Monday, December 29, 2014

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 4 Cadavers

  Now I said in the last tomb posting that I would go into the social structure of tombs and funerary commemoration, but I realised that there is one particular kind of tomb that has to be investigated first. This is the problem with saving a project for thirty years before starting to write it up. You know what all the bits are and try to say everything at once. This is a work in progress.
  I have been making heavy duty points on the subject of liminality; the idea that the dead are commemorated at the threshold between life and death, and much of the purpose of that visible commemoration was to encourage people to pray for the souls of the departed to give them a boost out of purgatory. Depictions of the dead with enigmatic poses and symbolism coincide with the propagation of the doctrine of purgatory, which, of course, all turned to custard at the Reformation as puritanical minded people thought that folks were trying to cheat on the system. Everything breaks eventually.
  There is one type of tomb which takes the representation of liminality to its limit. This one.

  I discovered this in a hidden corner of the church at Hemingborough in East Yorkshire, lurking somewhere behind the organ. As you can see, the church cleaners clearly didn't fancy giving him a spruce up. For one horrible minute I thought I'd found somebody that they had forgotten to bury. This is what has been called a cadaver tomb, or a transi tomb. The latter name emphasises the liminal quality of the representation. The effigy of a corpse, liminal not in the sense of hovering between life and death, but between death and decomposition. Sometimes they are represented as a skeleton, but more usually as an emaciated corpse with blank eye sockets, hyperextended neck, sunken abdomen and muscles shrivelled to the bone. Not immediately dead, or in the early bloated phase, but pretty solidly through the process of consumption of the soft tissue, not yet reduced to bones. Sometimes worms and toads and the like have been added for extra emphasis. So much for the old myth that medieval folks didn't know about anatomical features or processes. They are shown usually partly exposed in their winding sheet which is knotted above the head.
  The example above might suggest that these effigies are feared and hidden, or represent something shameful, but that is a delicacy of modern sensibilities. These representations appeared in fine and significant tombs of important people.

  To give a non-English example just for a change, this is the transi effigy of Cardinal Jean de Lagrange in the museum of the Petit Palais in Avignon, France. It dates from the end of the 14th or early 15th century and was formerly in the church of Saint Martial in Avignon. It seems to have been part of an elegant and conspicuous construction, and the figure has the same characteristics as the English examples, with the winding sheet just preserving his modesty.

  This memorial arrangement in Fulbourn church, Cambridgeshire gives every impression of being coherent and reasonably original, unlike some tomb arrangements which appear to be cobbled together out of miscellaneous diverse pieces. That is another thought to hold for later. We are getting a few of these. Nevertheless, this is a proud tomb occupying pride of place in the chancel wall with architectural elements and a handsome openwork tomb chest of wood, in which resides, this.

  Why did they do them this way? It has been suggested that the horrors of the Black Death encouraged a morbid attitude, but that doesn't really fit the chronology. Most of these tombs date from the mid 15th century or later when the plague was a distant memory of earlier generations. Note this chap's early 15th century hairdo (and also the oddity that he should be depicted with a fashionable cut even in this state). This was also the period when the depiction of the three living and the three dead was common in wall paintings and manuscript painting. Mottos along the lines of "As you are, I was once, as I am, so you will be" go along with both forms of representation.
  These have been seen as a social statement, that the rich and mighty are brought down and levelled in death. I don't think so. There wasn't too much egalitarianism kicking around in the 15th century. They have also been interpreted as a sign of Christian humility, but I think the style and iconography of some of the tombs makes this unlikely. I think it is a reminder of the connection between liminality and purgatory. Death is a process which takes place over time. Purgatory is a process which takes place over time. Keep praying brothers and sisters, because one day you are going to need somebody to pray for you. A couple of quick Hail Marys after the funeral mass won't cut it. This is going to take some time and effort.

  Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, died in 1528. His transi effigy in Winchester Cathedral lies under a fine architectural canopy. I hope they all got praying because the days of purgatory were running out. 

