The smiling face of skeleton Thomas
PUBLISHED: 07:27 03 March 2018
Dickon Whitewood of Norfolk Museums Service looks at a grim reminder of medieval life - and death.
The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” This quote from the author L P Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between is a truism that constantly applies to history and our appreciation towards it. Similarly, if the past is a different country to our own, so too are its people foreigners.
Although a common humanity can often be seen across time, many of the beliefs, customs, institutions and habits adopted by people in the past can seem inaccessibly alien to modern eyes.
Very rarely is this truer than in our understanding of the medieval past in its attitudes towards death and mortality. When thinking of life in the medieval period, many today recall the words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which he coined the common phrase “nasty, brutish and short”.
At times this description fits squarely with the medieval world. For example, when the Black Death ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, between 30% to 60% of the population died. In the case of Norwich, it has been estimated that the population decreased from around 25,000 to less than 8,000 by the year 1377.
This was all the worse as knowledge of the disease, its natural dissemination and outbreak was so comparatively poor, many seeing it as a sign of God’s displeasure alone.
With natural disasters, the often primitive medical treatments available, locally-centred communities, not to mention the continual presence of violence and warfare, death was a common occurrence in people’s lives. Coupled with the overwhelming religiosity of the period, mortality and the afterlife occupied a great deal of people’s thought.
One of the ways this preoccupation asserted itself was through tomb monuments, one fascinating form of which was cadaver effigies and brasses.
These memorials, emerging after the Black Death but probably not as a direct result, were designed to show the deceased as corpses and skeletons, with some particularly gruesome examples (called transi) specifically intended to show the corpse in a rotting state of decomposition.
In Norfolk Museum’s Services collections is the example of Thomas Childes, who died in 1452 and was buried in St Laurence’s Church.
Exact details of Thomas’ life are unknown, with several Thomas Childes on record and the inscription which once identified him missing.
The figure itself is lively animated, the skull appearing to smile and with one hand raised in greeting or benediction. In this way, the character is brought figuratively to life, clearly intended to gain attention and appeal to those who saw it on the church floor, perhaps reminding them that a similar same fate awaited them. Medieval attitudes to death can be a thought-provoking theme, particularly in comparison with those held in the modern world, in which death often has a diminished role, pushed to the back of people’s minds and lives. In this way the words of L P Hartley again spring to mind and show how our understanding of common human experiences change over time and shape the world in which we live.