Saturday, March 05, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 17: Identification and Dating

  One of the things that people always seem to want to know about medieval tomb effigies is who they represent. I guess that's natural curiosity, although I'm more inquisitive about what they represent. We know that with a few rare exceptions from the very top of the social scale, the effigies on medieval tombs, stone, alabaster or brass, were not personal portraits. They have a tendency to have identikit faces and body types. Personal identifiers were added on in the form of inscriptions or heraldry.

  Some tombs, particularly brasses like the one above to Thomas de St Quintin in Harpham church, Yorkshire, have a neat inscription. These follow a couple of pretty standard formulae in which the person is named, their status indicated and their date of death supplied, as well as requests for prayers for their soul. Not all brasses had inscriptions and not all that were in existence have survived. Surviving inscriptions on three dimensional effigy tombs are more rare, although they may have once had painted inscriptions that have been scrubbed off over time. Some tombs have a marginal indentation that was for a brass inscription that was inlaid around the figures, but these have often vanished. Brass was removed and flogged off in great quantities, including entire effigies, as evidenced by the numbers of worn indents lying unidentified in church floors.

  This tomb of a priest in Blyborough, Lincolnshire has an incised inscription in stone around the border of the tomb slab. That is an unusual survival, and pretty much sorts that one out, as with the brasses bearing inscriptions. It also displays the other main identifier, heraldry. Unfortunately heraldry, like inscriptions, was often painted on to the shields on tombs and more often than not has been effaced.

  This once splendid but now rather beat up alabaster tomb in Swine, Yorkshire has heraldic shields borne by lively and demonstrative angels, but the designs have utterly disappeared.
  In the days before effigy tombs were a thing, before the 14th century, it was not usual for tomb slabs to have inscriptions and certainly not dates. The cross slabs found tucked away in odd corners of churches are evidence for this.

  The above shows an assortment of battered tomb slabs propped against the wall of the church at Blyth in Nottinghamshire. The fact that these generally have no personal identifiers and are so often stacked in odd spots, obviously not in their original location, suggests that they may never have been meant as permanent memorials to individuals. Rather, they may have been part of the extended funeral process; reminders to pray for the most recently departed and help them get to wherever they were going. 
  The appearance of inscriptions, and particularly dates, on tomb monuments coincides approximately with the appearance of written dates on legal documents. Charters of around the 12th century were usually not dated, as they were regarded as recordings of witnessed oral testimony. The witness list was more significant than the precise date.

  This late 12th century charter (British Library, add. charter 70691) records a grant of land by an individual, Ralph de Cuningburgh, to Byland Abbey. It is ratified by his seal, which is a very generic kind of knight on funny looking horse seal without complex armorials, typical of its era. There is an extensive witness list but no date.
  During the 13th and 14th centuries there were changes in the format of, and attitude to, legal documents, including the regular use of dates, sometimes in quite elaborate forms. It can be seen as a shift in the conception of the document from a note of an oral process to being a literate process in its own right, requiring formal writing and archiving for posterity. It also locates the doings of an individual in time and place.
  Heraldry itself became more elaborate over the 14th and 15th centuries, developing into an intricate code which could be read to identify and memorialise a individual and place them within their family history. A heraldic tomb was a family archive, not just a reminder to pray for an individual. Seals and tombs developed similar types of complexity.
  The development of effigy tombs with individually identifiable heraldry and inscriptions took place over the same general time frame, and in some ways reflect similar changes of mindset. The tomb becomes uniquely identifiable, readable, and possibly gains a greater expectation of becoming a more permanent memorial. The tomb becomes a personal record.
  Unfortunately time plays havoc with the aspirations of mere mortals. Tombs have been moved, reorganised, carted out into the churchyard and dragged back again, assembled in new combinations, scrubbed of colour and identity, destroyed in great numbers in times of religious discord and generally reduced to chaos. It all makes identification difficult.

