An article by Chad Arnow
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, churches sprung up in increasing numbers. The wealthy of Europe's High Middle Ages were often great patrons of their local churches. Donations and social standing allowed them the privilege of being buried in that church.
The earliest decorated grave markers of the Middle Ages are simple stone slabs used to seal the tomb (which could be free-standing or sunk into floors) and show simple incised or bas-relief carvings. Perhaps due to the low literacy rate, but certainly to show the glory of the deceased, these two-dimensional markers went beyond the simple "Here lies..." sentiments we see today (though similar inscriptions are known from those days) and began to picture the decedent in the manner of dress most associated with their lives or occupations. As sculptors tried to add more detail and realism, these carvings became more three dimensional, eventually becoming the fully three-dimensional effigies of the High Middle Ages and beyond. Other materials besides stone were employed for effigies, including wood and brass or bronze, and many magnificent examples survive.
Stone slabs, especially those set in floors, are subject to wear and tear. Given the relative fragility of the material, it was natural that other options would be explored. More durability was found in copper alloys, specifically in brass or similar alloys. The two-dimensionally carved monumental brass enjoyed widespread popularity.
Students of historic arms and armour, clothing, and sociology can study these markers today as a source of information on our forbears. Monumental brasses are a significant source of information and, due to their durability, are still found in enough numbers to represent a decent cross-section of the middle and upper class. The resiliency of brass has enabled these monuments to better weather the ages than many stone slabs and effigies of wood or stone.
The Development of Monumental Brasses
Monumental brasses were first seen in the 13th century. The Rhineland was a major source of brass (latten) through the 16th century, specifically in Cologne. It is not surprising that brasses seem to have originated in the Low Countries: lands around the Rhine's delta that roughly correspond to modern-day Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. The areas that saw the greatest proliferation of brasses were those that did a great deal of trade with the Low Countries.
It is somewhat problematic establishing the popularity of brasses in various countries, since so many did not survive religious reformations and political revolutions. What can be said is that they were extremely popular in Great Britain, which has the largest surviving number of brasses, around 8,000, a number larger than all the other European countries combined. These are concentrated in the eastern counties, no doubt due to close trade ties between those areas and the Low Countries. They are rarer elsewhere in England and Scotland and Ireland have less that ten surviving examples between the two countries.
Brasses may have been popular in France, but have been largely wiped out: less than a hundred full and partial brasses survive. Germany and Belgium each have large numbers of surviving brass monuments, though not as large as Great Britain. The other European countries have varying numbers of brasses, ranging from a handful to dozens, though usually less than a hundred.
Brasses in Europe and in Britain were typically made out of small plates of brass between two and three square feet. Where larger monuments were commissioned, multiple plates were carved and set together. In a few cases, the use of separate plates has led to designs that don't line up from one plate to the next, as on the brass of Sir Robert De Setvans from circa 1306. One of his mail gauntlets shows the misalignment of the designs as does one of the fan devices on his shield.
Brasses were set into stone indentations called simply "indents" that were carved to receive them and were secured with pitch and/or with rivets. For rivets, holes were drilled into the stone or marble and rivets were set into the stone with melted lead. The brass would have holes drilled in it to accept the rivets, which would sometimes lead to rivets being placed in strange places, such as the decedent's forehead. While the brass portion of continental monumental brasses is typically rectangular, British non-mural brasses usually have the figure cut out in silhouette, except for ones known to have been imported. Brasses that depict figures of people (that have not been moved from their original locations) seem to have the feet of the deceased pointing at the altar.
Brasses are good historical records for armour, weapons, and clothing, since they were typically laid within a reasonable number of years of the honoree's death. It should not be assumed that they were all purchased and laid after the person's death, though. In plenty of cases they were commissioned ten or more years before the person's passing, which can cause confusion if the brass is studied as an example of fashion at the time of death. In some cases, brasses were laid during the lifetime of at least one of the decedents and were commissioned with a blank space where the date of death was to eventually go. Not all were filled in, leaving brasses with open dates of death.
Studying brasses can give insight into fashions popular at the time the brasses were made, though it should be noted that the armour, outfits, and other accoutrements pictured should not be taken as a reflection of everyday or common wear, but as a reflection of the wishes of the commissioner (usually). It should also not be assumed that they are all accurate pictures of facial or other features. In some cases, it is obvious that brasses were made from patterns leading to common silhouettes, clothing, and even facial features from one brass to another.
Brasses of the 13th and 14th centuries are widely thought to be the most attractive and well-made. The early brasses are typically life-sized and exclusively show members of the clergy, knights, and sometime their wives. Made of thick brass, they show deep carving, the width of which widens and narrows to fully capture details, though shading is non-existent in them during this period. The deceased are shown lying on their backs, their heads often supported by pillows, great helms, or nothing at all. Their hands are usually clasped in prayer. Animals typically lie at their feet, including dogs (hunting dogs for the men, lap dogs for the women), lions, and griffins. Many of the knights of this period have their legs crossed. At one point, it was thought that the position of the legs and the type of animal at a knight's feet indicated facts about the life (or death of the person): crossed legs were thought to symbolize a knight who went on a Crusade; a dog, instead of a lion, might indicate that the knight died at home, not in battle, etc. A quick check of the biographies of these knights shows that in many cases, these symbolic meanings don't ring true.
