effigy and an image of the Virgin Mary. Different ages present their sentiments and emotions in different ways.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Heritage Sites: Trendy and Not Trendy

  
  During the course of sorting and optimising hundreds of old photographs in order to be able to use them online, I am beginning to see through some of the filters which we put on our interpretation of the past. This was part of the point of the exercise. The way we see medieval sites today is mediated through hundreds of years of history, and yet what we see in front of our eyes, tidied and explained by the heritage industry, defines our perception of people, societies, communities and events.
  The above is an engraving of Rievaulx Abbey in beautiful North Yorkshire, derived from a drawing by Turner. It practically defines our image of a Cistercian abbey, even though it was utterly dead and ruinous at the time of its depiction. We imagine something isolated and silent in a wild landscape of unpopulated hills. We imagine the monks walking solemnly, without chatter, no sound echoing off the hills but the melodic singing of the offices. It's a kind of comforting image in today's frantic world.
  The engraving conforms to what we know about the practicalities of Cistercian monasteries. They did build in isolated sites away from towns. The location in the bottom of the valley and the romantic little stone bridge in the foreground indicate their relationship with running water, for sanitation and for rural production.



  This romantic imaging was perpetuated by post-medieval owners of the site. From the Rievaulx Terraces, now managed by the National Trust, there were gaps cut through the trees and shrubbery to provide a series of picturesque views of the simple but grand and stately remains. You can imagine the matin bell tolling across the peaceful valley.
  In fact, this would have been a busy community. While the monks said their offices, an army of lay brothers carried out the practical duties around the place. There were rural estates providing income and provisions for the community, with the necessary comings and goings. There were important visitors staying in the guest house. There were masons and builders continually adding and renovating. Those massive churches and cloisters were not just deposited there by the angels. There were mills grinding flour and breweries making beer and armies of cooks toiling away in large kitchens. It was probably busier and noisier then than it is now, even on a bank holiday.



  Fountains Abbey (above) and Rievaulx Abbey are visited by thousands of people taking in the medieval Cistercian experience. The completeness of their remains and the delightfulness of their surrounds convince us we are immersing ourselves in that world. Other Cistercian remains in Yorkshire like Byland Abbey, Jervaulx Abbey or Roche Abbey are pleasant ruins, but perhaps a bit harder to comprehend in their incompleteness. Then there is Kirkstall Abbey.



  Situated in the middle of suburban West Yorkshire sprawl where Leeds and Bradford have kind of oozed together, it lacks the romantic charm of being marooned in a country estate. The walls are blackened with West Yorkshire industrial muck. When the Cistercians built there it was a rural site like the others, sited in a valley bottom by a river in standard form. Even by the late 18th century it appears to have still been farming land. William Bray in his Sketch of a Tour into Derbyshire ... etc etc, of 1783, decries the attitude of the owner of the Kirkstall estate, the Duke of Mountague, for allowing his cattle to wander through the church ruins.



  It is, however, as complete a ruin as either Fountains or Rievaulx and conveys the complexity of a Cistercian community just as well, albeit with an added layer of urban grime. Yet somehow, because it is in a place whose fame depends on later industrialisation, we let that override the medieval past. Medieval events and processes did not happen outside areas of industrial revolution growth. These happened over the top of them, but not all traces were obliterated.
  I recently undertook, with my good mate Sjoerd Levelt whom I have never met, the task of reading Camden's Britannia in English translation from beginning to end. We egged each other along by tweeting the experience with the hashtag #DoomBritain. It was notable that Camden had as many murderous tales of the medieval aristocracy, dodgy etymologies and mythological historical events for Doncaster and Halifax, Pontefract and Leeds, as he did for the more romantically preserved medieval places.



  The family medievalist grew up in the industrial towns of the West Riding and was amazed to discover that there are fine medieval alabaster tombs, albeit a little browned by their environment, in Batley, for example. He lived there at one time and didn't imagine such things were to be found in the townscape of dreary terraces and housing estates which characterise parts of West Yorkshire.



  Thornhill, now practically a suburb of Leeds, also has a share of fine medieval tomb monuments, just as elegant as those on the Harewood estate but less romantically situated.



  It also has some fine 15th century stained glass, of the York school but showing that you don't have to be surrounded by lovely white wedding cake walls in order to have some treasures.



  A similar mindset applies to older remains. Hadrian's Wall is typified in our thoughts as a lonely set of outposts stretching across empty bits of Britain. I took the same photographs as everybody else does. In fact, for the one above there could be a little platform with footmarks in it to show you how to get that same shot.



  Things do keep changing though. There have been ongoing excavations at Vindolanda to reveal more about the settlement history. Bits of the wall in other areas have been repaired. But even more interesting, the foundations of the end of the wall at Wallsend have been discovered, not in the remote wastes of Northumberland or Cumbria but under the cleared remains of a now defunct shipyard by the river Tyne. The industrial drama of the 19th and 20th centuries has had its time upon the stage and exited, leaving traces of the earlier history still there. This keeps happening all over Britain. Our perception of medieval and earlier heritage cannot be constrained by post-medieval romanticism. To get a true picture we must look for the traces in our more modern landscapes as well.
  I remember once getting slightly lost in the middle of the city of London. I was doing the revolving lighthouse thing trying to get my bearings amid a forest of steel and glass towers with no reference points except the street names like Pudding Lane and Bread Street, harking right back to the Great Fire and beyond. It doesn't go away, it's just hiding.



  Hull, washed up old port and fishing town, bombed to bits in the Second World War, is a bit of a daggy elderly place. I don't know where discussions are up to right now but they were contemplating burying a bit of their history, the Beverley gate foundations, to save the bother of looking after it. You can't imagine that happening in York. They would be having a re-enactment every year of the citizens telling the king to "booger off", all wearing funny hats and big 17th century boots.
  I'm not sure what the moral of this story is, except that heritage should not just be about romanticism, but about history. Help people to find it in the places where it is not so easily seen.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Not Just a Big Church

  I have recently become aware that, with all the nattering on Twitter about Camden and blogging about tombs,  I still have about a zillion roughly digitised old photographs to clean up and sort, including numbers that I took of monasteries, cathedrals, hospitals and collegiate churches. What fascinated me about these institutions is how they were entire communities among themselves, connected into the greater society but at least partially self supporting, with their own networks and hierarchies.
  In fact, the western medieval church can be seen as a society in itself, part of the society of the nations where it resided but not entirely of them, partly a transnational social system with its own rules and structures. As is well known, the relations between secular governments and church authority could get seriously bumpy at times.
  The nature of church society and its relationship with secular society changed drastically over the course of the medieval era. There is an image of monks of the Dark Ages living solitary, ascetic lives of literate scholarship, apart from secular society. By the 15th century monasteries were big business enterprises of major economic significance and senior churchmen were influential people wheeling and dealing in the land. In my investigations of important medieval towns (now a defunct multimedia project waiting for a Lazarus revival), it became apparent just what proportion of town real estate had become the property of major church institutions of various kinds. Their impressions on the townscape can still be seen today, even if there is not a stone to show above ground. The big institutions of 19th century urban revival, such as railway stations, libraries, museums or theatres, were often built on land that had formerly belonged to long departed friaries, collegiate churches or the appurtenances to cathedrals. There must have been something there in the meantime, but presumably nothing that couldn't be knocked down.
  It is these accidents of survival and destruction that give us our impression of the medieval church through heritage monuments. I have started tweeting some of these pictures with the hashtag #notjustabigchurch as I go along, to try to build up a picture of the whole pattern.


  The magnificent Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire preserves much of its structure and complexity, giving us a glimpse of all the facets of life that were conducted there. Because Cistercian abbeys were usually tucked away in remote spots, it wasn't worth anyone's trouble to try to cart away the raw materials. So we have a mental image of monasteries as tucked away in the romantic hills as isolated communities. But they are now ruins. After the Reformation, Fountains Abbey served as a large garden ornament.


  Town monasteries that had the good fortune to be converted to cathedrals at the Reformation, like Peterborough above, at least avoided the fate of demolition of their churches, but the survival of all the conventual buildings was dubious, and of course they became crowded around with all the modern appurtenances; living things still, not fossils of an ancient type of society.


  The abbey church of Selby survived by becoming a parish church, but no cloister or conventual buildings remain at all. It is now just a big church, and offers few hints about the community that founded, developed, lived and worshipped in it.


  In the major towns, the four orders of friars steadily commandeered quantities of inner city space and their institutions were large and sprawling. Blackfriars' Hall in Norwich was the nave of a huge Dominican preaching church. It and the other surviving buildings and fragments in the complex give some idea of the scope of these enterprises, but these are rare survivals in the towns.


  Fragments may survive as multiply re-used fragments, as in the remains of the Dominican Friary in Gloucester. This is a rather desolate wreckage.


  Or there might be some poor decontexted abandoned relic, like this isolated tower from the Franciscan church in Richmond, Yorkshire. Or there might be a few sculpted stones in a heap, or a street called Blackfriars Lane, or a car park with a king buried under it, or nothing recognisable at all. It is very hard to conjure up the lives of the friars from the relics of built heritage that are left behind.


  Collegiate churches, occupied by secular canons rather than monks, were also complex communities. Because they didn't serve as parish churches, they became extraneous and many became ruinous, partly ruinous or lost. Beverley Minster got lucky, but was only saved in the nick of time before the north transept fell down. The lumpy green pasture beside it once housed an archbishop's palace, but it and all other buildings of community living are vanished. Some undistinguished buildings by the minster hold the remains of canons' houses in their innards.


  In York in the 1970s there were scruffy little inner city alleyways where you could find mysterious stuff like this, right near the tourist hub of the minster as you can see. This area has all been rejuvenated, consolidated and beautified. It was the Bedern, where the vicars choral who did duty in the Minster lived and ate and carried out their private devotions. The whole community was lost under the jumble of close packed later building. It wasn't just the monasteries that formed communities, the secular clergy had them as well.


  Hospitals were also large religious communities, housing members of religious orders as well as the lay inmates who were being cared for. St Cross Hospital in Winchester has enough surviving structure to give an impression of this communal life, as well as still carrying out something that resembles its original function. Many others fell to decay after the Reformation, during a couple of centuries when charitable provision became a bit dodgy.
  I am continuing to plough through the photographs, hoping to eventually be able to put something together to show how these communities within communities functioned. I am slogging my way through monastic communities right now. The work in progress can be seen on my Flickr site as a monastic collection. Tasters can be found by following the hashtag #notjustabigchurch on Twitter. 
  Meanwhile, I haven't abandoned medieval tombs or my travels with Leland or manuscripts and paleography. Everything in its own good time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 14 What Happened to Them During the Middle Ages?

  We have a mental concept of tomb memorials as being forever: an eternal reminder of those we have lost and perhaps a reminder to the world of who we are on the basis of who our ancestors were. Medieval tombs seem to have been part of a process; aids to passing from this world to the next and not necessarily designed for eternity. I have been flogging the concept of liminality in this series, and how the doctrine of purgatory gave a formal church structure to this concept, which is found in some form in practically every culture.
  Certainly tombs were destroyed through accidents of history, but there are some cliches lurking around on this subject. Yes, Henry VIII  dissolved and repossessed the monasteries, destroying many church structures and their contents in the process. Nasty bastard that he was, nevertheless it doesn't seem that he set about attempting to destroy every tomb in the land, just the ones that were in the way. The Reformation put an end to purgatory, but there were ways of modifying the memorial to the family ancestors without destroying it utterly. More on that another day. Puritans knocked medieval religious art around, but tombs have survived where stained glass or wall paintings have been demolished.
  There are clues that in the medieval period itself, tombs were destroyed, removed or re-used. First let's contemplate the logistics. Churches were for saying mass and the office, and for the congregation to worship. The most prestigious place for burial and commemoration was in the chancel near the altar. Over the centuries, how many people vied for that coveted spot, especially in a small village church? And how many times were they replaced?



  The tiny church of Coates-by-Stow in Lincolnshire. Not much room for competitive mortuary commemoration in a minute space like this.
  Spending a bit of the family fortune on building a mortuary chapel might ensure continuity by claiming a bit of real estate in the church, but it is intriguing how often these chapels contain tombs from a limited period of time, somehow just representing the salad days of a local dynasty.


  The St Quentin chapel in Harpham church on the East Yorkshire wolds contains tombs from a range of dates and styles; stone, incised slab and brasses from the 14th and 15th centuries as well as post-medieval wall monuments. Symbolic of family significance over centuries in a small rural village.



  On the other hand, the alabaster tombs of Harewood in Yorkshire represent a more limited time span. They were originally located in a family chapel, but have been moved around the church over time. I wrote about these in a previous post.

  Churches got added to and altered over the course of the middle ages, as evidenced by the changes to architectural styles within individual buildings. Fittings and furnishings and monuments would have got moved around. The mortal remains of those buried there got moved around. There was probably a time after which these things had served their religious, spiritual and ceremonial usefulness. The reasons for preserving the tomb of a family ancestor may have shifted into the social sphere, where they were always grounded in the first place, but vigilance of surviving family would have been required to conserve the relics of family honour.



