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Medieval Deaths, Funeral Rites & Rituals

The afterlife and the soul of the deceased was a very serious business to those who lived and died in the Middle Ages and great consideration was given into preparation for the soul's eternal life. The final preparation of the body for burial was seen as just as important as the life of the person who lived it.

The detail shown at right is the Dance of Death by Talin, of the mortality of man and the inability of even the upper classes and kings to escape Death's clutches. The Dance of Death was a popular theme in contemporary medieval artwork.

While death came to all, its repercussions varied depending on the social stature of the deceased.

When an unfree tenant passed away, a heriot or fine was paid to his Lord; usually his best beast. It was written in the Cuxham Court Roll that

'..even if he has only a single animal, the Lord shall have it.'

The parish church claimed the second-best beast as a mortuary fine. If a family was of modest standing, it was quite possible to lose all the beasts it possessed, especially if illness claimed more than one family member within a short space of time.

Memorial Brasses
Memorial brasses were a popular way for the wealthy to be remembered after death, originating perhaps from the desire for memorials more durable than the usual stone and marble slabs. Brass plates also offered the ability to record greater detail in clothing and accessories than stone or marble.

The earliest existing dated examples of memorial brasses are from the thirteenth century. The brass, an alloy of copper, zinc, lead and tin was beaten into thick plates of various sizes and was principally manufactured at Cologne and exported. England was the largest consumer of brass for use in brass memorials.

Pictured at left, a memorial brass of Elizabeth de Northwood dated at 1335. She is engraved modestly wearing a wimple over her plaited hair which is resting on an elaborate pillow.

Persons commemorated with brasses were usually engraved on the plates life sized by deeply incised lines. Shading and minute detail was not usually attempted. In some cases black and red enamels were used to enhance the brass, while others brasses were further adorned with Limoges enamels which could be many varied colours.

Brasses were at their greatest artistic excellency in the 14th century, slowly deteriorating in the following centuries. The most popular pose for women was the hands pressed palms together in devotional prayer. Often a couple were shown together and sometimes a beloved pet was included at the feet.

Vigils and Masses
Much expense was spent by the upper classes on candles, masses and donations to the church. Funerals were not only to mark the passing of a loved one, but for the nobility or very wealthy townsfolk, it was another opportunity for a showy display of wealth.

An elaborate funeral pall was often donated to the church to be made into vestments or altar cloths afterwards and great sums of money or lands donated to the church ensured prayers were said for the soul of the departed.

Common people sat vigil with the deceased, often singing, playing games and dicing. In an effort to curtail these kinds of vigils which, in 1284, were felt by the Ludlow church to be not particularly solemn, the guilds forbade games and the attendance of women who were not direct family members. Shown at right is a detail from the Murthly Hours, a 1310 illumination.

Guilds provided for their own members even at the time of death with donations of masses, tapers and burial costs, extending this to members of the guild who lived outside of the town. It was standard practice that the deceased would be afforded the same courtesies as if he had died in his home parish.

The Black Death
The bubonic plague, known then as the Great Pestillance and now as the Black Death, swept through Europe decimating populations from 1347 to 1350 and again in 1399. It was widely believed by rich and poor alike to be a punishment from God for the wickedness of the people who lived indulgent lives at that time.

In actual fact, it is thought today that the plague was carried by flea-infested rats. To the unlearned and educated alike, the plague struck entire families down, randomly sparing a person here and there. An estimated 25 million Europeans died.

Appointments to the church were hastened to fill the urgent need for spiritual ministering as the church also suffered losses among its numbers. As the numbers of deaths grew and grew, mass graves were dug outside town walls and last rites were not performed since there was no-one left alive or willing to administer them.

Burial Procedures
The body of the deceased was washed with water and then wound in a white winding sheet or shroud in preparation for burial. Illustrated above is a scene from the illumination The Murthly Hours of 1310 showing a scene from a burial with the deceased already wrapped in his winding sheet and being lowered into what appears to be a casket of some kind while prayers are being read from a book. Both women and men are in attendance.

The illumination at right shows another image from the same page of The Murthly Hours manuscript of the funeral procession. The procession is led by a person with a bell followed by monks, then men, the deceased and finally by women. The funeral pall is covering the deceased.

Funeral palls were often made of very costly material which was donated to the church afterwards in return for masses for the departed's soul.

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, symbolic of memory and fidelity, was used in wreaths for funerals.

The life of a widow often offered more opportunities than the life of a married woman. In many cases, she was permitted to continue her husband's business if she was previously trained in the trade. She was then permitted to employ up to two apprentices and oversee their training herself and confer guild status on her next husband provided he worked at the same craft.

Listed in the records of The Company of Soapmakers of Bristol are entries such as:

'The Wiiddowe Dies took to prentice Michaell Pope the Son Richarde Pope of Bristeltowe for the terme of VII yeares begininge the III of October 1593'

and also among the records...

'We reserved into the fellowship of Sopmaken and changleng Richard Lemwell for that he sarved his Apprentisshipe with Alice Lemwell wedow to sopemaken and changlyng'

Register of Rich Widows
A widow who was wealthy and of sufficient social standing naturally attracted the attention of noblemen hoping to utilise her assets to improve his own position. Widows of sufficient means or with a large inheritance or with strategic land holdings might be put under the king's 'protection'. The Register of Rich Widows and Orphaned Heirs and Heiresses of 1185 shows that many were married 'in the king's gift'.

Essentially, the king was within his right to grant the widow in marriage to whomsoever he pleased.

It was possible for a widow to avert a match she wished to avoid by buying her way out of such an agreement, however it was not uncommon that the price to do so was extremely high and would cost the widow the means to support herself afterwards, thus making it impossible for a woman to free herself.

In many cases, it left her with little choice but to comply, unless she took the mantle and the ring and became a vowess dedicating her life to the service of God and promising to remain chaste.

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