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.