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Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England

Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England
    Book Description:

    We all die, but how we perceive death as an event, process or state is inextricably connected to our experiences and the social and environmental culture in which we live. During the early middle ages, the body was used to demonstrate a whole range of concepts and assumptions: the ideal aristocrat possessed a strong, whole and virile body which reflected his inner virtues, and nobility of birth was understood to presuppose and enhance nobility of character and action. Here, the author examines how contemporary ideas about death and dying disrupted this abstract ideal. She explores the meaning of aristocratic funerary practices such as embalming and heart burial, and, conversely, looks at what the gruesomely elaborate executions of aristocratic traitors in England around the turn of the fourteenth century reveal about the role of the body in perceptions of group identity and society at large. Dr DANIELLE WESTERHOF is Honorary Visiting Fellow, School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-625-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations and Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-ix)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. x-xii)
  6. Introduction: Staking out Aristocratic Identities at Roncevaux
    (pp. 1-12)

    Charlemagne is standing in the midst of his vanquished rearguard in the valley of Roncevaux, lamenting the demise of his kinsman Roland. Before the fallen hero can be laid to rest, however, his death needs retribution. Ganelon is brought before the Emperor and summarily tried by battle, during which he is defeated by Charlemagne’s champion Thierry. Found guilty of treason, Ganelon is next drawn, hanged, disembowelled, and quartered by four horses tearing apart his body. Almost immediately afterwards, Roland, Oliver and the rest of the ‘douceper’ are prepared for burial: their bodies are eviscerated, embalmed with sweet spices and wrapped...

  7. Chapter 1 Death and the Cadaver: Visions of Corruption
    (pp. 13-32)

    Imagine a large exhibition space somewhere in a large North American, European or South-East Asian city. Throngs of people are queuing at the entrance, while inside others walk around in amused horror in the modern equivalent of a nineteenth-century ‘freak show’. Welcome to ‘Body Worlds’, the controversial exhibition staged under the auspices of the German doctor Gunther von Hagens. Inside the exhibition space, the human form is on display in all its glory, not in the shape of intricate plastic models, but the real thing. According to the official documentation, the exhibitions are staged to demystify human anatomy in a...

  8. Chapter 2 Embodying Nobility: Aristocratic Men and the Ideal Body
    (pp. 33-56)

    Much has been said and written about the high medieval nobility as a social class and their ideas of chivalry. David Crouch has recently written a very useful and densely packed overview of the centuries-spanning English and French historiographies of the nobility underlying current discussions and it is therefore unnecessary here to rehearse the main points of debate.¹ One of the most interesting themes to arise from Crouch’s discussion is the adoption of the French sociologist-philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus in an attempt to define and analyse ‘pre-chivalric’ chivalric behaviour – ‘pre-chivalric’ meaning before the first manuals and codifications of...

  9. Chapter 3 Here Lies Nobility: Aristocratic Bodies in Death
    (pp. 57-74)

    In this chapter and the next, I shall explore the ways in which the noble body was perceived both in death and in funerary practices.¹ Firstly, I will look at where and how aristocrats were buried and how they were represented after death. Secondly, I shall examine in greater detail the practices surrounding the dead aristocratic body, in particular the role of embalming and multiple burial.²

    Funerary practices such as multiple burial should be seen in a wider context of aristocratic presence in a local setting and the role of religious houses in maintaining the image of nobility and status...

  10. Chapter 4 Shrouded in Ambiguity: Decay and Incorruptibility of the Body
    (pp. 75-95)

    If aristocratic patronage of and burial in religious houses was to a large extent influenced by ideas about social, economical and political status, how does the concept of multiple burial fit in? Sometimes regarded as a means of increasing the efficacy of prayers, multiple burial, I would argue, is also tied up with issues of nobility and social status, and to some extent with secular lordship. I will suggest that rather than enforcing decay and fragmentation, these practices were partly geared towards creating a fantasy of wholeness and incorruptibility suggestive of saintly corporeal preservation found in hagiography, which served to...

  11. Chapter 5 Corruption of Nobility: Treason and the Aristocratic Traitor
    (pp. 96-114)

    On the vigil of St Bartholomew’s Day, 23 August 1305, amongst cheering crowds, one of Edward I’s most persistent opponents was dragged by a horse through the streets of London towards the site of his execution. Charged with treason and a range of felonies, the Scotsman William Wallace, scion of a minor landholding family, was subjected initially to personal humiliation before being publicly killed in elaborate fashion. About a year later, on 6 September 1306, Simon Fraser was similarly put to death for treason and other crimes and only two months later, John Earl of Atholl underwent the same fate...

  12. Chapter 6 Dying in Shame: Destroying Aristocratic Identities
    (pp. 115-136)

    One of the surprising aspects of the 1352 Statute of Treasons is the total absence of a discussion on corporeal punishment for treason. Although king and commons are concerned about the division of escheats and forfeitures, the fate of the traitor is cloaked in silence, which suggests a common agreement on the propriety of the punishment. On the basis of this, it is difficult to disagree with Gillingham’s observation about the introduction of harsher punishments for aristocratic traitors.¹ Edward I’s attitude towards men he considered to be traitors was radically different from previous reigns (although a precedent was set by...

  13. Conclusion: Death and the Noble Body
    (pp. 137-140)

    As Marcel Mauss pointedly remarked in his call for a combined psychological and sociological approach to the study of human behaviour: ‘the body is man’s first and most natural instrument’ to give meaning to one’s social and material environment.¹ It is the pivotal site of interaction between person and society, while it embodies notions of personal and communal identity: it is with the body that we experience, perform, communicate. By contrast, the lifeless and decaying body, the cadaver, typically evokes a sense of fear and alienation – it is ambiguous, ‘matter out of place’ and thus abject, yet it forcefully presents...

  14. Appendix 1
    (pp. 141-149)
  15. Appendix 2
    (pp. 150-154)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 155-178)
  17. Index
    (pp. 179-190)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-191)