Medieval tomb carvings. This time twelve months ago we were enjoying the autumn term studying the tombs of the Doges and other notables in the wonderful churches of Venice. It seems appropriate for me to celebrate the anniversary with a look at an interesting English carving.
Pershore Abbey has a rich history and is home to a number of interesting freestanding and wall mounted carvings. The one that caught my eye yesterday was the so called Crusader Tomb. This has two stories: that of the memorial and also the characteristic cross legged carving.
Firstly who is the Crusader. Well actually no one is quite sure. According to the Abbey publicity he was most probably Sir William de Harley, from Shropshire, but given estates in Worcestershire as reward for fighting.
Although the figure has lost the lower half of the knight’s legs it is a finely carved memorial. The chain mail helmet and leg protection represents the warrior’s protective garment made of hundreds of small iron links. The knight has a hunting horn in his right hand and is clutching his sword with his left. Unique to this carving is the presence of three buckles holding the breast and backplate of the knight’s armour.
The crossed leg carving is the most important historically though. Out of the 350 or so English carvings of knights from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries some 200 have this crossed leg posture. So what does it represent. There are three possible reasons put forward. The most common and established is that these are crusader knights – hence the cross. This reason has been challenged recently as there are many memorials of knights with straight legs. Maybe the second is the strength that is left in the stone carving by joining the legs at the knee.
The gender argument. Becoming more and more accepted is the idea that the knights were aware of social anxieties in the Middle Ages associated with gender. These carvings showed strong limbs with no clothing except the chain mail, covered only by a surcoat. Normal tomb carvings of clerics, royalty and women were fully clothed in drapes with the more reposed stance. These crossed legged knights reveal a more dynamic pose. The clergy were challenging the masculinity of the knights, with their love of fashion and courtly behaviour. The response was the undraped carvings with a dynamic warrior posture.
Interesting thought? Well you make your own mind up.