Church Monuments Society


Women at the graveside

By CMS in Heritage

Our Reviews Editor, Nicola Lowe, is working on a study of fourteenth-century funerary practices. She recently posted an enquiry on the medieval-religion Jiscmail discussion group about the presence of women at the graveside. Some of the answers referred to tomb carvings as evidence, and we thought they were all worth sharing. We are of course looking forward to seeing Nicola’s work in print, but she says that will not be for a while.

Responding to the query in the online discussion group, Jessica Savage of the Princeton University Index of Medieval Art generously searched the Index database for examples of female mourners, also called pleurants or weepers, as they might be included near the graveside. She opened a search of the database using “female” and “Mourner” as keyword subject terms finding there were a little over 90 records with this combination of terms. Many of these records were depictions of female mourners in medieval tomb sculpture, specifically around the sides of a sarcophagus or tomb chest.

In England, one such example is the Tomb of Joan de Vere in Chichester Cathedral made ca. 1300. Joan de Vere, sometimes called “Joanna de Vere” was a countess from Oxfordshire and the wife of Earl William de Warennes. When she died in 1293, it took several years to finish the sculpted stone monument which would be her final resting place. Little did anyone know, less than three centuries later, Joan de Vere’s tomb would be moved from Lewes Priory in East Sussex to Chichester Cathedral after the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541. Fortunately, the tomb still bears the original six female mourners and escutcheons set in quatrefoils around the sides. See for example this linked detail of a female weeper on the tomb of Joan de Vere in Chichester (Photo: Poliphilo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons).

While this does not conclusively prove that women were present at the graveside, Savage investigated the Index database further for any examples of female mourners in funerary art of the Middle Ages. The Index classifies these scenes in three major classifications: as “Obsequies” for the funeral rites, “Funeral Procession” for the solemn walk, and “Burial” for the actual lowering, or covering, of the casket. All three scenes had a positive hit with the keyword “female.” Substituting the term “female” for “woman” brings about a comparable number of results.

During a preliminary look, she noted that several of these fourteenth-century examples are of female mourners in illuminated manuscripts made in France, including the Book of Hours (Saligny Hours), New York, Morgan Library & Museum, MS. M.60, fols. 55r and 63r (northern France, ca. 1300). Another example was made in London ca. 1320, the so-called Hawisia Dubois Hours, New York, Morgan Library & Museum, MS. M.700, fol. 158v. In the Hawisia Dubois Hours the female mourner wears a white veil and stands behind a bishop reading from an oversized prayer book, and she stands beside a man, presumably her spouse. In the foreground centre, the decorated draper bier is surrounded by a catafalque ablaze with six tapered candles. Winding back time by a few decades, one can locate an example of a female mourner, wearing a berbette, at a funeral in an English Book of Hours, also known as the Egerton Hours, made ca. 1260s by the workshop of William of Devon, now London, British Library, Egerton MS. 1151, fol. 18r. This manuscript was made for the use of an unidentified laywoman, and one might suspect the presence of the female patron of the manuscript is alluded to in these scenes for a greater fulfilment of her personal devotions.

An immediately open-access resource of the Index, which came to mind, was the John Plummer database of manuscripts, which can be searched for later medieval examples of all these scenes under the browse heading “Scene, Liturgical …” at this link. Savage also suggested some additional examples of female mourners on tomb sculpture in English churches with links to images (though, as she says, not all of these suggest women mourning at the graveside):

Thinking about related iconography of female mourners in English medieval art, there are also images to consider depicting Mary and Martha of Bethany at the interment of Lazarus. See for example the Miscellany and Passion of Christ in Saint John’s College Library, University of Cambridge, MS. K.21, fol. 46r. Other biblical figures might provide a basis for weeping women near tombs and graves, including Mary Magdalene, the Holy Women, and the Virgin, who are all typically present at the Entombment of Christ and can be shown in an attitude of mourning. In one subset of the iconography of the Virgin called the “Bewailing,” the Virgin, usually standing or supported by other women (keyword: “swooning”), can be shown wringing her hands in grief or covering her cheeks with one palm.

There were also some useful references for further reading around the wider question of death and mourning in the medieval period, and the question of the extent to which displays of grief were regarded as appropriate. Among others, Jessica Savage suggested books by Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture. Visualising the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2013) and Katharine Goodland, Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama (Aldershot: Routledge, 2017). Lyn Blanchfield suggested books by Elina Gertsman, ed., Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History (Aldershot: Routledge, 2012) and Carol Lansing, Passion and Order: Restraint of Grief in the Medieval Italian Communes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).

In a momentous shift toward wider access, the Index database will be publicly available after 1 July 2023! Please bookmark the database and learn more about the organisation’s move toward a subscription-free platform at this link.

You can find the entire discussion on the medieval-religion discussion group’s website: please go to and put ‘women at the graveside’ as your search term. The group is academic in orientation but open to anyone to join and is a very useful resource– and you don’t need to be a member to search the archive.

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