Sunday, August 23, 2015

Flying Solo on the Word Wild Web

  I have had a website on medieval paleography and written culture up and running for around 15 years now, with my email contact on it. This blog has been running for a few years. A Flickr site has been up for a couple of years I guess, initially just for my personal use to help me organise and put into usable digital form a large and messy collection of photographs, but now with some embryonic developing projects. I also tweet in order to keep in touch with people and keep up to date with things. They all provide channels of communication.
  Periodically I get little waves of communication through email, blog comments or tweets, some of which seem slightly peculiar. I guess when you get out of the institutional environment where the protocols of communication and the hierarchies of expertise are carefully mapped, you get different perspective on how people perceive knowledge and expertise. As the various modes of internet communication have developed, the nature of the chains of communication has changed.
  In the early days a common request was from schoolkids wanting answers to very simple questions, or suggestions on subjects for their projects. When I hinted that I thought the idea of their school exercise was to look things up for themselves, I sometimes got told that the teachers had told them to get on the internet and ask somebody. Teachers have got a lot more savvy about the use of the internet since then and I haven't had one of those for a long time.



  
  I do remember that one of these ran along the lines of "I have to do a project on saints. Do you know any good ones?" Erm. The randomly selected one above is from St Mary Castlegate in York.

  Another common communication from the early days involved suggestions for external links for my website, often to very generalised link pages like about.com or Wikipedia or even student assignments or the little hobby pages of individuals pasted together out of scraps from other parts of the internet. With the vast amount of valuable and authoritative information now being loaded on to the internet by all manner of organisations and institutions, these suggestions tend to get drowned in the flood. Replying to such suggestions involved care and discretion.
  Wikipedia has come a long way since then, even if it still has a lot further to go. One strange discussion got entangled with medieval nomina sacra abbreviations and the Holy Trinity. I know a bit about the first but get a bit lost in the haze with the intricacies of the second, but I remember having to try to explain, as tactfully as possible, that writing an article for Wikipedia then citing it yourself isn't the most totally convincing mode of academic argument, especially back in those days when conflicting views on Wikipedia dissolved into all in cyberbrawls.




  Symbolic representations in Thornhill church, Yorkshire.

  A facet which continues to this day is the belief that anyone publishing on the web is  a recognised world expert, and furthermore, in a vast array of fields. I have been asked questions on obscure aspects of paleography, textual history and analysis, iconographic representation, authenticity, stuff dug up by metal detectorists, medieval law, medicine and heraldry. Heraldry! I wish the College of Arms would put up a decent website that at least explains some of the concepts of heraldry and why no single individual, let alone one who has never got very deeply into the subject, knows the coats of arms of everyone who ever bore one from the dawn of the concept to the days of somebody's grandfather's boarding school. I've been sent pictures of arms on things from seals to teaspoons to 19th century boilerplates. 



  All Saints North Street, York. Treasure house of glass.

  Then there is the business of reading the legends on seals. Fortunately most of them just say SIGILLUM FREDDI MERCURI or some such, but that always seems to be disappointing to the inquirer. They think they contain coded information. I did manage to partially untangle a trickily organised inscription in old French on a gold ring once (Yay.) but the finder was taking it to the British Museum anyway and I'm sure they did a much better job.
  The queries about reading old stuff can be diverse and intriguing. I love the letters from folks who have been trying to decipher something for ten years but think I should knock it off for them over the weekend, with my vast knowledge of every script in use before about 1900 and every language known to man. Sometimes it's only something they've bought on eBay or in an antique shop and you're not sure why they want to know anyway. Other times it's some family thing that they suspect contains an amazing privilege, or links to great people or events, or perhaps the ownership of a suppressed abbey reclaimed by the crown and granted to a family ancestor. 
  The latter are sometimes very secretive. They want to show you something of their Amazing Document, but they don't actually want you to know what is in it, in case you gazump them and go claim their abbey or something. So they send a picture of a little corner of it, often chopped off without whole words being displayed and you can't see the whole alphabet or how the letters go together. When you say you think it looks 15th century or whatever, but you really don't have enough information to tell them much else, they think you're holding out on them.



  Any offers? Glastonbury.

  There have been some interesting documents cross my tracks this way. Acquittances from the Hundred Years War. A bit of marginalia in a different script to the main text by someone doing a transcription. I got the letters out but didn't know what it meant. One of his academic pals recognised the text when they were having a night at the pub. Nice to participate in an academic pub discussion in Glasgow from this end of the world. A very creepy Reformation era clerical confession found by somebody scrunched up in a hole in a beam in their ancient house. I think I found it more interesting than they did when I ascertained it wasn't about the house.
  Occasionally I have had images sent of things that have already been transcribed and published. When I've asked why they are reinventing the wheel they have replied that they believe something is incorrect, omitted, wrongly interpreted, but they can't actually read the thing themselves. Three mysteries here. Why would you set off on a project that you don't have the skills to carry out? Why would you think a previous transcription or interpretation is wrong if you can't read the original? Why would you contact a random unknown person on the internet to aid your cause? Demur politely on those. Not my specific area of interest.
  Absolutely on the rejection list are people who want their manuscript treasures valued. I had to put a specific disclaimer on the Medieval Writing website about that one. No way, no bloody way! Rather more strange are the people who want to know what I paid for my little medieval scraps. I even had somebody once demanding to buy one. Perhaps they think I'm running a clandestine manuscript scraps business on the side.



  Not for sale. Not even the strange Spanish ones with curly wurly writing that I can't read and mysterious notary's marks.

  There are people who send pictures of their treasures wanting them identified in some way, who then get slightly miffed if you don't give them the answer they were looking for. An intriguing oddity is the desire for something to be older than it is, even if it is old and interesting already. Then they want to claim they have the oldest whateveritis in the universe. Or they have read somewhere that a certain script, notation, style first appears in the xth century, so theirs has to be at least that old. I tend to go on a simple assessment that if it swims, quacks and waddles it's probably a duck, not a pterodactyl. But feel free to ask somebody else. Nope. They want to convince me. They don't understand that I really don't care.



  An old German duck. Mine. From the same scrap of codex as somebody else's pterodactyl.

  The type of query that baffles me particularly is when somebody wants me to give a one line, definitive answer to something that is the subject of academic debate. If I refer them to some reading, they say no, they want to know what I think. Why? Am I some kind of international umpire? Why do they think I'm qualified to speak on these diverse debates? The weirdest ones come from people who are interested in (Dare I mention it?) the Voynich Manuscript. Quiet now. I have been informed that the VM was written by a Hungarian mystic, that it is in old Dutch, that its mysteries can be solved through the study of late antique beekeeping. VM assertions and queries seem to travel in waves. I once got so sick of them that I wrote a blog post asserting that it was written by Leonard of Quirm (a Terry Pratchett character) and was so screwed up because it had been altered by travelling through the space-time continuum from Discworld. I then got an email from a person who had been trying, valiantly and apparently fruitlessly, to maintain a sensible and sane website on the VM saying that because of me he had had to put up a posting explaining to people the meaning of the word "parody". 

  One of the interesting aspects of having an open, non-institutional web presence is that you can get engaged in intriguing cross-disciplinary discussions. Legal contracts in the digital age or modern urban linguistics or medical science can have roots in the medieval past and there are experts in suchlike fields who are interested to explore them. It is surprising that academics out of their field can be as naive about methods of investigation as members of the general public. They can also be just as inclined to want you to do their basic searching for them. "Do you know of images of ... from medieval manuscripts?" Try the British Library images or Gallica for starters. Ten minutes later, when they couldn't possibly have exhausted those, "Aren't there any others?" Try Sexy Codicology. You can find them all there. Nevertheless this does open up interdisciplinary communication, and may even engender some mutual respect between workers in different areas. The disciplinary boundaries are very hard to breach in the seminar room or academic journal, where walls are built for protection against wolves.
  The madly enthusiastic hobbyists can also generate some great discussion, even if the protagonists get a bit carried away with their obsessions sometimes. I have had a swag of correspondence, by email and blog comment, on the subject of formulations for medieval ink. One modern scribe even wanted to send me a pot of his brew and had to be firmly dissuaded because of what customs and security might make of a vial of nasty, toxic brown stuff in the post. The longest and most enthusiastic blog comments were on this subject, with folks posting their favourite recipes and chemists and paleographers locked in mortal combat.
  The opportunity for such freewheeling discussion has been limited by the curse of blog comment advertising spam. It does seem that blog hosts have thrown in the towel on ridding the airwaves of this noxious menace. I can't even see what point it has for the spammers as I don't see how they can get to a target audience by this means. I guess the open invitation discussions just have to migrate to other internet forums.
  I hope this hasn't read like a long whinge or just a series of funny shaggy dog stories, because there is a point here about engagement outside the academic community. When I first started with this stuff, the university mob were more than disinterested. They were determined that they were not going to engage in this nonsense outside the limits of their traditional academic debating forums. A younger generation of academics is changing the way these things operate and using all the digital tools at their command. However, it would be a shame if this was just used to build fenced academic communities in cyberspace. Engaging with folks outside the ivory tower means understanding the interests, skills and aspirations of those who are not members of a club whose rules have been drummed into all its members.
  Personally, I think all academics should learn or be taught how to write outside their disciplinary environment. Some do. Some don't. Some won't. You can learn at least as much as you teach.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Medieval Graffiti and Medieval Marginalia

  In the area of medieval studies it often seems that armies of scholars are marching in serried ranks over well trodden ground again and again and again. It seems the last drops of blood are being squeezed from the pallid corpses of Geoffrey Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, King John and the barons and all the other usual suspects. The vocabulary of the discourse becomes more obscure and dense, so that the conversation becomes incomprehensible to all but an inner circle.
  It is a rare and wondrous thing to find a whole area of study which is still begging for primary, grass roots research to be done, because even the basic field recording is hugely incomplete. Enter the wide green open pastures of medieval graffiti.


  Medieval Graffiti, by Matthew Champion (2015, Ebury Press: London) is a summary of the current state of this still largely unexplored area of study by its most enthusiastic protagonist. The book not only explores what is known, but why it is important to know it, as the scratchings and incisions on the walls of churches, and other buildings, give a different perspective on the use and life of the building to that propounded by the official church hierarchy. That's why he refers to them as the lost voices. 
 There is a current trend in medieval manuscript studies to investigate not only the formal text in the main central rectangle of the page, but the marginalia which has been added by readers, rubricators, editors, critics and occasionally bored scholars. The bit in the middle is the official version of the text, sanctioned by the author, compiler and in many cases the authorities of the church. The marginalia gives some clues as to how readers responded to the text. This study has been given the handle reception theory. Personally, I think there is no such thing as reception theory, but my background in the dim distant past was in science where the word theory had a particular meaning. There is such a thing as reception studies; the study of responses to a text, and the way readers made it their own.
  The marginalia in question can be part of the formal design scheme, as added by an illustrator. All those farting bishops, monkeys with urine flasks and the famous nun picking penises off a tree have been discussed as a kind of commentary on the text. Text marginalia can become a formal and approved part of the main text, as in the Bible gloss. Marginalia can also be doodlings, pen trials, ownership inscriptions, corrections, addenda and occasionally rude comments about colleagues. They can be partially erased, and even that poses questions. Taken together, they bring a range of readers and users into the story of the book, expanding the concept of the use of the text.
  Medieval graffiti is to church art and architecture studies as marginalia is to manuscript studies. Church authorities designed and approved the central scheme, but the buildings were part of normal social and religious life. In various ways people appropriated them and made their own comments, not necessarily church sanctioned, but not church disapproved either. It is both claiming ownership and revealing parts of medieval life not recorded in official accounts. It is reception studies for buildings.
  The book gives a broad overview of the current state of these studies, emphasising that there are many parts of England that have not yet been extensively surveyed and there is much basic data yet to be collected. It is divided into multiple short chapters (21 chapters in around 250 pages), each briefly examining a particular class of graffiti or general aspect of the subject. It is very much a general survey and written in an accessible style for any literate person who finds this kind of thing interesting. Nevertheless it is apparent that the author has done considerable background research in various historical sources to get the basic scheme in place.
  While it is clear that it is written in a popular history style, the trained academic in me itches a bit with a book that has no bibliography and also no citation of original historic sources. Where is the commonplace book of Robert Reynes? Which several sources? What authorities? Where could I get my hands on those records? No, you wouldn't like it to read like an academic conference paper, but I have satiable courteosity, like the elephant's child.
  By separating all the types of graffiti into different categories, the author emphasises that they may all have different functions and meanings, even if these are not well understood. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on mass dials. Apart from the fact that they should really be called divine office dials (They didn't say mass every time.), the priest would have known when to say his offices by looking out the window and the laity mostly didn't attend. The existence of multiple examples on one church would certainly seem to be extraneous. Makes you wonder whether the act of making one of these was a devotional act or process in itself. Like all the different types and styles of graffiti, there are more questions than answers.
  The amazing thing about these markings in a public space is that they have been so overlooked. I was amazed at the places where these things abound, and where I have been many times without the slightest awareness of them. I mean Beverley Minster for one. Must be blind as a bat. I even found one on an old photograph I took many years ago and hadn't even mentally processed it.


  There it is, on an alabaster tomb in Harewood church in Yorkshire.
  One of the most delightful things about the medieval graffiti projects is that they are genuine community efforts involving teams of volunteers who are doing the basic research. A very enthusiastic mob they are too. This has to be a credit to Matthew Champion himself, as director of the Norfolk and Suffolk Graffiti Survey. Volunteers are sometimes treated like odd job people on large projects, but this lot are clearly engaged with their work and self motivated to do their church exploring. When they find something good they are on Twitter, tweeting like sparrows. It can only make the cause prosper.
  The book is nicely produced and illustrated and largely free of typos, but .... well I shouldn't. I mean there's always one that gets through. But when it's a good one ... p.220 "Misericords ... often decorated with strange cravings ..." Sorry Matt. Done a bit of editing and I just can't help myself.
  So all power to the ongoing graffiti projects. It will be interesting to see continuing results. And next time I get to England I might find myself not photographing tombs but peering quizzically at walls.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 13: Female Fashion

  I have been holding off writing this one because, whenever I have something to say on medieval women's fashion, I am assailed by medieval re-enactors who insist that every item of clothing or ornament has a correct name which must be used on every single occasion, and who then want to know the technicalities of how you get your headdress to stay that way. Well this is about the concept of women's fashion, how it is expressed on funerary monuments, and how it relates to the depiction of males during this period of competitive social stratification.
  As mentioned in previous posts, the period in which effigy tombs became popular, for those that could afford them, was a period of rapid change in armour, and in the presentation of the fighting man. It was also a period of rapid change in women's fashion. Whether or not they always dressed to the nines, they were certainly depicted in the very latest on their tomb monuments.



  The earliest female monuments of the 13th to early 14th centuries, such as the one above from Appleton-le-Street church in Yorkshire, show a standardised form of female clothing. The drapery of the dress is swirly and enveloping, but can reveal the curves of the body in a sculptural way. The headdress is simple and includes a wimple which covers the neck. It is a very sculptural form, like the crosslegged knights who so often accompany these ladies. This is emphasised by the fact that any surface treatment with gesso and paint has usually disappeared under the influence of time, weather and church restorers.



  This lady from Bedale in North Yorkshire is another example of this style, with a very billowy style of drapery that seems to be there for its three dimensional effect rather than the meticulous depiction of a particular style of frock. (OK medieval re-enactors, I know they didn't call them frocks. It's a generic word.)
  Around the middle of the 14th century, ladies' fashion suddenly happened. It could be argued (OK, OK, I am arguing) that increasing social mobility caused by the many disasters and accidents of the 14th century became expressed in competitive dressing, as well as eating, entertaining, posh book ownership and prancing around in the latest military equipment, not to mention building fancier houses. Interestingly, one chronicler blamed it all on an influx of Belgians to the court of Edward III and his queen Philippa of Hainault.



  The above is from a text of the Brut Chronicle (British Library add. ms. 33242, f.140-141) and is the first part of a rant about wicked modern fashion which reads as follows:


and yn th (this)
tyme Englishmen so moche haunted and cleved
to the woodnesse and foly of the stranngers the fro
the tyme of the comyng of the henandes (henanders) xviii yer
passyd they ordeyned and channged he (hem) evy (every) yer
dyvse (dyverse) shapp (shappus) and disgysing of clothyng of longe
large and brod and wide clothis destitut and dys-
hert from all old honest and good usage and any
tyme shorte clothis and strete wasted jaged and
cutt on evy (every) side to flateryd and botoned w (with) slevys
and tepetes of surketeve and hodys ov (over) longe and
large and ov (over) moche hangyng that y sothe shall
say they were lyke to tourmentos (tourmentors) and devellus yn
her clothyng and showyng and oth (other) aray tha (than) to
men (menn) and the women (womenn) more nycely yett passid the
men (menn) in aray and koryosloker for they were so strete
[new page]
clothyd that they lett hong fox tayles sowed beneth (benethe)
within forthe her clothis for to hyll and hyd here
ars the which disgysing and pde (pride) paventur (peraventur) aftur-
ward brought forthe and encaused many myshapps
and myschevys yn the reme of England.

or in modern English

In this time Englishmen so much adhered to the madness and folly of the foreigners, that from the time of the coming of the Hainaulters 18 years before, they ordained and changed every year diverse shapes and disguisings of clothing. They were of long, large and broad clothes destitute, and desert from all old honest and good usage. At any time they wore short and narrow clothes, jagged and cut on every side to flatter (flatten?), and buttoned, with the sleeves and tippets of their surcoats and hoods over long and large and hanging down over much, so that in truth it could be said they were like tormentors or devils in their clothing and adornment and other array rather than men. The women more nicely yet passed the men in array and curious appearance, for they were so scantily clothed that they let hang fox tails sewn inside their clothes to hill (enhance?) and hide their arses. This disguising and pride perhaps afterward brought forth and caused many mishaps and mischiefs in the realm of England.

