The cover of Boydell’s new Medieval Studies catalogue is dominated by two joined hands. We were so struck by the beauty of these two cold stone hands joined so delicately that we knew it was THE perfect image for our catalogue, and when Dr Jessica Barker very kindly agreed to let us use it, we were delighted. But what’s the story behind these ‘double tombs’? That’s the intriguing subject of Stone Fidelity, as Dr Barker explains.
What will survive of us is… love?
Every society holds a set of common assumptions about the aspects of a person believed to persist after death, whether in the memories of the living or in the afterlife. From the thirteenth century onwards, there was an increasingly expansive view of persistent personhood. Theological arguments erupted on various matters relating to this fundamental question, ranging from the age at which a person would be resurrected (usually agreed to be thirty-three, the age at which Christ had died on the cross), to the fate of an individual’s nail clippings and excess fat (believed to be an essential part of the individual, just as God numbers the hairs on an individual’s head). Images of the Last Judgement began to show the resurrected dead as individuals, male and female, bearing signs of their earthly occupation and status.
It wasn’t just the state of the earthly body that took on a new importance in the afterlife. So, too, did post-mortem love, and especially the affection between husband and wife. This is despite the fact that Christ’s response to the Sadducees in the Gospel of Matthew (“in the resurrection, they shall neither marry or be married, but be like the angels in heaven”) explicitly denies the possibility of that the bonds of marriage or sexualised bodies would endure into eternity. Whereas earlier funerary monuments always showed the deceased alone, even if two spouses were buried at the same time and in the same place, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it became increasingly fashionable for memorials to show the figures of husband and wife side-by-side, known as ‘double tombs’.
Some double tombs depict the effigies of husband and wife holding one another by the hand. Others were accompanied by inscriptions celebrating the length, affection and fecundity of the couple’s union. A Latin inscription on a brass memorial to the merchant Richard Bertlot (d. 1462) and his wife Petronilla Walton ends with plea for the widow to be reunited with her deceased spouse: “pray for the man and may his wife be joined to him!” Even notoriously un-loving marriages might be commemorated. Isabella of France, queen of England (d. 1358) choose to be buried in the dress she worn for her marriage to Edward II fifty years previously, the same husband in whose deposition and murder she had conspired.
What prompted this new desire to commemorate married love, and to assert its persistence in the afterlife? This was the question that prompted my research into double tombs, and that eventually led to my book, Stone Fidelity. Scholars have tended to explain these memorials in terms of the affection between the couple commemorated. But, if monuments to married couples were first and foremost a sign of an exceptionally loving union, then how do we explain why they clustered in certain places and at particular historical moments?
One idea that really helped me in thinking about this problem 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 reveals that married love had taken on a new economic, legal, political and religious importance, as well as new forms of expression— this is the phenomenon that I address in my book.
This guest post was written by Dr Jessica Parker, Lecturer in Medieval Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.