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.