  In Exeter Cathedral the battered and mutilated transi effigy of Preceptor Syke (d.1508) lies on a highly decorative and grand tomb chest set into his highly decorative and grand chantry chapel. The purgatory linkage here is unequivocal. A priest was employed to say masses for the dead man in here, just in case others forgot. It is true that not every chantry chapel was adorned with a stone corpse, but it is part of the vocabulary of the process of death.

  The mid 15th century tomb of Archbishop Henry Chichele in Canterbury Cathedral takes the mixture of glamour and decay to its extreme. The whole construction has been recoloured to give it something of its gaudy medieval aesthetic. The canopy is thronged with angels, saints and weepers, not to mention heraldic devices. This is the tomb of a proud and glorious man in his pomp.

  This is how the man  was depicted on his tomb, twice. As far as representing humility goes, in the world of binary oppositional symbolism, top beats bottom every time. This man has not been brought down by death, he is triumphing over it. He has risen above that decomposing hunk of flesh beneath him. You can just make out a small praying figure by his feet, behind the metal bars, helping him to do it. The triumphant figure is not clothed in ethereal whiteness humbly waiting to meet Jesus, he wears all the elaborate paraphernalia of his religious office. That is not to say he isn't pious or virtuous, but he sure isn't humble.

  This type of depiction was not restricted to the clergy. A famous lay example is that of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk (d.1475) in Ewelme, Oxfordshire. The engraving of her beautiful effigy above comes from C.A.Stothard 1817 The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain, London. Try to ignore the library stamp. Evidently the engraver chose not to depict the emaciated cadaver beneath but you can see the whole tomb arrangement here. The cadaver is actually not very easy to see, but it is there.

  Cadaver tombs were also produced in brass. The above example is from Hildersham in Cambridgeshire and shows a skeleton rather than the partially decomposed corpse, but these were also depicted, complete with worms coming out of the eye sockets. As with other brass memorials, these depictions move down the social scale over time and quite modest little wall plaques were produced for those without the budgets of an archbishop or a duchess. They have the peculiarity noted already for tombs in general, the confusion between horizontality and verticality. Cadaver effigies on little wall brasses appear to be standing up in their shrouds; definitely a liminal state.

  An unusual commemoration appeared with these smaller brasses, that of children who had died in childbirth. These are referred to as chrysoms and are shown wrapped in their swaddling clothes. In the above example of a rubbing of a brass from Blickling in Norfolk, the mother and her twin infants, a boy and a girl, succumbed to the rigours of childbirth.

  In this example from Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire, just the chrysoms are shown. Perhaps it is arguable whether these are actually transi tombs as the swaddling clothes are those that would be used on a living baby, but they are meant to signify the particular situation of the infant's death. The convention of depiction of children on brasses was as miniature versions of adults. But that is another thought for another day.

  I have an unprovable hypothesis that these tombs may have once been more common, but that their unpalatability to church restorers may have caused them to quietly disappear. This example from Southwark Cathedral in London sits amongst a miscellany of broken bits of masonry. This is all part of the story of what has happened to medieval tombs over the centuries as their meanings have changed. But before we get to that, there is much to consider about what these tombs were really for. That, as I keep saying, is for another day.
  While these tombs represent the transitional state between life and the total oblivion of death in the most literal and unsubtle way, I feel that all tomb effigies are, in fact, transi tombs. They all have certain enigmas of representation that place the people represented somewhere between life and death. If you have started reading this series in the middle, you will have to go back to the beginning to find out why. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 3 Oddments

  This ongoing series is threatening to ramble all over the place, but hopefully I will eventually be able to round up all the trailing threads and make it into a coherent argument about the changing nature of medieval funerary commemoration and the significance of what has happened to the tombs. Meanwhile, back to the primary evidence.
   Three dimensional effigy tombs are highly visible in churches because they are large, often were in elaborate settings, and were once brightly coloured and gilded. You couldn't miss them. Brasses are flat and can be less conspicuous, although some were also in elaborate settings, but others were of modest size. The ability to reproduce them by brass rubbing has made them well known and much reproduced in publications. While essentially monochrome, they could have some colourful details in the form of inlay, for example in heraldic shields or details on clothing.

