Life is changed, not ended: how the Medieval English dealt with death

Not everyone could afford their own mortuary churches or chapels


I had the recent disquieting experience of attempting to bury cremated human remains in the midst of a gale. Inevitably, while trying to return the last vestiges of a human being to the ground whence he had come, a proportion of the ash was blown to the four winds. This would not have been an experience known to the late-Medieval mind, and its prospect would surely have aroused horror in those whose theology of death was clear, and for whom the liturgy surrounding dying followed well-worn and consoling paths.

For those reared in the Whig historical myth of Reformation leading into Enlightenment, Sally Badham offers a refreshingly revisionist view—following in the footsteps, as she acknowledges, of Eamon Duffy. English Christianity from 1300 to 1558 is demonstrated as being vibrant and popular, rather than merely superstitious and imposed. Here is a culture united in belief with the mechanisms in place to cope with death and bereavement—and, one might argue, all the healthier for that.

“The defining doctrine of late-Medieval Catholicism was that of Purgatory”: Badham’s intensely researched study is based around the understanding that death necessarily involved judgement of past actions. If the initial judgement were positive, then a time of purgation for one’s failings was to be expected before the attainment of eternal happiness with God in heaven. The purgatorial experience could be speeded and ameliorated by the prayers and good works of those left behind on earth and so provision had to be made for ongoing forms of commemoration. It is the richness and variety of these forms which are explored in Seeking Salvation and the detail that underpins their provision shows that, to the late-Medieval mind, the spiritual was not some vague gnosticism, but earthed and grounded.

Take, for example, Ralph Cromwell, the treasurer of England from 1433 to 1443. In 1439, royal assent was given for a collegiate foundation dedicated to the Holy Trinity at Tattershall in Lincolnshire. Not completed until 1482, the church (in which Ralph’s tomb would have central place) was to be served by “a master, six priests, six clerks and six choristers, with an alms-house for thirteen paupers”— this retinue was dedicated to praying for the eternal salvation of the Cromwells and their benefactors.

Badham makes the point in her introduction that, whereas other scholars of the period have painted with a broad brush, her intention is to dig into the specific detail, and this she does with sections not just on the externals, such as the construction and ornamentation of chantries, but also on the liturgical norms they were designed to express. According to the will of Joan Devyn, a widow of Henley in Oxfordshire who died in 1484, 30 masses were to be celebrated on the 30 days after her funeral rites with the further request that “all the chaplains shall perform my exequies daily in the choir after the Hail Mary, solemnly and with their singing of prayers, and privately shall recite the prayers for souls two by two around my burial place”. Joan also asked that that each month on the anniversary of her death “six poor people should stand around my tomb holding candles”; she seems determined to get her money’s worth.

Not everyone, of course, could afford their own mortuary churches or chapels, and for those further down the social order, commemoration could be perpetuated through the “bede-rolls” kept by the chantry guilds associated with many Medieval parish churches. Saint Mary’s guild in Boston, Lincolnshire, was among the grandest of these and Seeking Salvation lists the appurtenances that this particular guild had to offer, including “three hearse cloths” with the comment that, dressed in full fig, its members “must have been a magnificent sight, enjoyed perhaps as much as any morality play”.

Although concerned with the artefacts and their provenance, Badham never loses sight of the fact that these were always understood as means to an end, and never ends in themselves. After her treatment of the theology of salvation, there is a useful chapter on the social consequences of a belief system that involved setting up almshouses, hospitals and schools. In some cases, these were conditional on prayers being offered for the benefactors but, more often than not, were established as acts of simple piety. A brass plate on an almshouse at Lambourn in Berkshire reads: “this blessed house is for the blind and the lame—built for the poor, not for the rich! This house of God is for peace, prayer and rest”.

Sally Badham bids us to enlarge our historical vision: by examining the various memoria “it is possible to re-enter the mind set of Medieval men and women, to listen to their expressions of hope and fear, of duty and devotion, and understand more deeply their commemorative strategies”.

• Christopher Colven is the rector of St James’s Roman Catholic Church, Spanish Place, London

Seeking Salvation: Commemorating the Dead in the Late-Medieval English Parish

Sally Badham

Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins Publishing, 278pp,

£39.95 (hb)