  You can look at this in detail on the Medieval Writing website here.

  I don't know about the mishaps and mischiefs, but fashion certainly became a thing. The foolishnesses of male fashion as derided above were not so often to be found in 14th century effigy tombs, as grand tombs were mainly the preserve of the knightly classes, who preferred to be depicted in the latest suit of armour. Certainly not much mischief to be got up to in one of those.



  This tiny little male civilian figure from a brass, possibly from the head of a floriated cross, from Hampsthwaite in Yorkshire shows the disgraceful male attire; very short garment with lots of leg showing, extraneous flappy bits and a gross excess of buttons. Obviously decadent. Such attire is much depicted in illuminated manuscripts from this period, from which it can be seen that really stupid shoes and bizarre hats go with the look as well.



  This is a battered example from West Tanfield in Yorkshire, but it shows how ladies' fashions became more revealing. The wimple disappeared, exposing the neck. Great holes were cut in the sides of the outer garment, revealing the undies. The outer garment was cut closer to the body, revealing more of the shape beneath. And there were off the shoulder capes, extraneous flappy bits on sleeves and dozen of buttons along tight fitting sleeves and down the front of dresses. There is no evidence from tombs to confirm or deny that they wore fox tails under their skirts to make their bums look bigger.



  Headdresses became diverse and elaborate, as with this frilly number on the brass of a lady from Bothamsall in Nottinghamshire. This also shows the rows of buttons on the sleeves. You are obviously a person who does not have to fill up their day with menial tasks if it takes you, or your servant, half the morning to do up your sleeve buttons.



  Most tombs lack the surface treatment of gesso and paint these days, but surviving examples and battered relics show that texture and colour were used to depict the intricacies of complex and expensive imported fabrics making up the ladies' garments. The tomb of Lady Elizabeth Montague (d.1354) in St Frideswide's cathedral, Oxford gives a hint at how lavishly these effigies, and their clothing, could be depicted. The illustrations above is from C.A. Stothard 1840 The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain: London.



  Fashions as depicted on tombs changed rapidly during the course of the 15th century, with headgear becoming increasingly elaborate. This lady from Swine in Yorkshire dates from around the beginning of the 15th century.




  This rubbing of a brass of Lady Agnes Routh from Routh in Yorkshire shows the extravagant styling of the early 15th century, with a highwaisted style and huge billowing sleeves deploying acres of fabric and an elaborately constructed headdress. Her cuffs and collar are blank as they once contained some sort of inlay, probably representing fur. This is a lady from a tiny nondescript village in East Yorkshire, but she is presented as the height of glamour. I suspect that the emphasis on rapidly changing fashion is a reflection of the social conditions of the times, repudiating ancient lineage as the doorway to privilege and emphasising displays of current wealth as the signifiers of status.




  As with the knights, the increasing use of alabaster for high status tombs in the 15th century allowed for intricate depictions of fine surface detail, showing the minutiae of hair ornament, jewellery and fastenings. Even when they have lost all their colour there is much detail to explore. The above example is from Ashbourne in Derbyshire.




  And here is a beautiful later 15th century lady from Methley in Yorkshire wearing a tall, almost turban-like headdress with the fabric texture depicted, because you just can't have too many alabasters. She is sporting plenty of bling with her rings and necklace.



  The headgear just got more extravagant, as in this late 15th century brass at Raveningham in Norfolk. Note the fur collar and the nifty furry fingerless mittens. She wears the Yorkist suns and roses collar as her husband was squire to King Richard III. Some brasses showed an attempt to depict fancy brocaded fabrics, but the effect is a bit cruder than on the three dimensional tombs.



  Sometimes a lady's hair was depicted flowing down freely over her shoulders. It used to be said that this signified that they had died unmarried, but there are several examples where they are depicted this way lying next to their husbands, as in this late 15th century tomb from Batley in Yorkshire. Perhaps it is a way of suggesting that age is removed in the liminal stage of death. Certainly nobody, apart from the odd royal personage, seems to ever get depicted on their tomb as old. Once again the depiction of richly brocaded fabric on the lady's headgear is emphasised.



  The exception to following the rapidly changing vagaries of fashion were if the woman was depicted as a widow. In that case the imaging reverts to a rather shapeless garment, veil and wimple or pleated barbe covering the neck. It was the same for centuries. This example from Harewood in Yorkshire has the lady prominently displaying her rosary beads. Widowhood was a virtuous, if perilous, state.