  Lady Agnes Routh resides with her knightly husband under a double canopy in the tiny village of Routh in East Yorkshire. She is exquisitely attired in the latest fashions of the early 15th century in clothing and hairdo. Fashions were getting a wee bit extravagant by this time. The collar and cuffs of her gown are blank because they once contained some sort of inlay. In reference to previous discussions, her sleeves hang down as if she is vertical and her eyes are open, but she is lying flat on the floor. Yes, she is in a liminal state, preserved that way in a memorial which is both grand and longlasting, brass being durable stuff so long as nobody rips it up to make cannons or the like. We will get back to that as well.
  Perhaps less well known, as less conspicuous and more prone to destruction, are the grave covers which are incised with designs. These could include life sized effigies with very similar designs to those of brasses. 

  This 15th century slab in Harpham church, East Yorkshire, depicts a knight and lady under canopies with a marginal inscription around the edge in a very similar manner to a brass. It is also sitting on a table tomb under a canopy, so it is quite a conspicuous arrangement. In many cases these were on the floor and have become quite worn, and sometimes they have been moved and redeployed.

  This effigial slab in Boston, Lincolnshire shows a man in civilian dress and a woman. It is set into the floor. The faces, praying hands and marginal inscription are missing as they were obviously inlaid in another material, presumably brass. Once again hold the thought that this man is not a knight and the tomb slab, while having many standard elements, is not a standard shopwork variety, at least not for England.
  Far more common, and less regarded, are slabs which bear non-effigial motifs, of which the most common is probably that known as a floriated cross. These are also found on some brasses. They can be difficult to date as they don't have the intricate datable details like armour and fashion. They also seem to have been moved around a lot, perhaps used for repairs to stonework, and sometimes end up in peculiar places in the church.

  The floriated cross slab shown here lies in the floor of Eastrington church in East Yorkshire, overlooked because of the more conspicuous alabaster effigy tombs there. It has had the indignity of having holes bored through it for the installation of heating pipes. Like most slabs of this type, it has no inscription, so perhaps over the centuries there is less sense of this being something that pertains to the identity of an individual. The significata of liminality are not displayed although, in its day, it would still have had the function of reminding the congregation to pray for the soul of the deceased.

  In a slightly unusual example from Amotherby, North Yorkshire, a floriated cross slab has an inscription which reads "ICI GIT WILLIAM DE BOR(D)ESDEN PRIZ PUR LA ALME", which is significant because it is in Norman French, implying that it is aristocratic, and also because it specifically requests prayers for the soul, at least from the literate among the congregation. This slab was found in the churchyard in 1871.

  In Bakewell church, Derbyshire, great numbers of these types of monument had been stacked up against a wall in the south porch, redeployed and decontexted. Makes you wonder how many of these have been removed, destroyed or re-used in other places. When a devastating fire destroyed the interior of Brancepeth church in county Durham, large numbers of these types of tombstones were discovered hidden in the walls. Here is a newspaper article about it. These slabs also included another type of motif; the use of a tool of trade to indicate the profession of the deceased individual rather than an individual identifier. One explanation for this is that stone grave slabs were being deployed further down the social scale for those who could not afford the grander style of effigy memorial, and even if they could it might not have been tolerated in a still rigidly stratified society.

  One of the slabs from Bakewell, for example, displays shears and a key beside the cross motif.
  The imagery of these non-effigial tombs has some degree of standardisation, but also some variability. Possibly they were local productions which did not conform so strictly to the stereotypes of the grand shopwork tombs. The further you were up the social tree, the more stringent were the rules as to how you could depict yourself. 

  The procedure of removing the heart from the body of someone who had died away from their home  and bringing it back for burial is known; or alternately removing the innards and burying them somewhere while carting the exterior of the carcasse back to a home church. Slabs like the one above from Chichester cathedral, depicting two hands holding a heart, are often taken to be memorials to a heart burial. Alternatively, full sized effigy tombs are found with the figure holding a heart. Holding a heart could have some reference to purity of heart. It can be hard to be sure what is meant to be literal and what metaphorical in these depictions.
  So I guess the point is that there were various modes of memorialising the dead. They were all for the purpose of helping the departed over the threshold, through purgatory and to their final reward. Some also displayed strong messages about social status, not all of which were related to feudalism. More on that later. The ways that these tombs have been treated over time is a bit more complex than the oft announced view that they were unacceptable at the Reformation and were therefore deliberately damaged or destroyed. There are questions about just what these tombs were for in the first place.
  In the next episode I will look at the chronology and social spectrum of tomb commemoration and perhaps launch into something about funerals.
  And what does this all have to do with medieval writing? Well, there is more to imparting messages than just scratching black marks on paper, but the creators of the black marks controlled the rules of the game and the nature of the communication.