  In Eastrington church, Yorkshire, a couple of stone effigies have been roughly squared off and used to patch a gap in the wall. Heaven knows when this was done, but these objects were clearly only valued for their raw materials by this time.
  Before effigy tombs became the big thing, those buried inside the church were commemorated with flat or low relief slabs set into the floor. Sometimes these bore identifying inscriptions, and sometimes not. Often they were inscribed with symbols such as a sword, keys, shears, chalice to identify the profession or status of the individual commemorated, as well as a variant on the crucifix, often in the elaborated form known as a floriated cross. These have been moved around the churches, often to sites unrelated to places of burial.



  A floriated cross slab in the church of Sproatley, East Yorkshire, with a depiction of a chalice and paten, indicating that it commemorated a priest. It has an inscription, which is far from universal with these slabs. It leans against the wall, which is often where these things got parked when discovered in odd places during the course of church restorations.
  Such tomb slabs are also easy material for reappropriation. All that is needed is to carve a new inscription, or simply place it in a new setting.



  This floriated cross slab from Aldborough, North Yorkshire, has been reappropriated with a later inscription carved over the base of the cross, upside down to the original. The incised heraldic shield has been given a modern coat of paint.
  The porch of Bakewell church in Derbyshire contains numerous tomb slabs of this type, propped against the wall, no longer where they were placed for the death ceremonies of those they were commemorating. The church of Brancepeth in county Durham suffered a disastrous fire in 1998, after which it was discovered that numbers of these tomb lids had been hidden in the walls. These are preserved, but no longer in their place of honour.



    This is just a sample of the slabs at Bakewell, representing more tombs than you could imagine artfully arranged on the floor at any one time and highly suggestive that they had a limited life in their original position.

  The reappropriation of effigy tombs is at its most unequivocal in the case of some brasses.The earliest brasses in England were large, hefty things containing much metal. Some of them were big rectagonal plates imported from Flanders. Sometimes when later medieval brasses have been lifted from the floor for restoration or whatever, it has been discovered that they have been made from these larger, older sheets, turned over and cut up. These are referred to as palimpsests, a term appropriated somewhat inaccurately from manuscript studies, where a palimpsest refers to a sheet of parchment which has been scraped down and written over the top.



  Rubbing of a rather sweet little 16th century brass, just post-Reformation but in medieval tradition, from Ossington in Nottinghamshire. The date is 1551, just before the succession of Queen Mary, but the brass has an inscription invoking prayers for the souls of the departed, just showing that everything was not as simple as some folks would like to believe.



  Photograph of a rubbing of the reverse of the brass, showing that it is made of buts cut out of a larger and bolder composition. Some bits look like the mass vestments of a priest and there is a little dog at the feet of a figure.




  The above represent two sides of the same plate, which has simply been flipped and a new image engraved on the reverse, from Halvergate in Norfolk. The earlier figure is a friar, Frater William Jernmuth and the later one is identified as the wife of Robard Swane (d.1540). You might be forgiven for thinking that the lady is no improvement on the original composition.

  In many cases it is clear that tomb effigies have been moved around the church, sometimes placed on tombs where they don't fit, or the tombs themselves have been moved into smaller spaces with the loss of some of their panelling. Sections of panelling don't always match. It may be quite unclear when this has actually happened, but I am sure it is not all post-Reformation vandalism. The builders of the royal tombs of Westminster Abbey were quite unfazed about hacking into and damaging those of previous monarchs. There is a previous post about this too.



  A tomb in Eastrington, Yorkshire, which appears to be made up from a miscellany of ill assorted panels.

  The ceremonies of death had a range of time cycles, as mentioned in a previous post. Some of these were in the period leading up to actual interment and others continued after death. Just how much depended on wealth and status. The most wealthy and elevated might acquire a chantry chapel where a priest was employed to say continuous masses for years, or until the endowment ran out.



  An elaborate chantry chapel in Exeter cathedral. These things tend to be found in large major churches, I guess for obvious reasons.

  For lesser mortals the priest might be paid to say mass on various commemoration dates and anniversaries, while the poorest and simplest had to make do with an annual prayer for the souls of all who had no other conduit to the almighty. By the late middle ages the access to church rituals had gone a long way from the teachings of Jesus.
  The artistic effort of these rituals included the use of expensive but ephemeral materials; banners, hangings, fabric drapery and quantities of fancy beeswax candles. Possibly rough freestone tomb effigies covered with fragile and delicate gesso designs and painted in a riot of colours may have been regarded as expensive ephemera. Ritual destruction of wealth has been a feature of funerary commemoration in many cultures of the past. Spend a bucketload of money on an expensive effigy which might only last until the one for the next generation replaces it and you are a rich and powerful person indeed.
  Perhaps that is why so many battered effigies are found in tiny little country churches. They may simply represent the last person in the village to be able to afford such extravagance.