Text on tombs

It’s probably time I started pulling together my ideas about the use of liturgical text on medieval tomb carvings. What follows is not the final version but some preliminary thoughts, triggered by a Twitter posting. Stiffleaf uploaded a photo of a 16th century cross slab with inlaid lettering from Croscombe in Somerset (also available at http://www.ipernity.com/doc/stiffleaf/18338573/in/keyword/1964495/self) and asked if anyone could translate. I made out the wording round the cross as Misericordia domini in eternam … and a bit of Googling corrected this to Misericordias Domini in eternam cantabo (or in aeternam if you prefer classical to medieval spelling) – i.e. ‘I shall sing of the Lord’s mercies for ever’, the beginning of Psalm 88 in the Vulgate (89 iin the King James) and part of the introit of the Mass of the Five Wounds. This was a very popular votive mass for the souls of the dead in the late medieval period. Unfortunately I can’t make out the name of the person commemorated by the slab.

Some time ago, Sally Badham sent me a reference to a lost brass in the Pudsay chapel at Bolton by Bowland (http://www.academia.edu/9827451/The_Pudsay_Family_of_Bolton-by-Bowland_and_their_Monuments ). According to the antiquary Roger Dodsworth, who visited the church some time between 1619 and 1631, the Pudsay chapel had the arms of Pudsay and Pilkington with an inscription reading Qui venisti redimere perditos, Noli Dampnere redemptos (‘You who came to save the lost, do not condemn the redeemed’), one of the responsory verses in the second nocturn of the Office of the Dead. Sally suggested this may have been a monument to the pair, perhaps even a brass, but there is no further record of it. Stow’s Survey of London (online at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nGVZAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false ; Book III, p. 746) records a brass with the same inscription in the Poor’s Chapel in St Bartholomew the Less. It also occurs on brasses recorded by Dugdale at Old St Paul’s; on a brass at Dunster recorded in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1808; and as part of a more complex inscription on the cadaver tomb of James Rice, mayor of Waterford in the late 15th century. (I found all these on Google. How did we ever do research in the old days …)

Malcom Norris’s series of volumes Monumental Brasses suggests several others. A heart brass probably commemorating Thomas Denton at Caversfield (Oxon) in 1533 has three speech scrolls with extracts from the Office of the Dead. Heu michi domine quia peccavi nimis in vita mea; quid faciam miser ubi fugiam nisi ad te deus meus; miserere mei dum veneris in novissimo die (‘Alas for me, Lord, for I have sinned greatly in my life. What shall I do, wretch that I am? Where shall I flee unless to you, my God? Have mercy on me when you come at the last day’). This is the responsory to the fifth reading (Job 14: 1-6, ‘Man that is born of woman is of few days …’) at the second nocturn of the Office. The memorial to the priest John Moore at Sibson (Leics.) in 1532 shows him with hands raised in worship in front of a miniature depiction of Christ in judgement seated on a rainbow. Moore has two speech scrolls quoting from Psalm 118 in the Vulgate (119 in the modern English reckoning): verse 170, Intret postulatio mea in conspectu tuo [domine] (‘Let my supplication come before thee’) and verse 173, Fiat manus tua ut salvet me (‘Let thy hand help me’). (photo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnhawes/8173251123/in/set-72157594582088206 )

One might expect a priest to be literate and to have designed his own memorial. Denton, however, was a layman. One of the leading landowners of his area, his will is in the PCC records in the National Archive. (Time to shell out for a download? Maybe …) He clearly knew his way around the Office of the Dead, as did the unknown commissioner of the Croscombe slab. The responsory on the Pudsay memorial was clearly better known and may have been a commonplace, but it is still interesting.

Here in Wales we don’t have that many medieval brasses, and stone is more difficult to carve with elaborate inscriptions. Nevertheless, in the ruins of Tintern Abbey, there is a stone with an inscription which is now all but illegible


but which was drawn about a century ago by the Cardiff architect John Rodger.


The inscription on this one reads …anime eius christe miserere … : it is part of the Sarum rite for the commendation of the dead, Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi miserere anime eius. Christe ihesu miserere anime eius – ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on his soul. Christ Jesus, have mercy on his soul’. Here too was someone who know his way around the Latin rite.

But why did the commissioners of these tombs put so much effort into choosing arcane inscriptions and having them carved (sometimes, one suspects, by stonemasons wh could not themselves understand them) when most of the poeple who saw the carvings would not understand them either? This question goes to the heart of what we understand by literacy in the Middle Ages. For us, literacy is the ability to decode unfamiliar text, and we subconsciously equate it with intelligence. Literacy in the medieval period had a much wider definition. In an article on pilgrim badges in Viator, Tom Bredehoft refers to Brian Stock’s concept of “textual communities” whose members recognize script as text and associate a specific meaning with it. That understanding may have been communicated orally: it does not even demand that any member of the community is “literate” in our modern sense, as long as they possess the skill of associating text with meaning. This is public text as iconography: to quote Bredehoft, “In brief, a text need not always be ‘read’ in order to convey meaning to a viewer, although the association of meaning with text is foundational to any understanding of literacy”. Tombs formed focal points for the ritual commemoration of the dead and the words on them could be read by the literate (or by those who had learned to recognise specific inscriptions) to others.

But there is another explanation we have to bear in mind for at least some of these inscriptions. Not all medieval art was meant to be seen and read by human eyes. There was always a third party in the process of reading and viewing text: the writer/painter, the reader/viewer, and God who sees and understands all things. The inscriptions on our tombs were in this sense a perpetual prayer, repeating the liturgy of the dead for all eternity.


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