Tweeting tombstones #deathandcommemoration

Twitter is a much under-rated resource for academics. The ability to broadcast a photograph of a puzzling artefact, to share new insights, to link to newly-discovered web sites … it makes you part of the ultimate senior common room! So valuable in an age when most of us have lost our staff canteens in the name of academic egalitarianism.

I tweet a lot of photos (mainly of tombstones) and look at other people’s. David Jones (DMJones79: ‘Welsh football, Welsh history, comedy and films’) tweeted this https://twitter.com/DMJones79/status/337618845923692546/photo/1 – generally described as the 13th century tomb of Mabli, abbot of Cwm-hir. The carving is in my database and to my shame I haven’t yet been to Cwm-hir to look at it. But the more I look at David Jones’s photo the odder it looks. The narrow coffin-lid style is early but the style of the cross is nearer fifteenth- than thirteenth-century. The script is odd, too, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in Wales, though those double-lined letters also crop up on memorial brasses. Sally Badham (who is among other things a leading expert in the lettering on medieval tomb carvings, particularly brasses) points out that it has elements of both Lombardic and blackletter (or ‘Gothic’) script. This would suggest either a date in the fourteenth century when blackletter was taking over from Lombardic capitals, or possibly a date later in the sixteenth century when blackletter seems to have been regarded as somehow ‘popish’ and Lombardic returned to fashion. The inscription with its prayer for the soul looks pre-Reformation but readers of this blog will know that similar inscriptions can be found in later sixteenth-century Wales (see for example http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/brecon-cathedral-again-and-again/ ).

The tomb is said to commemorate an abbot, one about whom we know nothing. This is not unusual for Welsh abbots, as the documentary sources are so scanty. Nevertheless, as Sally asked, if we don’t know anything about him, how do we know he is an abbot? Indeed, looking at the carving, why do we think it commemorates an abbot at all? Mabli is more usually found as a female name.

It proved difficult to track the history of the stone. According to a letter published in the Transactions of the Radnorshire Society  vol. 4 (1934) pp. 60-1 , online at http://welshjournals.llgc.org.uk/browse/viewpage/llgc-id:1191402/llgc-id:1191602/llgc-id:1191664/get650 , the stone was found covering a coffin in the abbey church. The letter was from J. Bagnall Evans, son of the former curate of Abbey Cwm-hir, W. Evans, to the Rev. E. Hermitage Day, and dated January 1895. In it, the writer describes how

In 1836 while laying out some flower beds amongst the ruins,

the coffin lid you refer to was found, I think in the nave of the

Abbey. When it was raised a perfect skeleton was disclosed in

a stone grave, quite close to the surface of the ground. It was

that of a tall man, and under the middle age, for the teeth were all

quite perfect and beautifully white. In a few moments of

exposure to the air only the teeth remained-all the rest was

dust -and these my Father carefully collected and carried home …

My Father placed the inscribed lid inside the old Church on

the S. wall, and I was sorry to see it had been moved out into the

yard, when I last visited the place some years ago.

 

The letter was sent to the Radnorshire Transactions by a Miss Phillips of Ivy Lodge, Hereford: how it came into her possession is not explained. She went on to describe how the tombstone became the focus for literary imagination:

Mr. Thomas Wilson, who was present at the discovery of the stone, wrote a long poem of 63 verses, weaving an imaginary story around Mabli, a lady. He makes Ririd the Abbot leave the Abbey, and marry a beautiful lady he had met on a pilgrimage to Rome. They live in Antwerp, but his conscience makes him go to Rome and confess to the Pope, who sends him back to the Abbey, in a lowly place as a penance. His wife dies of grief, and the two sons die in the Crusades. But on his death the Pope allows his wife’s remains to be brought over and buried next him. Mr. Wilson makes Mabli into this lady.

Attached to this long poem there is this note by Thomas Wilson.

The Abbot of Coombe Heere. A Tale,’ By Thomas Wilson.’In the year 1210 Ririd was Abbot and Honorius occupied the Papal See. The Author considers himself wholly responsible for the incidents of the story. In 1827 the Author cleared the ruins of the Church and discovered in the Nave, a lid of a stone coffin, the burial place of a lady, with a very ancient abbreviated Latin inscription recommending her soul to God. Not far from that spot were also the remains of several monks and the leaden seals of the Bulls of two Popes Honorius the 3rd and 4th addressed to the Abbey.’

 

From this it seems that the theory that the stone dated from the 13th century may originate in the fact that it was found in conjunction with the two bullae of Honorius III and IV.

We no longer have the skeleton so we can’t check whether it was male or female. Wilson seems to have assumed female but Evans said male, presumably because of the height. (Women could be tall in the past: Mary Queen of Scots was nearly 6’.) The assumption that it was an abbot was presumably because it was such an elaborate stone and found in the monastic church. From the style of the carving and the epigraphy it could date from the fourteenth or even as late as the sixteenth century. Women were buried on Cistercian sites, and with impressive tomb carvings (there are examples at Valle Crucis including this gorgeous fragment

Image

commemorating a Maruruet who probably died in the early 14th century: it was later cut down and built into a fireplace). By the fourteenth century, though, it would be unusual for a woman’s tomb slab not to give at least some of her family pedigree. Looking carefully at Maruruet’s stone, you may just be able to see the downstroke of the next letter, which could be ‘f’ for ‘filia’, ‘daughter of’.

So we don’t have a final answer to this puzzle. Like the stained glass at Mathern, and Brian and Moira Gittos’ revision of Gresham’s work on north Wales tomb carvings, it is a cautionary tale: we have all gone along repeating each other’s descriptions without actually looking for ourselves. Grateful thanks to David Jones for sharing the photo and reminding us to LOOK.

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