Friday, December 05, 2014

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 2 Knights

  In this next exciting episode of the medieval tombs story, we will look at the proliferation of knightly grand effigy tombs in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. As tombs extended to different social classes and were produced in different materials and styles, certain concepts and iconography remained consistent. From the 13th century there survive some tombs from the knightly classes, knights depicted in their armour, women in their finest attire.

  This 13th century example from Bedale, in Yorkshire, shows certain features that constantly recur. In this example, the drapery suggests that the figures are definitely lying down, and the lady has her head on a pillow and her hands in praying position.  The knight has his head under an architectural canopy, which suggests standing up, but his pose is a twisted, crosslegged, active but lying down pose. Both figures have animals at their feet, and the knight also has a small kneeling figure of a monk beside him, as well as a beastie biting at his shield.

  The composition has all the significata of liminality, as discussed in the last posting. The uncertainly about verticality or horizontality, the tension between resting and activity, the sense of being still but awake, all point to these figures being still on the threshold. The connection between this depiction and the concept of purgatory is made by the little figure of the monk, who is praying for the knight to hasten his trip to salvation. The monk's head has been knocked off; a common fate for these subsidiary figures with reference to purgatory, which became a discredited concept at the Reformation. The shield would once have displayed his armorials, a reference to his status and family entitlements. There is a little passing nod to feudalism, for those that are into that. Note also that these effigies are battered, worn, decoloured and broken and are sitting on a modern slab surrounded by modern heating pipes, divorced from their original setting. Save that thought for later.
  There is a constant tale that crossed legs on a knight mean that he had been on crusade. This is a myth. Most of the crosslegged knights date from after the crusading period, and some of the earliest effigies from a period when they may have been on crusade, such as some of those in the Temple church in London, do not have crossed legs. However, the pose does seem to denote some reference to the active life as a means to be a good Christian. The beastie biting his shield may represent evil being conquered in the same way as  does the image of a dragon with a crosier down its gullet in the effigies of senior ecclesiastics.

  These effigies of knights in the Temple church, London, represent William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke (d.1219) and William Marshall, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (d.1231). The former is straightlegged and very flat, although his hand is firmly gripped on his sword handle and his drapery hangs down straight as if he is vertical. The latter has the twisted, active pose with his hand reaching across his body for his sword, but his surcoat draped open like an unmade bed. Either way, these boys are going to fight their way to wherever they have to go: dead but not yet fully departed.

  Now here is something very interesting, if not beautiful and certainly a trifle creepy. This pair of battered and decontexted wooden effigies lies in the church of Allerton Mauleverer in Yorkshire. The church was rebuilt in the 18th century, but a few old memorials have been salvaged. These would once have been gessoed, painted and gilded and set up in some splendour in an architectural setting. At the time they were photographed (1979) they were lying on pallets with other relics in a dusty corner of the church. They represent two styles of crosslegged knight. The one in the foreground has the active, twisted pose, clutching his sword and shield. The one in the background represents where monumental effigies were going; relaxed but alert, hands in praying position. He is praying for his mortal soul and you are invited to do so too. All his earthly glory has been stripped away, but he's still praying and still waiting. You can spend a long time in purgatory.
  The 14th century produced a great deal of social change, what with plague reducing the workforce, revolting peasants depleting the serf class, expansion of trade and craft specialisation in the towns creating a new class of wealthy civilians, and the necessity for beating up the Scots and the French, and whoever else was being annoying, stimulating the creation of large numbers of new knights. Social mobility was high. 14th century knightly tombs pop up all over the countryside, often in funny little rural churches as well as in the grander places.

