My last essay of term was on material culture and late medieval lay religion in England. Exhausted, and with my brain saturated with all the information I had stuffed into it during the previous seven weeks of term, it sadly was not a good essay. I feel this is an opportunity to redeem myself. Here goes…
The study of material culture can be split into three categories: the independent study of artefacts, the study of material artefacts in conjunction with written documents (such as wills) and finally the study of written documents that shed light on pre-existing material culture of which a written record is all that remains.
For the purpose of this blog and to compensate for my withered essay, considering the surviving tomb of John Baret of Bury St. Edmunds is interesting. This case study underlines the fickle nature of late medieval religion but more broadly highlights the pit-falls involved in the study of material culture, something that we all (as art history enthusiasts) should be aware of.
The cadaver tomb with the haunting skeletal effigy is still there today in St. Mary’s Church. It appears to be a mark of John Baret’s humble acknowledgment that he was an unworthy individual with a penitential debt that at death, remained to be paid. It could act as a spiritual reminder to the viewer, that their death was not all that far away and thus they should convert with urgency and express their Christian devotion with greater fervour. It seems likely that Baret believed himself to be fulfilling his Christian role in encouraging conversion in this way. More immediately, it is probable that it was designed to evoke sympathy and pity on the part of the spectator in a bid to secure the help of their prayers in pushing Baret’s soul through the fires of purgatory and into the afterlife.
From this purely aesthetic exploration, the reduction of the man’s penitential debt is the central spiritual concern here; the tomb is a spiritual reminder to the Christian viewer and a reflection of the man’s humility, is it not? Considering the physical features of this tomb in conjunction with Baret’s will, a more nuanced view of the man’s thought-process can be built up.
In his will, it is evident that Baret intended for the church to be redesigned for the construction of his tomb – hardly an act of subtlety by a humble man. Furthermore, when it is known that he was a rich and powerful cloth merchant, it is easy to understand that such an individual may have also been concerned with projecting his wealth and worldly status in order to secure his legacy as a successful, prosperous and preeminent trader. Indeed, on closer inspection of the tomb, on the fascia below the reclining effigy, a smaller carving shows Baret in life, dressed in fine clothes and wearing the silver “Collar of Esses” which the Lancastrian kings had bestowed on him. A royal connection could not be a more emphatic projection of worldly status.
Two things can be gleaned from this. Firstly, that late medieval lay piety was a fickle thing. Men were concerned with their spiritual well-being; fear of what the afterlife may bring and the desire to secure a place in heaven was central to Christian belief and practise. Yet at the same time, the projection and conservation of one’s worldly position was ever-present; a fascinating medieval contradiction.
Secondly and more broadly, this case study underlines the limits of studying material culture when focusing solely on the material artefacts that remain. Collaboration with documentary evidence is crucial as it allows the gaps in the historical jigsaw to be filled in with some confidence. Without scrutiny of this kind, the gaps would remain empty, and our knowledge of the past would be left similarly unfulfilled.
‘Collaboration’ seems to be the word to be stressed here. Collaboration between the art historian (for the deconstruction of the aesthetic qualities of artefacts) and historian, for this deconstruction to be given wider historical context and significance. Finally, collaboration here and now, between you, the reader and I, the struggling writer… have I redeemed myself?
E.Duffy; The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional religion in England 1400-1580; 1992