- Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England
This is a book about the connections between status and corporeality. Arguing that the medieval male aristocracy understood nobility to be physically embodied, Danielle Westerhof investigates how death, dying, and disposal of the body both reinforced and challenged conceptions of social order, interiority, and collective identity. The focus is on England and France around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Westerhof has aimed to produce a “cultural, interdisciplinary study” (p. 9), which uses conventional written sources (chronicles, administrative records, legal sources, canonical texts, and so on), poems and songs, medical texts and [End Page 245] philosophical or theoretical texts. Westerhof has also studied ritual practice, particularly as it pertains to burial. The scope of the book is thus wide and its aims ambitious; it is perhaps inevitable that in some areas it falls short. Overall, however, this is an interesting and engaging book that adds to our understanding of medieval perceptions of the noble body.
The book contains six chapters. The first, entitled “Death and the cadaver: visions of corruption,” is contextual and provides a quite general exploration of medieval attitudes toward the body and death. Focussing on the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, Westerhof describes the medieval cadaver as “emblematic of sin” (p. 31) and as a repository for anxieties about moral behaviors. The chapter is in essence a summary of the existing historiography on the body and death—to some degree necessary for setting the scene for what is to follow but limited in its originality.
The second chapter is about aristocratic men and the “ideal” body. Proceeding from the understanding that nobility itself was considered to be interior, or innate, Westerhof examines knightly identity as subjective and collective. Again, there are some parts of this chapter which reiterate well-worn scholarship (the discussion on the qualities of the heart is one example). Overall the author argues that knightly identity, located in the body, was represented as ideal and normative. Threats to that identity by members of other social groups who sought to participate in the advantages of nobility—such as “peasant upstarts” (p. 55)—were perceived to be of both social and moral concern.
The ways in which the noble body was perceived in death and funerary practices is the subject of Chapter 3. Here, Westerhof describes the presence of aristocratic remains in religious houses of the thirteenth century, using the Earls of Cornwall and their connections with the Cistercian abbey of Hailes as an example. The Cistercian houses of medieval England are well known for their concerns about the encroachment of lay tombs on the sacred spaces of the monastic precinct (especially burials within the church), and reading Westerhof’s account of the proliferation of the Earl of Cornwall’s family tombs at Hailes, one can see why. Westerhof traces the relationship between patronage and burial, including a brief discussion on funeral monuments, to show that the nobility reinforced their claims to social and spiritual superiority through both these avenues.
The fourth chapter looks at the phenomenon of multiple burial. Here, Westerhof argues that rather than “enforcing decay and fragmentation,” bodily partition was one means of “creating a fantasy of wholeness and incorruptibility” (p. 73) for a particular social group. Arguing that multiple burial was the result of social considerations more than religious concerns about the fate of the divided corpse, Westerhof describes the burial of the heart, the seat of aristocratic virtue, as particularly meaningful: in almost a quarter of the cases she has surveyed (88 in total), the heart was buried in a place of ancestral or personal religious foundation. The others were buried in places of benefaction, places of spousal foundation or benefaction, places close to the place of death and, in only two cases, places that reflected concerns about lordship. An interesting tabulation of the distribution of known heart and viscera burials in England, the Norman, and the Angevin territories from 1130–1330, is provided on p. 85. The body parts of the nobility were used, according to Westerhof...