Deaths, Funeral Rites & Rituals
MEMORIAL BRASSES - VIGILS & MASSES - THE BLACK
DEATH - BURIAL PROCEDURES - WIDOWS
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 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
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.
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
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
The Black Death
The bubonic plague, known 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
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.
The body of the deceased was washed with water and then wound
in a white winding sheet or shroud in preparation for burial.
Illustrated at left 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.
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
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
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.