  This tomb of a crosslegged knight in Brancepeth, county Durham is typical of the genre. Actually I don't know the fate of this effigy as the church was subject to a disastrous fire which burned the internal woodwork. These tombs are not portraits or personal depictions of the people they represent. They are a highly generic collection of symbols in which the individual is only identified through heraldry or the tomb inscription. Both of these may have disappeared as the heraldic motifs were often painted on, not carved. Inscriptions were lost or deliberately defaced, or the effigy may have been moved and placed on a completely different chest. That is another thought to hold for later. The art historians rather snootily refer to these as "shop work" because they were not individualised but turned out in multiples of very similar copies from particular workshops. That doesn't mean that many of them were not very beautiful.
  Now back then every knight had to have a suit of armour, or at least be depicted as if he had one. Furthermore, it had to be the very latest in suits of armour. While the blank, calm, wide-eyed but not quite dead yet faces were largely identical, every detail was depicted of the changing fashions in surcoats, mail shirts, plate armour, spurs, sword belts, shield shapes and general significata of being a knight. The history of the rapid changes to armour in the 14th and 15th century can be traced closely through funerary depictions, and have been. The feet often rested on an animal, often a tough scary animal like a lion or large hunting dog but sometimes an animal with significance to the owner's name or heraldry. The head often rested on a pillow supported by angels looking upward; another reminder of purgatory and the necessity for the congregation, consisting largely of the knight's feudal tenants, to pray for him. The angels have usually had their heads knocked off by Protestant reformers who didn't approve of such nonsense.

  This spunky knight from Pickering, in Yorkshire, sports the more modern short surcoat over his mail shirt and metal protective plates on his arms. His heraldic arms are actually carved on his shield, his hands are praying, his eyes are open and the decapitated angels are entreating the congregation to help lift him over the threshold. I don't know whether all early 14th century knights had magnificent biker moustaches, but they were certainly drawn that way. It has also occurred to me to wonder whether all these nouveau knights actually had brand new, latest fashion suits of armour in fact, or whether some of them had to clatter off in secondhand mail from their old Uncle William. Status demanded that the latest be depicted on their tombs.
  Moving into the late 14th and 15th centuries, the use of new materials allowed greater expression of conspicuous display, but also made more modest memorials available to those of lesser means. The documentation of armour continued to be meticulous.

  The use of alabaster from Derbyshire, a beautiful, translucent, easily worked stone, resulted in some lavish memorials carved with intricate detail. This example is from Burton Agnes, a small village on the East Yorkshire wolds, which has the remains of a Norman manor house as well as a medium sized post-medieval mansion. The effigies follow the usual conventions with some rather fine foot supporter animals. The chest has weepers and angels bearing heraldic shields under architectural canopies. Very splendid, but a bit "in your face" for a country village.

  Details are intricately rendered. The knight's head, with the latest in Yorkist haircuts, rests on a helm with a large crest of a head, while his Lancastrian SS livery collar is clearly depicted. All is symbolism, nothing is intimate or personal. His praying hands have been knocked off, as have those of his wife, presumably by the same mob that knocked the heads off angels, but the defaced object remains in pride of place, still waiting with eyes open.
  The increasing use of flat brass plates for effigies from the 14th century onwards creates another tradition, although the imagery and symbolism remains the same, just rendered in two dimensions.

  The centre of the nave in Felbrigg church, Norfolk, hosts an array of brasses. The one in the foreground is to Sir Simon and Lady Margaret de Felbrigg (1419). He was a very eminent knight and it shows that this form of memorial could also be a high status tomb, even though it was lying on the floor and people could walk on it. Some were also elevated on table tombs. Brasses are probably better known than the three dimensional effigies because of the former popularity of making reproductions by brass rubbing, a practice no longer permitted in most places. The confusion between verticality and horizontality is expressed somewhat differently in this flat medium. These figures are under an architectural canopy, and the lady's drapery suggests a vertical mode. The knight appears to be standing on the lion at his feet rather than resting his feet on it. Nevertheless, the figures hold their hands in the praying position and the slab is actually horizontal. They are still in a liminal state. 
  It does seem that in the case of brasses, inscriptions are more likely to be preserved, often being on a brass plate at the foot of the effigies. This can give an accurate date for the figures, but also gives us some insights into the later treatment of these tombs. Save that thought for later along with the others.

