Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture
An interview with Jessica Barker
Dr Barker, it’s a pleasure to have you in the Medieval Herald. May we begin by asking what first triggered your interest in the Middle Ages and what route your studies have taken to date?
My interest in the Middle Ages was first piqued when I was studying history for my undergraduate degree: the first medieval module I ever studied was on the Wars of the Roses, so I clearly haven’t strayed far from my roots! I was—and continue to be— attracted to the medieval period because of its fundamental difference to the contemporary world. So many of the ideas and categories we take for granted just didn’t apply, or at least not in the same way: concepts like the ‘individual’, or the ‘secular’ versus the ‘religious’, or (to use a pertinent example) even an apparently ‘universal’ emotion like love. Studying the medieval period helps me to see contemporary conditions in a different light, and I find that endlessly enriching.
Your book focuses on the double tomb, or twin effigy. What inspired your decision?
I was initially struck by a small group of monuments that show the effigies of husband and wife holding one another by the hand, a gesture that has usually been explained purely in terms of the affection between an individual couple. If monuments to married couples were first and foremost a sign of an exceptionally loving union, then it is difficult to explain why they clustered in certain places and at particular historical moments. One would have to assume that marriages tended to be more loving – here I am speaking of the feeling rather than its expression – in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and therefore more couples chose to commemorate their union. There must have been broader social tendencies driving this new funerary fashion.
One idea that really helped me in thinking about this was Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of the “emotional community”: that is, the ideas shared within a particular social group about the types of emotional expression that are expected, celebrated, tolerated or deplored, including the recognition of certain forms of affective bond and the denial of others. The profusion of double tombs in late-medieval England implies that married love had taken on a new social and religious importance, as well as new forms of expression— this is the phenomenon that I address in my book.
Why do you think they have been so little studied in the past?
I think the romantic appeal of double tombs has been, perhaps paradoxically, a barrier to detailed study. There is something immediately affecting about an image of two people joined for eternity. We want to believe that these sculptures are ‘evidence’ of the power of love to transcend death and so are reluctant to recognise the artifice of these monuments or to ask questions about the more prosaic motivations behind their commissioning, such as law, land and money.
There are also significant practical barriers to conducting a wide-ranging study of funerary monuments. Most tomb monuments are scattered in isolated churches, some of which are extremely remote, meaning that studying tombs requires you to be either an intrepid traveller or rely primarily on photographs (which themselves can be misleading). Although there is a really useful digital catalogue of memorials in the Netherlands (https://memo.sites.uu.nl/), no equivalent exists for the UK or any other European country— so getting a sense of broader shifts in funerary fashion and their geographical contours can be extremely challenging.
And can you tell us, where does your book’s title, “Stone Fidelity”, come from?
I took my title from “An Arundel Tomb”, one of the most famous poems from Philip Larkin’s 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. It opens with the narrator chancing upon a medieval tomb to an unidentified earl and countess of Arundel. At first he finds the monument rather uninteresting, until he notices “with a sharp, tender shock” that the two effigies are holding hands.
The final stanza includes a line that has stayed with with me throughout this project: “the stone fidelity they hardly meant has come to be their final blazon.” Here Larkin is drawing attention to the instability of memory itself: the earl and countess commissioned this monument so that they could control how they were to be remembered, and yet they couldn’t of course prevent the massive social shifts that opened the monument up to radically different interpretations by modern viewers like Larkin. Essentially he is saying that the earl and countess have come to be defined by love (their “stone fidelity”), whereas this affective gesture was originally of only marginal importance to the meaning of the tomb.
I have to say I disagree with Larkin in that I think the decision to be shown holding hands was central to the meaning of the tomb, but he raises an important point about the danger of being seduced into seeing these monuments as expressions of pure feeling, somehow abstracted from their historical circumstances.
Why did some couples opt for double tombs and others not?
It depends on when the monument was commissioned. Very few double tombs were erected in England before the second quarter of the fourteenth century. However, by the second half of the fifteenth century, most memorials commemorated two or more spouses. So we can see a shift whereby double tombs moved from being a niche choice to a default option. In other words, if a patron chose a double tomb in the fourteenth century, he or she would have had a very specific reason for doing so, whereas if they chose one in the later fifteenth century, they were likely just following standard practice.
Patrons tended to be especially keen to commission a double tomb if there were lands or money tied up with the marriage, so in cases where the wife was an heiress, or the husband had left his spouse a sizeable settlement (known as a jointure) after his death. Double tombs could also be commissioned in response to legal disputes. In these cases displays of spousal love were an effort to ‘gloss over’ a disputed marriage. Refuting the idea that a union was illegal was particularly important on the death of the couple, as it would determine the legitimacy of their heirs. Indeed this seems to have motivated, at least in part, the commissioning of the tomb that inspired Larkin’s poem.
