Death and Commemoration in Late Medieval Salisbury and Wessex, 23 March 2013

This event was the tenth conference of the Wessex Centre for History and Archaeology to be held at Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Organised by Michael Hicks on Saturday 23 March 2013, a particularly cold day, it featured seven papers (four by UOW staff) and attracted an attendance of 60 people. Death, it appears, is always popular. Central to the conference was the doctrine of purgatory, the state of suffering between death and the Last Judgement, that terrified medieval people into generous donations to pious purposes, as hospitals, schools, and chantries, which celebrated masses for the souls of the donors. The conference was opened by Dr David Lepine, a highly distinguished historian and co-author of Death and Commemoration in Medieval Exeter, who applied the same technique to Salisbury. Thw two Hungerford chantries, last thoroughly studied by Michael Hicks, featured in his paper and several others. Death was ever present, sudden death all too likely, and St Christopher offered brief relief, Dr Ellie Pridgeon reported in her survey of medieval wall-painting in Wessex. Hence its popularity. Doom paintings of the Last Judgement, featuring on the left those saved and on the right those destined for hellmouth, are too often are Victorian rather than medieval images. The educational message – ‘Such as we are, so shall you be: Repent while you have time’ – emerges both from the Hungerford wall-painting of the Three Living and the Dead and the cathedral’s cadaver tombs – depictions of the deceased as a shrouded and often worm-eaten and rotting corpse. The cadavers, so Christina Welch demonstrated, were within the first year of death when the soul (so it was believed) had yet to leave the body and their postmortem vicissitudes could be relieved. Thereafter Simon Roffey, in a splendidly illustrated presentation, reviewed the story of Magdalen Hill leper hospital and his excavations and revealed preliminary results of analysis of the cemeteries: definitely lepers, of both sexes and all ages, initially high status, later rather more disparaged. After lunch there were two papers on chantries, by Michael Hicks who tried to assess the numbers and fix the dates, and Cindy Wood who treated the cage chantries within great churches, which originated and terminated in Winchester and featured prominently at Salisbury, Bath and Wells, and Oxford. Unfortunately the culminating speaker Professor Chris Woolgar was too ill to speak about the death of Richard Mitford, but his speech was read for him. Bishops of Salisbury did not often die – they were promoted first – and there were therefore few precedents for Mitford’s executors. Evidently the bishop’s tomb already awaited him. Six weeks preparation went into the funeral of Mitford, unrefrigerated, a day for the clearing up, and then his staff were laid off. Among the 2500 people (especially priests and papers) who attended and prayed for his soul, who were paid for attendance and clad at his expense, who ate at his wake and drank – 701 gallons of ale, plus wine – and who purloined 300 pieces of crockery, it was Mitford’s obsequies that were the most memorable thing about the bishop and that was the salient feature of death and commemoration for a long time. Surviving monuments , a host of architectural quirks, and the reasons for their defacement were explained to a very different modern audience. Image

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