  This rubbing of a brass, or rather half a brass, as it is actually a four figure composition, is also from Felbrigg and indicates some further changes. The figures are actually only around one metre high and represent Roger and Elizabeth de Felbrigg, parents of the Sir Simon depicted above. The inscription, in French, indicates that Roger is not buried here but died in Prussia. So it is a memorial rather than a tomb. Over time, these smaller brasses proliferated. Some are found in church floors, others on walls. Probably at least some were always intended for the walls and represent something simpler in the way of funerary commemoration.
  It is intriguing that after the Reformation and in the period that some like to designate as Early Modern, some tombs continued in the medieval tradition, with recumbent figures in suits of armour (still a status symbol even if people were essentially city merchants) and still depicted in that liminal state. No angels by pillows or praying for the soul, but a comforting familiarity of tradition. 
  For the next episode we will explore some of the other types of people commemorated and the diversity of their commemoration. Heaven knows how many blog postings this will take up. Meanwhile I am slowly but surely putting up images of tombs from my collection in a Flickr album here. It is totally not organised at this stage, but you can browse randomly.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 1 Intro

  Recently, having been sorting and resurrecting my medieval photograph collection, I made a passing remark on Twitter that I should write something about why some of the most splendid medieval tombs are found in strange, tiny places. I received an instant reply from a reader, "In one word, feudalism" with a little extra embellishment. Well, no. Not exactly. Not at all, really. It's far more complicated than that and I have been sitting on this for too long. So I thought I would write a blog post on it. Then I realised it wouldn't fit into a blog post, so here goes on a whole series of blog posts about medieval tombs. You never know, this might turn into something.
  So to start at the beginning, which is always a good idea, here is a quick summary of medieval funerary commemoration. During the course of the middle ages, ordinary folks did not have tombstones or fancy commemorative monuments. Most people were buried outside the church, where there was most likely a churchyard cross to commemorate all of them, as well as serving as a place for preaching and holding weddings. Whatever temporary commemorative objects may have been placed there immediately after death, no trace of them survives. Unmarked graves are not paupers' graves or plague pits, just graves.
  Only people of some significance in their community, whether clerical or lay, were buried inside the church and commemorated with a durable monument. At this point it is necessary to say that the medieval period was never a simple coherent thing, and that the nature of this commemoration, and the people commemorated, changed over the centuries, like most other things - including feudalism.
  The earliest examples of tombs with life sized effigies of the departed appear in the 12th and 13th centuries, representing the top echelons of society. Examples from this early era are relatively sparse, but whether from the fact that not many were constructed, or just the greater capacity for them to be destroyed over time is not entirely clear. I think a bit of both.

  Abbot Benedict of Peterborough died in 1193. His tomb may have been constructed later as an act of commemoration, but the canopy over his head and the drapery of his attire has a Romanesque look. Interestingly, the iconography and conventions of medieval effigy sculpture seem to have been born fully developed. The figure is a calm and expressionless representation of an abbot wearing the appropriate apparel, carrying a crosier and a book, it seems, standing on a serpent which he is choking to death with his crosier, conquering sin or the devil. He is neither lying down nor standing. Although he is horizontal, if the slab were propped up he would be standing under an architectural canopy. He is calm as in death and yet not a corpse. He is, as the anthropologists would say, in a liminal state, on the threshold. No longer here but not yet departed. Hold that thought.

  King John died in 1216. Not a favourite king, but they gave him a decent tomb in Worcester Cathedral. Once again a series of conventions are already established. He wears his crown, as kings always do in artistic depictions. His feet rest on a lion; good tough beast to be associated with and representing Christ in the bestiaries. His tomb chest is adorned with heraldic devices just in case you had forgotten who he was. He has two bishops by his head, and it is not clear whether he is standing or lying down. The drapery of his robe is not definitive on this matter. He is in a liminal state.

