Typical funerals in medieval England

Medieval funerals could be simple paupers’ burials, similar to the monastic or leper colony burial, or they could be elaborate on a scale beyond modern imagination. It all depended on who had died and what message the family wanted to send to the community. Money wasn’t poured into huge granite monuments as it is now. The cost was all in the public show. Let’s look at a rich man’s funeral. He isn’t a baron or duke; let’s say he’s the mayor of the goldsmiths’ guild. Money is no object.

First, the body has been washed and shrouded, but it will lie in state at home—or even better, at the church—for a few days. It was surrounded by candles and by the end of the Middle Ages, everything was draped in black. (Black was not the color of mourning until the 15th century.) People needed to know that the man was truly dead, as a legal matter. There was not a formal “viewing” period, as later evolved, but anyone could go to the home or church and see with their own eyes. If the viewing period needed to be longer, the body probably had costly spices (like cinnamon) in use.

During this time, at least one Mass was said for the dead man’s soul. Technically one didn’t pay for Mass, but in reality, donations to the church bought more Masses and prayers. In the monastery, the set amount of prayers and Masses came with belonging to the community, but out in the world, money made them happen. Bigger donations also paid someone to ring the church bells more, to commemorate the death, the hours of watchful prayers, the hour of burial, the one-month anniversary of death, etc.

At least in England, the family usually put out a large meal after the burial. There were two categories of guests: the actual guests, and the poor. The family, friends and dignitaries were served meat, while the poor had bread and cheese. A really fine funeral, such as our goldsmith would have, added a one-month anniversary banquet.

This brings us to the role of the poor in funerals. The official “poor” of the town, such as cripples, starving widows, orphans, the blind, and the like, became the professional mourners. Their prayers were thought to be more meritorious, even if the poor were only doing it for pay. A really fine funeral had a procession of important people and family mourners, and then a troupe of beggars, blind, and cripples following after, all wearing new robes as if in uniform. They were usually black, although for most of the period, this had no emotional significance. It was just a sober, serviceable daily color. The poor man received the new robe and his bread and cheese as wages for his attendance and prayers; he may have received a penny in addition. Essentially, this is how the very poorest citizens kept themselves clothed: by being hired for funerals periodically.

Respectable families paid for their servants’ funerals. The degree of show would be nothing like what the goldsmith just had. A few pennies saw the bell rung once, the name included in Mass, and a simple shroud burial in the churchyard. Other men and women found their level somewhere between the goldsmith’s high level of dignified show and the servant’s low level of slight commemoration.

This entry was posted in Medieval cycle of life and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply