Sunday, 16 March 2014

6 feet under… in the Middle Ages

The fascination of afterlife, and where our souls travel to, once we pass on is a complex yet colorful visit in the Middle Ages. The society and culture of the medieval person, both of upper class and peasant were a far stretch from our secular society of today.  Superstition ran rapid, as well as a belief system that was very intertwined within the Catholic faith of the period. This directly impacted how and the traditions behind preparation for death of a loved one, and the ritual of letting them pass on, such as a funeral. Death was very much apart of medieval life, much more than today because of this general attitudes towards life and death were both equally important to the medieval person.

Preparation as well as how elaborate the celebration of ones life varied from peasant noble as one would expect. This also changed as time went on as far as what was and how the events were recorded down. During the 15th Century, documentation of medieval traditions became widely recorded including funerals of past kings. The medieval image of death is very well illustrated when looking at the literature created in the time. Illuminations of vivid and descriptive scenes of death or dying, ones deathbed, funeral rites all support the fascination of death and predation to be received by God. Emphasis was also placed in prayers placed in prayer books such as “Office of the Dead” that the owner would recite to shorten their time in purgatory. It is not an uncommon assumption to think that the average medieval man feared death. He feared for the salvation for his soul, hence the preparation with prayer, and other religious preparations were an important staple in many lives during this time, and especially in the end. The last thing any medieval individual wanted was to be stuck in Purgatory, or end up in Hell. For that fear was a very real one for many and something everyone worked to avoid during their lives.

We have a pretty good description of Edward IV’s funeral. His death was unexpected but it was after an illness of 10 days or so. Some preparations might have taken place earlier. It’s hard to tell. Edward died April 9th. Before he was delivered to God’s hands, tradition of a priest was called to the bedside to read last rights. He was then repented of all his sins, and made a request for all debts to be paid, and in turn all sacraments were given from the church.
Edward IV

The description of Edward’s funeral we have, is a pretty good description gathering from Sir Thomas More, whose description is backed up by Mancini’s account of the event. Both descriptions give very detailed accounts of funeral preparations of the body, as well as the décor added to the procession, all showing a lavish display of wealth and royalty. His body was noted to have lain naked on a board in Westminster Palace, so that both lords both spiritual and temporal could see. Displaying of the body was done to dispel any rumors that his death did not really happen. Next, he was embalmed and wrapped in “cerements” of waxed linen cloth with a cap of estate on his head and his feet were adorned in red leather shoes. He next “lay in state” for eight days at St. Stephens Cathedral. While he was there, royal, as well as servants of the community performed requiem masses and watched him. April 17, his body was placed on a bier, covered with a large rich golden cloth and carried to Westminster Abbey. In his procession, 15 knights, and esquires accompanied him. Above him was a canopy of clothe fringed in gold and blue silk, and flanked at the corners by the four banners; Trinity, Our Lady (Mary?) St. George, and St. Edward, whom he was named after. Mass was held and he was placed in his resting place.
Richard’s funeral 1485

Despite what we have seen through popular media; Richard did more than likely, have some sort of funeral.  Also in preparation for unexpected death, the mass that was said that Monday morning before his last battle was to cleanse his soul in case of preparation of death while in battle. It is important to remember that during this time, England was in a state of war this was always a possibility. Richard was unfortunately was not the popular king in the battle. His body was looted, striped naked and paraded to town draped across the back of a horse like sac of grain. The time frame between when he was brought to town and actually noticed, I am not sure of but one of the main reasons why he was rescued by the Grey Friars was because they were the order in the church that took care of executed and people whom died in battle. 

Looking at the skeletal remains, we know he was tied at the hands. Reason for the friars not to undo this, might have been one of convenience. His grave was dug in a central location of their friary chapel and he was laid to rest more than likely in a sense of urgency. I am sure the though came to someone’s mind that they had to bury the body quickly due to the display that was prior to the retrieval of the body.  Naked, with out even a shroud, his body was placed haphazardly in his grave.  A pillar was later placed near his tomb in the chapel, but its existence is long gone due to the monastery being destroyed under the rule of Henry VIII. In stark contrast, Sir Simon de Montfort whom also died in battle never received a funeral or a proper burial. He was quartered and various body parts tossed in a river. Richard got lucky that someone acted quickly enough to save his body from a similar fate. 
Burial rituals for peasants did happen, but were not as lavish as Edwards. More than likely close to what Richard experienced. But the bodies after the wake were placed in the parish’s cemetery and the bodies were wrapped in a shroud. Circumstances and when and how someone died, definitely impacted how one was brought to St. Peter’s gates. But the contrast of Edward’s funeral and then Richards’ show the how easily a basic ritual or custom can be changed to suit the need of the time, especially in the time of war.

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