2 March 2022

an orible tode upon hir breste bytwene hir teetys ... and she stanke ...

 Really loyal readers may recall my post last November about the Fair Rosamund, a Plantagenet Paelex, on whose grave was carved, allegedly by S Hugh (Bishop of Lincoln 1186-1200), the elegiac distich:

Hic iacet in tumba rosa mundi non rosa munda/ Nec redolet sed olet quod redolere solet.

Videlicet, she was a 'lady' who smelt lovely while she lived, but whose body, when her tomb was opened, "stanke so that the kyng, ne non other, might stond to se that oryble sight". (The king was Henry II, regnabat 1154-1189.)

These same two lines still appear on the tomb of a French canon in South West France, who died in 1334. His name was not even Rosamund! There must be other examples ...?

I was reminded of this trope on the festival (November 26) of S Silvester the Abbot. He died in 1267. His Breviary readings relate that, seeing the 'deforme cadaver' of a relative, he observed Ego sum quod hic fuit; quod hic est ego ero. [I am what he was; what he is, I shall be.] This became a medieval commonplace.

Apparently, it was in the 1430s that the efflorescence began of the Memento mori custom; carving beneath the memorial effigy of some notable person, a sculpture of their decaying corpse ... often, worms and all.

Today, Ash Wednesday, we hear the words Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.

I wonder if anybody has ever published research on the medieval homiletic use of the realities of corporal decomposition. What were its social or literary sources? Is there a significant timeline?

Footnote (1): The Ordinariate Missal omits the word homo. Sad!  When administering this rite, saying these words again and again over so many different types of humans, I used to feel quite moved by the repeated, solemn assertion of our commom and shared, humanity, with its common human destiny in Death. Why should feminism have been able to rob us of this sentiment?

Footnote (2): Does anybody know when use of the formula Memento homo ... (cf Genesis 3:19) starts or becomes general? We know, of course, that fixing the first day of Lent on the Wednesday after Quinquagesima happened quite late. There are first-millenium associations between penitential systems and ashes, but 'Wednesday Ashes' appear not to have been used at Rome before circa 1090-1140 (although outside Rome itself  ... for example at Eynsham near Oxford ... things appear to have happened earlier). And I am uncertain whether one ought to be alive to possible distinctions between Distributing, Sprinkling, and Imposing.


frjustin said...

Herbert Thurston in the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia states that "The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century...

There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful ...is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. "We read", he says,

'in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.'

And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266).

william arthurs said...

I have been meaning to re-read Philippe Aries' L'Homme Devant La Mort.

Although this book is most directly about France, Aries has a lot of documentary evidence and inscriptions from mediaeval York, my home town. He relates social and economic history to theology. May shed light on these questions, Father.

Jhayes said...

Clearly off - topic in this thread but the church - state issues remind me of other times.

If you have access to the online version of the New York Times, this is an interesting discussion of the infighting between the Ukranian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of the war.


In 2019, the Ukranian Orthodox obtained a tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognizing them as an autocephalous church, no longer dependent on the Patriarch of Moscow. To date, only about 700 parishes have adopted the change while 12,000 parishes remain under Russian Orthodox leadership.

“Christian teaching has… become part of the battlefield. Priests loyal to Russia, in sermons recommended by their leadership on Sunday, emphasized pacifist gospels at a time when the defensive strategy of the country rested on mobilizing civilians to fight. Many Ukrainians viewed that stance as subversive or treasonous….

Last week in western Ukraine, villagers furious about the Russian invasion ejected a Russian Orthodox priest from his church in Tsenyava, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

The crowd “barbarically took away the church,” Archpriest Georgy of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a telephone interview. “They knocked down the doors, pushed out the parishioners.” He said the crowd was armed with rifles. The priest called the police, but “no police arrived,” Archpriest Georgy said”

Albertus said...

Why would feminists do away with the word "homo" in the formula for imposing the ashes? "Homo" in Latin refers to both men and women, that is, "man" in the older English generic sense. All tongues that i know have such a generic word: Latin homo, Greek anthropos, German Mensch, Dutch mens, Lithuanian zmogus, Polish czlowiek. At some point in the history of the English tongue, the two words - "man" in the generic sense and "man" in the specifically male sense - became conflated. Anglo-saxon had a word like "Mensch" (homo) different from "Man" (vir), but over time the two like-sounding words became one.

armyarty said...

There is a tomb somewhere that has the common inscription ending something like "As I am now, you soon shall be, so pray prepare to follow me", inscribed at the direction of the deceased husband before his death. Later, at the direction of his widow, the following words were added as her own epitaph: "To follow you I am not content, unless I know which way you went"

As for my Ash Wednesday, the priest used no formula, and applied the ashes with a cotton swab! Well, at least I did not have to hear an admonition to turn to the gospel. Why can't they seem to leave well enough alone?

Carol said...

The book by Philippe Aries is a comprehensive survey and analysis of the theme of death and how it was accepted (or not)in Western societies from pagan times, through the early Christian period, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, down to the 20th century. By no means confined to France, it deals with all aspects of death and burial, both Catholic and Protestant, even including modern technology used in palliative care and the concept of "brain death".

Sometimes macabre, it delights in displaying the theme of the Memento mori. A fascinating read, but not for those of a nervous disposition!

The original French edition of 1977 was republished in 1981 in English as "The Hour of our Death". It can be read online courtesy of the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/hourofourdeath00aris/page/221/mode/1up?q=memento&view=theater