What might have prevented other couples from selecting a double tomb?
Men and women sometimes avoided commissioning double tombs because they wanted to commemorate other relationships or other facets of their identity. A double tomb always involved a certain amount of compromise between the competing priorities of husband and wife, a compromise that not all spouses were willing to make. For instance, Alice Chaucer (granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer) was married three times and two of her spouses explicitly ask for her to be buried beside them in their will. But instead Alice chose to go it alone, commissioning a remarkable monument at Ewelme in Oxfordshire with two sculpted images of herself, one showing her in the garb of a duchess and the other as a naked, emaciated corpse.
In other cases, the option to commission a double tomb simply wasn’t open to the couple because one or both of them already had memorials showing them alongside an earlier spouse. This is an aspect of funerary culture that isn’t recognised often enough: tombs were often erected many decades before one or both of the spouses had actually died. John of Gaunt, for instance, commissioned a tomb showing himself holding hands with his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, after her death in 1368. He lived for another 31 years and married twice more, but returned many times to his tomb with Blanche during his lifetime and chose to be buried there when he died.
It’s also worth saying that a pre-existing double tomb didn’t always prevent men or women from commissioning a new one. Margaret Stanley, sister of the formidable Thomas Stanley, first earl of Derby, actually had two memorials showing her holding hands with her spouse, one with her first husband and one with her second!
Is it even possible to ‘read’ all twin effigies the same way? Do some make very different statements to others?
It’s clear that double tombs encompassed a variety of meanings depending on their specific context. By this I mean both the other elements of the memorial, such as inscriptions and devotional images, as well as the architectural and ritual environment of the church in which they were situated. But not only this— I also think tomb studies can benefit massively from taking into account the broader artistic and literary culture of the time. So in my book I place double tombs into dialogue with seals, manuscripts, rings and brooches, as well as theological and literary texts.
I discuss the monument to Richard II and Anne of Bohemia at length in the book. This was the first royal double tomb in England, and the only one to show the couple holding hands. In this case, part of the ‘meaning’ behind the emphasis on spousal love seems to have been to align the royal couple with St Edward the Confessor and St Anne, both of whom were believed to have had a chaste marriage. Scholars have often taken this comparison at face value and claimed that Richard and Anne also took the deliberate decision to refrain from sexual intercourse. However, a recently discovered letter from Anne to her brother, Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, refers to a miscarriage, revealing that Richard and Anne suffered from fertility problems. So the emphasis on saintly chastity and spousal love on their tomb can instead be seen as an exercise in royal propaganda, transforming a personal and dynastic failure into evidence for their quasi-saintly character.
Do you have a favourite double tomb, and could you direct us to any fine but little-known examples?
My favourite double tomb is actually a triple tomb: the monument to Margaret Holland and her two royal husbands, John Beaufort, earl of Somerset and Thomas of Lancaster, duke of Clarence. It is a truly remarkable monument, housed in its own sumptuous chapel at Canterbury Cathedral. Both her husbands were originally buried next to the tomb of Henry IV at Canterbury but Margaret ordered for their bodies to be exhumed and reinterred next to her in the chapel she had built for them. This was an audacious statement of ownership of her royal husbands’ bodies.
Another little-known double tomb that I recommend making the trip to see is the memorial to Walter Stewart, earl of Menteith, and his wife Mary at the Augustinian Priory of Inchmahome. It’s located in the ruins of the priory on an island in the middle of the Lake of Menteith (just north of Stirling). Aside from its glorious setting, this memorial is a rare survival from medieval Scotland and a very early example of a double tomb, dating from the end of the thirteenth century. The spouses are locked in an intimate embrace: both have their arms around each other’s shoulders, while Walter draws Mary’s cloak across her body.
What is next for you now? Will you continue your work on double tombs?
I’m setting aside double tombs for now, although I have plans to continue my research into the material and artistic culture of medieval marriage (there is much more to say about wedding rings and dresses!).
The double tombs at the royal convent of Batalha in Portugal piqued by interest in the art of this region. My next major project will be on the padrões, columns erected on the coast of West Africa by Portuguese navigators at the end of the fifteenth century.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
Book reviews are my major source of information on new publications, as well as newsletters from medieval publishers. I think social media—Instagram especially—could be a really useful way of keeping abreast of new publications.
Dr JESSICA BARKER is a Lecturer in Medieval Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
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