As part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded Speaking with the Dead project, extended by the Past in its Place project, I have been exploring the mnemonics of tombs in English and Welsh cathedrals from the Middle Ages to the present day. Having presented a version of my research under the title ‘Being Medieval in the Cathedral’ at the Society of Medieval Archaeology conference entitled Being Medieval at UCLan (Preston) organised by Dr Duncan Sayer, I decided to present an expanded version of the paper as a public lecture in the Grosvenor Lunchtime Lecture Series.
Having previously explored Tombs in Beowulf (exploring tombs within and behind the Anglo-Saxon poem) and Tombs of Terror (exploring the mortuary and material associations and manifestations of the legendary smith Weland), this was my third of a series of three lunchtime talks at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
I thought I would explore a particular category of tombs – effigy tombs – and consider them their materialities and biographies as mnemonic agents in cathedral spaces. I’ve discussed them before here. They were varied on many fronts, set up in cathedrals to commemorate royalty, bishops, clergy, aristocrats, and the gentry. They take many forms, some commemorate individuals, others couples. They represent the dead in an idealised, clothed form, although rarer examples of cadaver tombs also can be found.
Hence my talk’s title; I wasn’t suggesting effigies were or are to be considered as ‘living’ in any literal sense. However, both through their creation, and over the long term, they have come to be interactive – ‘conversing’ nodes for remembering and forgetting because of their sense of being animated and citational to other tombs within and around the same churches.
I regard this as part of exploring how an ‘archaeology of memory’ perspective brings new insights to the study of cathedral tombs, and how cathedrals continue to have special role in mortuary commemoration from the Middle Ages to the present day.
What did effigy tombs in cathedrals want?
I then set up the question: what did effigy tombs want of their viewers and those engaging with and passing by them? I suggested that, exploring how they had a mnemonic agency when constructed because of the particular tension they set up in material and space. If we ask: ‘what do effigy tombs want?’ we have to think about how they ‘speak’ to us, and to each other, through a variety of dualities inherent in their design. We focus on their active roles in calling for prayers from the living and creating social memories.
Effigy tombs in cathedrals were inherently public and yet simultaneously they spoke to the family and friends of the deceased.
Effigy tombs commemorate ecclesiastic identities and themes but many also might commemorate secular personages (or secular dimensions of ecclesiastical persons).
Effigy tombs deploy text but also a range of images and materials. These not only include the principle idealised representation of the persons commemorated – but also a range of heraldic symbols, subsidiary figures, ornamentation and material media.
The effigies themselves are stylised and yet show personal details: as such they have an uncanny human and yet inhuman quality. Like mannequins and robots, they have an eerie quality as out-of-this-world and yet in it.
The effigy dead are commemorated in repose, and yet they are awake and alert, usually active in prayer. Eyes are often demonstrably open, looking upwards to Heaven. Yet those viewing and touching them can see they are seeing. They are ocular and sensing tombs.
Effigies imply solidity and yet also imply their hollowness and the bodies beneath/below through their form and the effigies themselves.
Effigy tombs commemorate the elite individual and yet provoke ‘dividual’ concepts of personhood. Not only to they sometimes commemorate couples, but they provoke the prayers of the living and serve to honour descendants.
The tombs were large and augmented cathedrals as monuments. As such, they impeded movement and yet serve to create pauses and punctuating movement through cathedral space.
Effigy tombs cited both the past identities of those commemorated and aspirations for both a this-worldly and otherwordly futures for the decased and his/her descendants (spiritual or biological).
Biographies – What Did Effigies Want Over Time?
I then went on to suggest that the situation becomes even more complex when we take into account what tombs want over time. Here, further dualities apply and help us explore how effigy tombs gained, lost and reconfigured social memories:
Effigy tombs were architectural and yet potentially mobile – they were moved into, out of and around churches, sometimes gaining mnemonic momentum, sometimes losing it.
Effigy tombs were designed as coherent single pieces commemorating specific individuals or couples. Yet they could be effective in mnemonic terms both as wholes but they can operate when partible;
Effigy tombs were monumental and yet delible, subject to plastering, daubing and inscribing, with graffiti. Again, through this they gained as well as lost memories.
They commemorate named persons and yet can operate when they become anonymous, receiving new, legendary associations. This extends to antiquarian and archaeological traditions of interpreting specific tombs in relation to known historical personages who were buried at, and patronised, particular cathedrals.
This is perhaps the most important point for my talk. Effigy tombs have biographies of their own – as they persist, are damaged, moved, restored etc. And yet they also come to operate as assemblages, part of network of tombs within any particular cathedral. Less by design but by complex processes, tombs are mnemonic agents that ‘talk’ to each other.
Putting it all Together
So these are some of the issues I raised to frame my subsequent discussion of St David’s and Llandaff as examples of the project’s exploration of tombs in English and Welsh cathedrals. I discussed tombs that remain intact, others that have been moved, are fragmented, rearranged and, in particular, tombs that are repositioned so that they ‘talk’ to each other. ‘Living’ dead in conversation with each other!
All three talks went well, and I’m very grateful to the Grosvenor Museum and its staff, together with Maxine Reed – clerical assistant in the Dept of History and Archaeology – for supporting my three public talks. I’m also really grateful to the audience who listened so attentively and posed many fascinating and challenging questions. For my last talk 50-minute talk focusing on the tombs in St David’s and Llandaff cathedrals, I spent 10 minutes of Q&A and then 25 minutes talking to people afterwards! I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.