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.


Camille Naish said...

Bravo Dianne!
I chanced upon your website-blogsite? while looking for images of knights with little dogs on their tombs. After a chequered existence I live in France: I have, alas, nothing to do with the parishes of Yorkshire, although I have a friend at Cambridge who writes about Anglo-Saxon history in those parts. I have just spent several days in bed, in Paris, with an appalling head cold, and I happened to write to a friend that my little dog--a long-haired chihuahua--has remained faithfully beside my feet like a dog on a knight's tomb. She became very excited and started babbling about the numerous gisants at the Cathédrale de Saint-Denis. I looked online, but was rather dismayed by the morbidity of the images and worse, found surprisingly few dogs: a number of lions, however. Well who wouldn't want to be a knight or a King of France with a lion at his feet?
Apparently the Cathédrale de Saint-Denis is bitterly cold even in May, so I would prefer not to traipse up there in my present state. It is now March. This is not a devouring passion, just a passing whim so I did not read your articles with the attention they deserve. But I was surprised to see there are no comments yet--and I still haven't found a satisfactory image of a tiny, faithful, sculpted hound. So I thought I would say Hello and well done.
Very best wishes,
Camille Naish

Dianne said...

You are more likely to find little dogs at the feet of ladies. They are supposed to be a symbol of fidelity, which is what ladies are required to have. You might find the occasional large hunting hound at a knight's feet, but they were partial to their lions. Bishops often have a serpent or dragon, supposedly representing them stomping on the devil. Must do a post on animals on tombs some time.