  The fashion parade continued into the 16th century, with perhaps more emphasis on opulence rather than extravagances of style. This lady of the early 16th century from Bishop Burton in Yorkshire has furred cuffs and a very large and conspicuous girdle and chain. The headgear seems to have been the most telling item of fashion change.



  The smaller and more modest brasses of the somewhat less exalted levels of society in this era became more stereotyped. The ladies wore the latest styles, but were not so ingeniously individualised. I guess they were just more ready-to-wear kinds of monuments. It is notable that male fashion had become notably more modest than the frivolities of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. A demure long gown was fine so long as it had lots of fur and you were sporting a large purse. The above example is from Tideswell in Derbyshire.



   This group of women are subsidiary figures in a  large and elaborate brass arrangement on a table tomb in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. The main figures on the brass are wearing very complex heraldic attire, as illustrated in a previous post. These represent the female children of the deceased, and they are as alike as peas in a pod, wearing identical clothes. They are symbols of a time and place and set of relationships, but even their clothes don't distinguish them as individuals.
  For those interested in medieval fashion, tombs can provide endless hours of fascination. However, it is worth pondering what they represent. Just as the faces of the deceased are not portraits but idealised imagery, so the clothing is not so much representative of the wearer's individuality as defining a position in society. Manuscript illuminations as well as tombs depict aristocratic women as permanenty dressed for a night out with John of Gaunt and his pals. We don't know what they looked like when hanging around in their dressing gowns, or whether they had dressing gowns. Did they have lazy days in their private chambers wearing a floppy shift with their hair hanging loose?
  And no, I don't know how they kept those fancy headdresses in place.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? - Part 12 Low Relief and Half Sunk Effigies

  The fully three dimensional funerary effigies which proliferated during the 14th and 15th centuries are conspicuous and highly recognisable. Many were created in workshops which basically worked out individualising details on very stereotyped models. They were good models and they look very splendid, but it is interesting that as competition in social stratification ramped up and more people from the upper orders were commemorated in this way, these high status goods became standardised. They were Rolex watches or Mercedes cars, not old master art works.
  Some other styles of depiction appeared quite early in the era of effigial tombs and continued. They can be found dotted around the place. The are often described as oddities, but they have some of their own traditions, and the symbolism of liminality and prayer and purgatory is built in, just as in the standard workshop effigies.



  The earliest tombs in the full sized effigy tradition were of senior churchmen, such as this one of Bishop Nigel (d.1174) in Ely Cathedral. They tended to have an effigy lying under an architectural canopy, set into a solid slab. The above has the added gorgeous detail of the bishop's soul being carried in a napkin; the ultimate symbol of liminality and one that recurs here and there. Many of these tombs were made from local British marble; Purbeck, Frosterley, Alwalton and other local names which indicate their origin.



  This 13th century abbot from Peterborough is in a similar tradition. The British marbles are not true marble. Marble is metamorphosed limestone which has been subjected to heat and pressure so that its internal mineral structure is completely changed, becoming very internally uniform and hard. British marbles are incompletely metamorphosed, so they are softer and can still contain recognisable structures from the original sedimentary rock. Seashell fossils are common, for example, in Purbeck marble and so are interesting to geologists and palaeontologists as well as medieval tomb enthusiasts.
  So while they polish up to a beautiful, marbly, shiny surface, they are a bit fragile for fully three dimensional effigies, and the slabs themselves come in thinnish layers. So these early effigies are designed to fit the materials and still look impressive. The bodies are not fully cut out in the round and hands may be depicted flat rather than as flimsy projections. The half rounded effigies lying flat within their arched canopies can almost be seen as bodies within their coffins, not yet fully dead, not yet fully resurrected, but the coffin lids are open. Liminality again.





  These earlier low relief or sunken effigies could be high status. This battered and awkwardly reset slab in Beaumaris church, Wales represents Princess Joan, daughter of King John. Her praying hands are rendered flat.



  This 13th century tomb to a Lady Margery at Wistow in Yorkshire is in similar tradition. She lies under an architectural canopy that looks like it ought to be vertical, but being horizontal could serve enigmatically as an open coffin. She holds rosary beads to remind you to pray (not visible in the above picture). Above the gable of the canopy are two heads in quatrefoils, one of a bishop, another a man's head. It's not quite clear who they are supposed to be. They could be gazing down protectively from above or represent family left behind, looking up.



  The tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter (d.1205) in Canterbury Cathedral, which has no effigy, displays heads in quatrefoils around the coped lid of the tomb. It was a thing, if not a very common thing.