  William Longspee died in 1220. He was of very high birth and rank, being the grandson of Geoffrey Plantagenet, father of King Henry II and progenitor of the Plantagenet line. Said Geoffrey was the owner of the first known personal armorial bearings, and these are displayed on the shield of his grandson on his tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. Intriguingly, the elaborations and terminology of heraldry also appear without any obvious evolutionary development in manuscripts such as heraldic rolls at about this era. There is something definitely going on quite abruptly here in relation to the significata of status. William seems to be lying quite definitely horizontal here, dead but still in his earthly glory.

  This is not a uniquely English phenomenon by any means. Evrard de Fouilley was bishop of Amiens from 1211 to 1222. His stunning tomb in Amiens Cathedral is cast from bronze; an amazing feat from an era when some folks claim they had no scientific knowledge, but we will pass on that. Cast bronze is not found in English tombs, but the scheme is very much the same. The bishop wears his ceremonial attire and has two particularly splendid serpents or dragons at his feet. He is attended by two acolytes. He is under an architectural canopy and his drapery is of that enigmatic nature that means the figure could be horizontal or vertical. This tomb shows an important feature that has often disappeared from tombs over the centuries as they have been moved or displaced, the inscription, which runs around the edge in large majuscule letters.
  Where inscriptions survive, they have certain stereotyped and enduring features; they identify the person, their status, when they died, and they beseech prayers for the soul of the deceased. This was an era of increasing significance being placed on the concept of purgatory. The prayers of the living could decrease the time spent in purgatory by the departed and send them on their way to Paradise more quickly. The liminal nature of purgatory itself is reflected in the enigmas of the various representations on these tombs. It very rapidly became the norm that the hands of the deceased were shown in a praying position; another reminder to the congregation. 
  It must be noted that these medieval effigy tombs no longer look like they did when they were new. They were known to have been brightly painted and gilded. The stone was often covered with gesso so that small details were sculpted into it (such as the links of chain mail) that may have disappeared when the effigy was reduced to its stone core. In general there was much more colour in churches, on the wall, painted screens, carvings. In fact there was probably more colour in a church than anywhere else in the medieval experience. How they became so pale and monochrome is a consequence of time, wear and differing aesthetics over the centuries - and, I suspect, something else to do with the concept of liminality. Back to that later.
  So we have a collection of concepts here: identified high status individuals, iconographic significata of rank or status, heraldry, purgatory and an imposition of obligation on the members of a particular community, whether ecclesiastical or lay, to assist the departed to their final state in heaven.
  Once these conventions were established, they spread through other sections of society, and society itself was not static at that time. For the next blog post, a look at the increasing diversity of medieval tomb types, and the features they retained in common. Watch this space.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Notarial Signs

  I have a bit of a change of theme here as a result of a request. Yes, I do requests. Sometimes. A correspondent was interested in images of notarial signs, so I have pulled together all of same from the miscellaneous collection of medieval detritus that I have accumulated and put them up as a Flickr album. Potter through and enjoy.
  The signs themselves represent different ways of doing medieval legal business. In those places where ratification of legal process developed from sworn oral testimony - primitive unlettered places like Britain or the Germanic speaking areas - the insignia of authenticity rested in the use of the seal. People did not sign documents. Kings did not sign documents, King John did not sign Magna Carta, OK? Even when they became a bit more literate, the seal was established as the authenticating instrument and documents referred to witnesses, not necessarily to the document, but to having seen and heard that an oral agreement had been made.

  The seals started off with relatively simple designs, but many became very elaborate by the 14th and 15th centuries.

  Seals were owned by individuals, by offices, by institutions and corporations. There is still a whole field of study with much to be learned about seals.
  In parts of Europe which retained aspects of the Roman system of law, legal documents were drawn up and ratified by notaries, who authenticated them with their own unique pen drawn marks and endorsements. I am informed that such transactions as property deeds tended to be much longer and more specific in detail than the brief and spare charters and deeds of the seal using lands, where the document was basically to identify witnesses who could testify to the details.

  This notarial endorsement was at the bottom of a property deed on a roll that was twenty membranes long. I don't know what they filled it up with as I don't have the other nineteen membranes.
  As every notarial sign was supposed to be unique, they developed many complex elaborations; some more fascinating than beautiful, while other had an ingenious simplicity.

