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.