  The lying in an open coffin depiction occasionally occurs in later  tombs, and is not necessarily a cheap and easy alternative to the fancy but stereotyped workshop tombs. This exceedingly maltreated Decorated canopy of the early/mid 14th century covers an effigy of a priest set into a very fiddly openwork container. It is in a little known parish church of Welwick in the Holderness area of East Yorkshire and the resemblance of the fruit salady cornucopia of the superstructure to that of the Percy tomb in Beverley Minster is probably not coincidental. It would have been quite a grand thing in its day. The hand holding angels are rather sweet.
  The openwork coffin was also used in cadaver or transi tombs, as discussed in an earlier post, to allow the pious a peek at the gruesome lower layer decomposing nicely there.



  A simplified variant on this mode of depiction may just show a bust or head of the effigy and sometimes the feet, the middle part just being a plain slab. The above example is from Wadworth in Yorkshire. The architectural canopy doubling as a coffin is there, with the visible face, hands and feet suggesting that liminal time before the process of death is complete. This may be a cheaper form of commemoration than getting a full sized effigy shipped up from an expensive fancy workshop, but it contains all the necessary symbolic elements.




  This rather strange, lumpy example is from Bakewell church in Derbyshire, where dozens of old grave slabs have been re-erected in the church porch, suggesting that not only cost but church expediency may have played a part in developing this style of tomb. After all, how many crosslegged knights and ladies in flowing gowns can you accomodate in one church before they become a health hazard? At least you can walk on these, as with brasses.



  This slightly odd effigy of a priest from Moor Monkton in Yorkshire displays the head and hands in a quatrefoil, vaguely reminiscent of those details on tombs shown above.



  Some seriously bizarre renovating, retooling and relocating has occurred with these effigies in Skerne church, East Yorkshire, but the lady definitely has her head sunk in a quatrefoil. No, I don't know why the knight has a round shield or a barrister's wig. Best not to ask probably.



  These tombs can be in pretty worn and battered condition, probably because they get walked on as much as anything else. Also one does wonder how many got turfed out of the church when more recent burials were placed there, only reappearing as historic relics during church restorations. The example above from Sleaford in Lincolnshire was always simple, with a head in a round hollow and a marginal inscription.



  This weatherbeaten example from the tower of the ruined Templar church of Temple Bruer in Lincolnshire is so worn as to be barely recognisable as a tomb effigy.



  Before effigy tombs were common, a much utilised depiction on a grave slab was the crucifix, sometimes very simply depicted just by itself; sometimes with a symbol of the deceased's occupation or status such as a chalice, keys or shears; sometimes with an inscription. The more elaborate examples sprouted foliage and are taken to be a hybrid of Christian symbolism and a tree of life motif, generally referred to as a floriated cross, or foliated by the pedantic. This is not closet paganism. It occurs in perfectly regulation Christian symbolism such as the Tree of Jesse. Christians practised agriculture as well. The particularly fine dark marble one above comes from Hedon church in East Yorkshire.



  This example from Howden church in Yorkshire has a very rainwashed and effaced effigy bust under a canopy at the base of the cross. This combination also occurs in brasses, where a little figure might be kneeling at the base of a floriated cross or reside within the cross head. Cheaper, smaller, neater, not tripping up the parishioners, but quite charming.



  This slab in Sleaford church, Lincolnshire combines the face and hands sunk in the stone with the floriated cross, creating a somewhat unsettling green man type image. The habit of propping these up against the wall somewhat disturbs the liminality concept, as they are no longer looking upwards, pleading for a fast trip out of purgatory.



  This example from Gilling East in Yorkshire has various appurtenances of a knightly tomb, sword, heraldic shield and crest, flattened and set into a composition with a floriated cross. It looks a little strange but is not just an aberration from the wilds of the rural north. It embodies all the standard symbolism and tradition.



  This funny little number from Bakewell, Derbyshire looks strangely anachronistic, but probably just because of its renovated setting and inscription. The knight and lady are standard mid 14th century in presentation, but in this case only the busts of the figures exist; no little toes in a trefoil. It is a wall monument, and presumably was meant to be, but the heads are nevertheless resting on pillows. The inconsistency between vertical and horizontal, as seen in larger tombs, is still present. The hands are praying. They are anticipating.



  Some tombs really do seem to be unique. This pair of very worn and effaced effigies lie with their heads under a canopy, but their legs disappear under tracery or a vine motif. It seems an eccentric hybrid. It is in the church at Nafferton in East Yorkshire and I lived across the road from it at various times. The locals didn't reckon much to it. It does have a stylistic cousin in a nearby village.



