In medieval times people were reminded of their mortality through creative works known as memento mori. Guest-blogger Professor David Crouch explores the example of Count Waleran of Meulan and Worcester.
In April 1166 one of the greatest European aristocrats of his day, Count Waleran of Meulan and Worcester, died at the age of sixty-two as a monk in the abbey at Préaux in Normandy founded 150 years earlier by his ancestors. He had not been a monk long, only twenty days according to one source. He had been ailing for some time and not long before his retirement to the abbey he had held a final court among his family and dependents, publishing his last will and testament and setting out the arrangements for the disposal of his great estates. His body was laid to rest below the floor of Préaux abbey’s chapter house with four other of his close relatives, and soon afterwards his grave, and those of his grandfather, great uncle, father and uncle, were capped with a rather handsome set of Romanesque ledger stones, which he may have commissioned himself in his own lifetime.
The death of so great and wealthy a man, renowned as a Crusader, a cousin of the French and English kings, not to mention a Latin poet and international statesman, was noticed. It inspired a senior monk in a neighbouring Benedictine house, that of Bec-Hellouin, to compose a long poetic reflection on the count’s death, which he sent with his compliments to the monks of Préaux. It was written in that strand of fashionable twelfth-century theology called in Latin contemptus mundi (‘indifference to worldly things’).
Here’s a sample:
Honour vanishes like smoke and dissipates like foam,
it fades and passes and flees as a shadow.
What is wealth worth to a dying man who cannot take it with him?
He goes naked from the world: can you say where he is gone, blind fool?
What does the glory of this world amount to without the splendour of heaven?
The world’s glorious parade is vain in God’s eyes.
Man was created from vile dust, born of flesh, he is but earth.
When his life is ended, he will be food for worms, only ashes.
At death, hell awaits him as payment for his sins:
But for his virtues the reward is salvation, glory, eternal life and rest.
So, observing closely these signs with alert mind,
he should disdain worldly things, and chase only after those of heaven.
Wealth melts away, honour is trodden down, and the world’s glory
is one day remembered, the next forgotten; and once forgotten is gone for ever.
Count Waleran himself saw that he would be earth, worms and dust:
He dreaded eternal punishment, and he strove to enter heaven.
He gave away, dispersed and thought little of his goods, and he took
the easy yoke of Christ upon his body, with a pious heart.
Once a count, now a monk, once rich, now an empty-handed pauper,
he who wishes to understand, should value so much the honour of this world.
Where now – asks the author – are banquets, rich robes, horse and arms, castles and forests? They are vanities. The flesh perishes. The tomb and damnation is the future unless a man sets life’s good things at nothing, and keeps the state of his immortal soul in mind.
Contemptus mundi owes a lot to the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, one of the books of Wisdom ascribed by the middle ages to Solomon. Its influence on medieval death culture was enormous, encouraging cautious men like Count Waleran to make sure that he banked part of his wealth in the building of hospitals and the endowment of monasteries, and in the end symbolically rejecting his wealth and eminence by taking on the black habit of a monk, one of ‘Christ’s poor’. In art it encouraged the ostentatious meditation on the end of life, through the unflinching meditation on the transi or skeletal remains, which was all that was left of a human existence; a graphic sermon on the futility of human ambition and achievement.
Spes Nostra (Our Future Hope), an early sixteenth-century Dutch memorial painting commissioned by four Augustinian canons is one of the finest summations of this theological strand, so important to Catholic thinking about death and human fate. The four canons supported by their patron saints contemplate an open grave and a speaking transi, who tells them: ‘Whoever passes by, look on and weep. What you are so I was once. What I am now, so you shall be. Pray for my soul.’ The message survived the Reformation, and in British country churchyards this sort of solemn message can still often be read on eighteenth-century gravestones: ‘Behold the place where I do lie, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so shall you be, prepare for death to follow me.’ Protestants did not of course ask for the prayers of the living in such inscriptions.
This austere theology and the art form it inspired disappeared in the age of the Baroque, when humanistic monuments began to celebrate the departed’s life and achievements and only hinted at death with artful urns and discrete hourglasses. It was always at war with that humanistic spirit which hoped that some tattered glory could cling to the dead, if only through reputation. Count Waleran was depicted on his tombstone as a wise and bearded nobleman, not a transi or a monk. And even Stephen of Rouen, the monk of Bec who made his death and decay into a sermon, thought it wise to add:
Waleran, adorned with the great dignity of a count, rests with the monks,
as the beam of a star, so may he shine bright in the world.
For his fame, virtue and military victories live for ever
and do not die or perish, but rather they survive! .
David Crouch is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull. One of his research interests is lay piety and death culture in the high middle ages. He teaches a module “Death and Dying in Western Europe from Rome to the Renaissance”. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.