Friday, September 11, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 14 What Happened to Them During the Middle Ages?

  We have a mental concept of tomb memorials as being forever: an eternal reminder of those we have lost and perhaps a reminder to the world of who we are on the basis of who our ancestors were. Medieval tombs seem to have been part of a process; aids to passing from this world to the next and not necessarily designed for eternity. I have been flogging the concept of liminality in this series, and how the doctrine of purgatory gave a formal church structure to this concept, which is found in some form in practically every culture.
  Certainly tombs were destroyed through accidents of history, but there are some cliches lurking around on this subject. Yes, Henry VIII  dissolved and repossessed the monasteries, destroying many church structures and their contents in the process. Nasty bastard that he was, nevertheless it doesn't seem that he set about attempting to destroy every tomb in the land, just the ones that were in the way. The Reformation put an end to purgatory, but there were ways of modifying the memorial to the family ancestors without destroying it utterly. More on that another day. Puritans knocked medieval religious art around, but tombs have survived where stained glass or wall paintings have been demolished.
  There are clues that in the medieval period itself, tombs were destroyed, removed or re-used. First let's contemplate the logistics. Churches were for saying mass and the office, and for the congregation to worship. The most prestigious place for burial and commemoration was in the chancel near the altar. Over the centuries, how many people vied for that coveted spot, especially in a small village church? And how many times were they replaced?

  The tiny church of Coates-by-Stow in Lincolnshire. Not much room for competitive mortuary commemoration in a minute space like this.
  Spending a bit of the family fortune on building a mortuary chapel might ensure continuity by claiming a bit of real estate in the church, but it is intriguing how often these chapels contain tombs from a limited period of time, somehow just representing the salad days of a local dynasty.

  The St Quentin chapel in Harpham church on the East Yorkshire wolds contains tombs from a range of dates and styles; stone, incised slab and brasses from the 14th and 15th centuries as well as post-medieval wall monuments. Symbolic of family significance over centuries in a small rural village.

  On the other hand, the alabaster tombs of Harewood in Yorkshire represent a more limited time span. They were originally located in a family chapel, but have been moved around the church over time. I wrote about these in a previous post.

  Churches got added to and altered over the course of the middle ages, as evidenced by the changes to architectural styles within individual buildings. Fittings and furnishings and monuments would have got moved around. The mortal remains of those buried there got moved around. There was probably a time after which these things had served their religious, spiritual and ceremonial usefulness. The reasons for preserving the tomb of a family ancestor may have shifted into the social sphere, where they were always grounded in the first place, but vigilance of surviving family would have been required to conserve the relics of family honour.

  In Eastrington church, Yorkshire, a couple of stone effigies have been roughly squared off and used to patch a gap in the wall. Heaven knows when this was done, but these objects were clearly only valued for their raw materials by this time.
  Before effigy tombs became the big thing, those buried inside the church were commemorated with flat or low relief slabs set into the floor. Sometimes these bore identifying inscriptions, and sometimes not. Often they were inscribed with symbols such as a sword, keys, shears, chalice to identify the profession or status of the individual commemorated, as well as a variant on the crucifix, often in the elaborated form known as a floriated cross. These have been moved around the churches, often to sites unrelated to places of burial.

  A floriated cross slab in the church of Sproatley, East Yorkshire, with a depiction of a chalice and paten, indicating that it commemorated a priest. It has an inscription, which is far from universal with these slabs. It leans against the wall, which is often where these things got parked when discovered in odd places during the course of church restorations.
  Such tomb slabs are also easy material for reappropriation. All that is needed is to carve a new inscription, or simply place it in a new setting.

  This floriated cross slab from Aldborough, North Yorkshire, has been reappropriated with a later inscription carved over the base of the cross, upside down to the original. The incised heraldic shield has been given a modern coat of paint.
  The porch of Bakewell church in Derbyshire contains numerous tomb slabs of this type, propped against the wall, no longer where they were placed for the death ceremonies of those they were commemorating. The church of Brancepeth in county Durham suffered a disastrous fire in 1998, after which it was discovered that numbers of these tomb lids had been hidden in the walls. These are preserved, but no longer in their place of honour.

    This is just a sample of the slabs at Bakewell, representing more tombs than you could imagine artfully arranged on the floor at any one time and highly suggestive that they had a limited life in their original position.

  The reappropriation of effigy tombs is at its most unequivocal in the case of some brasses.The earliest brasses in England were large, hefty things containing much metal. Some of them were big rectagonal plates imported from Flanders. Sometimes when later medieval brasses have been lifted from the floor for restoration or whatever, it has been discovered that they have been made from these larger, older sheets, turned over and cut up. These are referred to as palimpsests, a term appropriated somewhat inaccurately from manuscript studies, where a palimpsest refers to a sheet of parchment which has been scraped down and written over the top.

  Rubbing of a rather sweet little 16th century brass, just post-Reformation but in medieval tradition, from Ossington in Nottinghamshire. The date is 1551, just before the succession of Queen Mary, but the brass has an inscription invoking prayers for the souls of the departed, just showing that everything was not as simple as some folks would like to believe.

  Photograph of a rubbing of the reverse of the brass, showing that it is made of buts cut out of a larger and bolder composition. Some bits look like the mass vestments of a priest and there is a little dog at the feet of a figure.

  The above represent two sides of the same plate, which has simply been flipped and a new image engraved on the reverse, from Halvergate in Norfolk. The earlier figure is a friar, Frater William Jernmuth and the later one is identified as the wife of Robard Swane (d.1540). You might be forgiven for thinking that the lady is no improvement on the original composition.

  In many cases it is clear that tomb effigies have been moved around the church, sometimes placed on tombs where they don't fit, or the tombs themselves have been moved into smaller spaces with the loss of some of their panelling. Sections of panelling don't always match. It may be quite unclear when this has actually happened, but I am sure it is not all post-Reformation vandalism. The builders of the royal tombs of Westminster Abbey were quite unfazed about hacking into and damaging those of previous monarchs. There is a previous post about this too.

  A tomb in Eastrington, Yorkshire, which appears to be made up from a miscellany of ill assorted panels.

  The ceremonies of death had a range of time cycles, as mentioned in a previous post. Some of these were in the period leading up to actual interment and others continued after death. Just how much depended on wealth and status. The most wealthy and elevated might acquire a chantry chapel where a priest was employed to say continuous masses for years, or until the endowment ran out.

  An elaborate chantry chapel in Exeter cathedral. These things tend to be found in large major churches, I guess for obvious reasons.

  For lesser mortals the priest might be paid to say mass on various commemoration dates and anniversaries, while the poorest and simplest had to make do with an annual prayer for the souls of all who had no other conduit to the almighty. By the late middle ages the access to church rituals had gone a long way from the teachings of Jesus.
  The artistic effort of these rituals included the use of expensive but ephemeral materials; banners, hangings, fabric drapery and quantities of fancy beeswax candles. Possibly rough freestone tomb effigies covered with fragile and delicate gesso designs and painted in a riot of colours may have been regarded as expensive ephemera. Ritual destruction of wealth has been a feature of funerary commemoration in many cultures of the past. Spend a bucketload of money on an expensive effigy which might only last until the one for the next generation replaces it and you are a rich and powerful person indeed.
  Perhaps that is why so many battered effigies are found in tiny little country churches. They may simply represent the last person in the village to be able to afford such extravagance.

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