  The division was not necessarily along national lines, or at least what we now perceive as national lines. (OK, that's another story.) In the more southish eastish parts of France the notarial system was in use, while in the more northish westish areas seals were used on short snappy documents as in Britain. Sometimes a belt and braces approach was used, as in the following document from 16th century Brittany. Yes, that's westish. People got around in those days, despite rumours to the contrary.

  In Britain, notaries were only used by the church, to draw up documents with, or appealing to, papal authority, such as this one, so that notaries were a relatively rare species among the writing classes.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Imagining Medieval Leicester

  In my attempts to nibble around the edges of some blockbuster epic projects of yore, and resurrect some interesting photographs, I have tried two Flickr tours of medieval places, Beverley and Pickering, small and charming towns in Yorkshire. So, in a fit of enthusiasm, I have attempted something a little more tricky.
  Leicester is a town whose post-medieval history has cut swathes through its historic past, but it is possible to put together a mental picture of the size and shape and nature of the town through surviving bits and descriptions while plodding up busy streets, dodging traffic and getting lost in labyrinthine parks. It's not like York where you can perambulate leisurely around the walls and fit the picture of the city together and conceptualise the spaces. I'ts like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of bits missing.

  There are relics marooned by traffic.

Some very splendid buildings.

Some sites practically deserted and incomprehensible.

Some things displaced.

And some which have gone forever.

  As our travellers John Leland, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe all had a bit to say about Leicester, we can see how it changed. Links to other photographic sites have been included, as I had not spent as much time in Leicester as some places and some buildings were just not accessible at the time. And of course it is just a wee bit topical right now.
  The system is as before. Start here then click your way through, scrolling, meandering and diverting as you will. Eventually all these bits and pieces will come together into something with coherence and some themes. Optimist, me.
  Now I had better give my brain a rest and just get on with cleaning up and cataloguing all my medieval images. Besides, I'm sick of trying to copy type 16th and 17th century spelling. Bon voyage.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Another Medieval Day Trip - Pickering, Yorkshire

  Continuing the theme of trying to integrate some old resources into little explorations of medieval places (See previous blog post for the background.) the latest little adventure is to Pickering in Yorkshire. This fits the baby steps into small and not too complicated sites, as Pickering has just two notable medieval monuments, a church and a castle.
  The down side of following the formula that I started with Beverley is that neither Daniel Defoe nor Celia Fiennes seem to have visited Pickering, or they were asleep in the coach when it rattled through. This rather messes with the concept. Leland had a few words about it though, so all is not lost.
  The church in Pickering is mainly noted for its 15th century wall paintings, one panel of which, the Corporal Acts of Mercy, I illustrated a couple of postings ago. The tour shows all the paintings, although some of the photographs are a bit dodgy as the lighting conditions can be pretty awful. The pictures were taken by myself on two different occasions and by my son Eddy on a third, and as luck would have it the sun was shining through the clerestory windows on different sides of the church, so something is cobbled together. You can see the scheme, and maybe imagine the totally different aesthetic of a medieval church in its heyday, with coloured imagery jumping out in all directions.

  A huge St Christopher greets all wayfaring travellers who enter the south door of the nave.

The story of St Catherine of Alexandria is told in strip cartoon form as narrated by Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend. And there's much more painted along the nave walls.

  There are tombs, including this handsome knight.

  Although we don't have any descriptions from the 17th century travellers, there is a suitably romantic early 19th century steel engraving that shows the motte and bailey castle is a rather more decrepit and decayed state than it is today. Either English Heritage have tidied and reconstructed it something savage, or 19th century artists liked to embellish the romantic decrepitude of historic places, and they always had sheep or cows and rustic yokels in them.

  In its preserved state it serves as a pretty picnic spot for those who like a touch of history with their potted meat sandwiches and pork pies, and then there is a chance for an excursion on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, one of the best historical steam railways in England. That isn't medieval but it's damned good fun.
  To do the tour, start here . Read the blurb, look at the map, click on the first picture and off you go. You have to scroll down to get the commentary.
  Now, in this meandering ramble through old resources, where do I go next?