memento mori (the medieval “transi tomb”)
Aberth, John. (2002). From the Brink of the Apocalypse Confronting Famine, War, Plague, And Death In The Later Middle Ages. New York and London: Routledge.
One of the most macabre practices of the later Middle Ages (ca. 13th to 16th century) was the Transi Tomb. This English example was erected for John de Arundel or FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (d. 1435):
On the top of the tomb is an effigy of the Earl. Beneath it is a sculpture of a cadaver in an advanced state of decomposition. Due to their expense, Transi Tombs were only constructed by the wealthy.
“Tomb effigies of the deceased lying in a recumbent position, commonly known as ‘gisants,’ may date to as early as the tenth century in Europe and became common from the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. These images appear to be of the deceased as they may have looked in life (the so-called representacion au vif). Yet the presence of angels at the head of Edward II (d. 1327), for instance, suggest the effigy may also have been intended as an idealized figure depicted at the resurrection. Certainly the content of some tombs indicate a preparation for such an event.
“What the transi tomb did, of course, was contrast or replace altogether the idealized effigy with its opposite: a decomposing or desiccated cadaver (the representacion de la mort, or representation of death). The macabre was an important element of these tombs, but their main purpose was as preparation for the Apocalypse, not as a moralizing message or appeal for prayers. What was new about the two-tiered transi tombs was their perfectly balanced union of two sensibilities, mortification and glorification, fear and hope, that made up the process of death and resurrection.
“Reflecting their patron’s high status, these tombs are among the most sumptuous and beautifully carved in [England]. Their transis are gruesome, and their inscriptions certainly call attention to this fact. But the strong presence of angels on the tombs points to a triumph over sickness, mutilation, and death.”
In the Middle Ages, death lurked everywhere. The Black Death that killed one third of the population of Medieval Europe (now known to be the Yersinia pestis bacteria) was but one wave of plague. If you fell ill or were wounded, there was a very good chance you’d die. Women dreaded childbirth because it could lead to the grave.
King Richard the Lionheart, one of the Medieval period’s greatest warriors, was struck in the shoulder by an arrow. The wound became infected. It was an injury routinely treated in a modern Emergency Room with antibiotics and stitches, but it killed Richard.
Medieval historical figures are colorful because they packed a lot of action into a relatively short lifespan. They did not live so long as to exhaust life’s possibilities. Edward I’s first queen, Eleanor of Castile, died at age 49, and his second, Margaret of France, at age 38.