  For example, this handsome late 15th century alabaster knight in the church at Halsham, Yorkshire, is lying on a brass indent that clearly does not belong to him. We don't know who it belongs to because the brass is gone. Remedievalising damaged old churches has created a few of these concoctions. An earlier post on the alabaster tombs of Harewood described the movements of the tombs around the church and the reattribution of their identities.
  Antiquarians who pottered around the countryside recording things, often in great detail, and then had them published in strange old tomes, have noted inscriptions that have become lost or misplaced since. Their books were once difficult to get hold of if you didn't live near the right libraries, but their increasing appearance on the wondrous Internet Archive means there are treasures there for the fossicking.
  Another documentary source for the identification of tombs is through the wills of those commemorated. Unfortunately the tortuous process of searching through medieval wills combined with the massive and random nature of losses of medieval tombs means that it is not very often that these can be matched up. And of course, whether the provisions in the will were ever carried out depended on the executors.
  So the identification of tombs tends to rely mostly on the intersection of two lines of best fit; who were the likely contenders as lords of the manor or other prominent citizenry, or were known to be rectors of a church or bishops or suchlike known and named ecclesiastics, and what was the date of the tomb as estimated stylistically. These can lead to some circular processes of reckoning, and there are traps.
  Armour underwent rapid and readily recognisable changes over the period when effigy tombs became the thing to have, so knightly effigies can be dated by folks who have an intimate knowledge of the minutiae of these changes.

  For example chain mail and long surcoats with big shields predates chain mail and long surcoats with smaller shields and leather knee protectors, as with these two chaps in the Temple church, London. Rowel spurs replace prick spurs.

  The more bits of plate that appear and the shorter the surcoat gets, the further you travel through the 14th century. This example is from Bedale, Yorkshire.

  By the early 15th century the knight is encased like a tortoise in plate and wears his sword belt jauntily low slung across his hips. This example is from Barmston in Yorkshire.

  By the late 15th century it has acquired hinged flappy bits and the knee, elbow and shoulder protectors look too big and clunky to be real. This brass is in Howden church, Yorkshire.
  It looks simple enough but there are some questions. Did the armour represent what the deceased actually wore or was it the latest fashion when the tomb was produced, which was sometimes before the commemorated person's death and sometimes after? (The answer is bleeding obvious in the first of those scenarios but not the second.) If somebody chose to commemorate a progenitor to boost the perception of their lineage a bit, or were even a little tardy in commemorating a deceased relative because they were busy beating up the French for a few years, did they get him bespoke carved in retro gear or just take an off the shelf model in whatever was fashionable at the time? Is the monument actually in its original church? Some are known to have been moved from monastic churches at the Dissolution (but not if they were buried under car parks). Were monuments moved for other reasons, like a village becoming deserted, for example? Similar questions can be asked over the use of livery collars for dating.

  Lancastrian SS livery collar in Harewood church.

  Yorkist suns and roses collar in Harewood church. Do these represent an absolute date when the dynasties changed over, or do they represent the loyalties and affinities of the departed? It seems to be assumed that nobody would dare to be commemorated, or have their progenitors commemorated, in the livery of the opposition to the current monarch. We can't be quite sure exactly what statement they were trying to make.
 Similar doubts apply when using the very rapidly changing vagaries of ladies' fashion of the 14th and 15th centuries as identifiers. Even an intimate knowledge of individual workshop styles may tell you more about the craftsmen and the effigy than about the person commemorated. It is possible to date an effigy within a certain range of error, but probably there are too many variables to make a positive identification of an individual in many cases.
  Identification of individuals can be hampered by the lack of precise contemporary genealogical information from the days when survival of personal documents could be a bit variable.

  This snippet is from one of my favourite personal treasures. It is a very scrappy genealogy on paper written and annotated in the 16th century in various hands, of a branch of the Beauchamp family, related to the famous ones of Warwick, which died out in the male line in the 16th century. My guess is it was somebody's working notes on sorting out the family estate. This branch of the family was not very imaginative about names and there was a succession of them called Walter Beauchamp. For those not comfortable with abominable 16th century cursive, this entry is annotated "some say this man is too much". In other words, the writer is not quite sure how many Walter Beauchamps there were. Lesser knightly and gentry families were likely to be even less well documented.

  So finally, here we have a tomb slab in Aldborough church, Yorkshire, which has had all of its identifying features removed. It was once a rather unusual brass, combining the floriated cross cum tree of life motif with an inscription and a plethora of heraldry. It has novelty with tradition, family pride with anonymity. It is in a little village built over a Roman town with a maypole on the village green, a village cross commemorating a battle against the Scots and a line of megalithic stones up the road. Individual identities blend into the stories of places and the rise and fall of societies. It's the best we can all hope for.

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