  The church at Lowthorpe a couple of miles away has this example which is positively creepy. The two effigies lie under what may be meant to be a shroud with the tree of life motif spread all over the top of them, with very worn heads displayed at the ends of the branches. It has been suggested that they may represent their children, or that it has analogies with the Jesse tree, or both. Or do they represent their ancestors? Are the main figures at the top or the bottom of the tree? It very much personalises the usually abstracted floriated cross concept and suggests in a literal way the concept of the tree growing from the remains of the departed. So conceptually it is in the tradition, but in the specifics of execution, it has got to be unique. Nice Anglo-Saxon cross leaning casually against the wall at the head beside the historic heating pipes.



  Low relief or part sunk effigies seem to appear in random places. This supposedly 16th century priest in mass vestments appears in the 19th century church of Scorborough, East Yorkshire, presumably salvaged from its predecessor. He holds a chalice, presumably to remind the faithful not only to pray for him, but that he holds the key to the salvation of others. I am still pondering the idea that ecclesiastical accessories, and most particularly the chalice, in priestly graves, are the only real grave goods found in medieval Christian burials. Were they the only things you really could take with you?



  The tomb of Lady Furnival (d.1395) in Barlborough, Derbyshire, is carved from alabaster, but in the rather oldfashioned low relief mode rather than the standard midlands workshop mode. Don't know whether the metal cage is to keep her in, or to stop people walking on her.
  So these effigies which diverge from the standard workshop models still conform to the traditions of symbolism and essentially use the same vocabulary. They grew out of the same developing effigial tomb tradition and form a web of traditional representation with other forms, such as the floriated cross slab. They are not ignorant local productions of rural yokels too poor to buy a proper shop tomb, but more individual expressions of the same religious and social sentiments.



Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Hidden East Yorkshire That Leland Forgot

  I have been attempting to painfully assemble a project from photographs and information from outdated multimedia projects on a visual and topographical history of parts of England, particularly relating to the changes to the built landscape at the Reformation. I'm trying to rough this out on Flickr so that others can look at it and play, as I have had it in my little bottom drawer for far too long. 
  Having tried a couple of small samples as an experiment, I am now walking my way through parts of East Yorkshire. Why East Yorkshire? Because I have rambled all over it myself. It isn't as well known as it should be. It shouldn't be too dauntingly complicated. That is, until I get to York, where there is such as thing as too much information. It is conducted as a guided tour with Leland for the immediate post Reformation era, Daniel Defoe and Celia Fiennes for late 17th/early 18th century changes and a miscellany of 19th and early 20th century antiquarians for later perspectives.
  The last set looked at Hull, Hedon and surrounds, and concentrated on the changing nature of the Humber ports. This latest looks at Patrington and Holderness, that is, the part of it that hasn't been covered already. This is the most forgotten part of Yorkshire. None of our travellers commented on it extensively. It is a large triangle bounded by the North Sea, the Humber estuary and the wolds. Churches, villages and whole port towns have disappeared into the raging waters of the estuary and sea.



  Owthorne church, for example, succumbed in the early 19th century. The area has one huge and magnificent church at Patrington, which was a port in its day. It is now a church with a small village around it, but full of sculpted treasures in the Decorated style.



  The detail above shows the sleeping soldiers on the Easter Sepulchre.
  The area had no very big towns, but was relatively more prosperous in the middle ages than it became later. Many of the parish churches seem rather grand for their rural situation, and some of these fell into decay and were rebuilt in more modest style.


  The once spacious church at Garton was in a pretty bad way when this drawing was made in the early 19th century.
  There was only one major monastery in the area, the abbey at Meaux near Beverley. Not a scrap is left to be seen of it because Henry VIII had the whole lot carted away to build the defences of Hull.


  This bit of wall survived in the 19th century but I think even that is gone now.
  There were a couple of small nunneries at Swine and Nunkeeling, but they decayed to basically nothing.


  Nunkeeling church which is no more. Even its 19th century replacement has fallen to decay.
  There are no towering castles, no walled towns. So what is here that is interesting? The churches have many little surprises, especially as it seems that assorted church reforms were not as forcefully prosecuted as in places that were easier to get to.


  The rood screen of Winestead is one of several surviving, unfortunately without their paintwork. The 17th century tomb in front of it has all the medieval attributes associated with praying for the soul, apart from angels. There are some wonderful tomb effigies.


  This battered brass at Brandesburton is a fine and unusual example of its type.



  The knightly tomb at Barmston is not quite what you expect to find at the back of a seaside resort village.
  As for the rest, just take a look. Go to the Flickr album linked above, click on the first picture and off you go. There is a map and links to Google Maps aerial views when these are interesting. The whole slowly growing collection of Leland Flickr tours can be accessed here.