Friday, 26 February 2010

The Three Living and The Three Dead

Apologies to any regular readers that I still have left for being dilatory with my posting recently – the Black and the White really is occupying most of my available brain space at the moment (well, that and half term last week...)

In my last post I promised – if anybody was interested – to talk about the medieval story of the three living and the three dead. Well, there was at least one taker (thanks, David!) so here we go.

Before I start, I must give all the credit for this post to one of the most wonderful websites I have discovered in my medieval research. It's called Medieval Wall Painting in the English Parish Church and is an encyclopaedic collection of thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth century wall paintings. It's run by Anne Marshall, a retired associate lecturer with the Open University.

The website is brilliant because it's simple, informative and organised. All the examples of particular themes – everything from the familiar story of Christ's passion (ie Easter) to the more obscure St Eloi shoeing the possessed horse – are bracketed together so that you can see the different artists' and different centuries' treatment of the same subjects.

Anyway, here's what the site has to say about the three living and the three dead.

The subject is French or Flemish in origin and is first heard of at the Court of Flanders in the late 13th century, where it is the subject of five poems, Les Trois Mortes et les Trois Vifs . Three kings went out hunting (in the poems they are specifically described as young) and came across three corpses who castigated them for their preoccupation with pleasure and with wordly things, adding ominous words to the effect that ‘as you are, we once were; as we are, so shall you be’. Paintings of the subject on walls and in manuscripts followed, and the subject soon came to England, where it proved equally popular. 
Quite a few paintings of the subject survive in the English Parish Church. There is clearly a good deal of scope for imaginative narrative treatment of the story, and many paintings show fine clothes, elegantly caparisoned horses, dogs, hawks and a variety of flora and fauna. Sometimes there are speech-scrolls, with a version of the text quoted above (Wensley, now featured here, is a case in point). The Three Dead, needless to say, are painted in more or less gruesome detail - some are skeletons, some have flesh and skin visibly peeling from them, along with flies and other signs of mortal decay - Wensley’s remarkable example is again a case in point. This (the fifteenth century in particular) was after all an age of elaborate funerary and tomb sculpture - much of which survives - often rendered in similarly unsparing fashion.

Whether all this says something about a particular taste for the morbid in the later Middle Ages is debatable. The Black Death, the devastating effects of which had been felt in England as elsewhere in the decades after 1350 may have had something to do with the popularity of subjects like the Three Living and the Three Dead.

You can see pictures of the subject here, here, here, here and here.

Do have a look at the rest of the site to see what medieval churches would have looked like (though you do have to imagine all the colours unfaded). I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the medieval world was that all their stone buildings were grey and austere and bleak. No, that's just how they've come down to us - it's we who feel that bare stone is somehow more spiritual – but then we modern people are heirs of the Puritan reformation which taught us that ornamentation was bad and simplicity was good. The medieval world wouldn't have agreed at all!


Frances Garrood said...

A fascinating story, Alis. I've never come across it before. As for the attitude to death,
I am not an historian, but I do think that in the middle ages, people were far more at home with death than we are now. They lived alongside it, saw it regularly, were not afraid of death (well, the death of other people, anyway)or of the dead themselves in the way that we are now. I think that we no longer see death as a part of life; more as an awful thing to be avoided or ignored. As Rose Macaulay put it, death is "too outrageous to be true". We rarely see our dead, and increasingly behave as though we ourselves are going to live for ever. And of course, we don't talk about it. So did these mediaeval artists have a 'taste for the morbid'? Or were they merely showing it as it was? (I don't have any anwers - over to you!).

Alis said...

I think you're right, Frances, I don't think they had a 'taste for the morbid' so much as a desire to reflect the way it was and warn people that it was possible to be cut down when you least expected it. Dying unexpectedly was a huge deal in the medieval period as, if you had not made confession and been shriven (given absolution and anointed for death) then you might go straight to hell instead of going to purgatory and thence to heaven. Making a 'good death' with all the required rites was what everybody wanted and the thought that something like the plague (which, in its most virulent, septicaemic form could kill you in a matter of hours) might deprive you of it was truly terrifying.

Michelle said...

So that is where that saying comes from, "As you are...". I haerd that before but never knew where it originated from.
Mortality was everyday stuff for people in the middle ages, too commonplace for many. However morality and the wastefulness of the nobility would have been a popular topic for many.

Alis said...

Hi Michelle - yes the nobility were so fabulously wealthy in comparison to those who populated their estates that it's difficult for us, with our notions of faded aristocracy, to understand the financial gap. The nobility, certainly the barons, were more like today's super-rich, the billionaires, though even the more lowly lords would have had wealth unimaginable to their tenants.

Juxtabook said...

Fascinating stuff Alis and a great link - thank you.

adele said...

A really wonderful post, Alis. Thanks so much. I will now think of the Middle Ages in the colours of a Book of Hours. I think I have always imagined them like that, I have to say! But this story is fabulous and reminds me of another of my favourite stories of all and one which reappears in many forms: Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, which is also the basis of the super movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.