Inscriptions about the deceased, including names, accomplishments, and virtues (real or imagined) were set around the edged of the stone, with each letter being a separate piece of brass, laid into its own indent. Enamel or paint was sometimes used to highlight details such as heraldry on the edges of a brass of on the shield of a knight. For enamels, indentations were made in the brass or stone to accept them. Paints, in many cases, have not survived the wear of many feet walking on them over hundreds of years.
Around the beginning of the 14th century, brasses seem to shrink a bit, with the figures averaging around four feet in height. Life-size figures still exist, but now so do smaller ones, some as small as a foot in height. The inscriptions remain, but begin to be done on strips of brass rather than in single brass layers and an inscription usually appears at the figure's feet. Canopies decorated with Gothic flair begin to appear over the deceased; these will reach their full flowering later in the century.
Civilian brasses are also introduced around this time, showing merchants and other tradesmen and their wives. Many of these are made just as military and ecclesiastical brasses are. One of the first civilian brasses, that of the fishmonger Nicholas de Aumberdene (d. 1350), though, is an early cross brass, one of the new types of brasses we see toward the middle of the 14th century. These new brasses showed elaborate crosses or brackets and seem to depict only civilians.Cross brasses often enclosed a rendering of the decedent within the cross, either just the head or a half effigy. Bracket brasses have a platform (bracket) on which the deceased might appear, or they might kneel at the bracket's base, praying to saints shown on the brackets.
Instead of being depicted in an obviously recumbent positions, some figures look as if they are standing, leaning more on one hip, beginning around 1350. This would evolve over time into standing and kneeling being the dominant positions of the deceased. Most figures still fold their hands in prayer, though some husbands are shown holding the hands of their wives.
The average size of brasses continued to decrease as the 15th century opened, partly since some middle class merchants (increasingly frequent buyers of brasses) could not afford full-size plates. Cross brasses cease showing figures of the deceased, and go out of style with bracket brasses, disappearing by the mid-15th century. Children begin to appear on their parents' brasses, but are rendered smaller and on smaller, separate plates beneath their parents. In some areas around the middle of the 15th century, morbid examples with skeletal figures and shrouded people came into vogue.
Toward the end of the 15th century, we begin to see heads turned slightly to the side, ostensibly to better see the elaborate head-dresses women were wearing; the men followed suit. The animal at the person's feet began to be replaced by a small, flower-covered mound, further evidence that they were no longer lying down, but standing. The general quality of the carving begins to go down as the proliferation of brasses spreads and we begin to see attempts at duplicating shading with cross-hatched lines.
At the turn of the 16th century, the laying of brasses reached the zenith of its popularity. With this explosion in numbers came a marked decrease in the quality of the rendering, with figures often being crudely and disproportionately drawn. Children begin to receive their own brasses and swaddled infants being to appear on brasses as well. Brasses of mural form appear as well. These are rectangular plates that often show the deceased kneeling in prayer, with their children lined up behind them.
By the 17th century, the form had declined markedly. The brass plates had been getting thinner over the years, and these late brasses suffer from being on thin plates that lacked the durability of early brasses. Over-zealous attempts at adding shading obscure the outlines of the figures. After circa 1650, less than a hundred brasses are recorded. One of the very last of brasses from their heyday dates to 1773 and memorializes Benjamin Greenwood. The lines appear to be no more than scratched into the surface. A brass was created and laid down in 1818, after the bones of Robert the Bruce were discovered during renovation of a church. This last brass, while mimicking the style of brasses of the 14th century, is more a modern creation. While its spirit belongs to the centuries-old tradition, it belongs to a more modern epoch.
With the passing of Catholicism in many areas, these memorials went out of fashion. In some cases, they were actively destroyed in the wake of rebellions against monarchs and against Catholicism, and countless numbers were destroyed or melted down for the value of their metal. Cathedrals seem to have fared worse with this destruction than smaller parish churches. The brasses that remain are a fraction of what was originally laid.
Types of Monumental Brasses
Monumental brasses depicted a wide cross-section of life during their period, showing clerics, clergy, lawyers, merchants, knights, and more. Studying each of these groups gives us insight into the evolution of fashion.
Knightly brasses are by far the most numerous of surviving brasses and show a fairly complete picture of the development of armour during the time they were popular. Early military brasses show mailed warriors with heraldic surcoats. The tedious nature of depicting mail rings resulted in some shortcuts, as it wouldn't be feasible to accurately depict thousands of interlocking riveted rings. Brass engravers had a few methods of depicting mail, though one of them led to confusion among some armour scholars. Some engravers depicted mail as alternating rows of c's (ccccccc), causing early armour scholars to speculate that this was some sort of banded mail with a thong or strip of leather passing through round iron rings. This idea has been proven false. These military brasses show the gradual addition of plates and the shortening and eventual abandonment of surcoats and the evolution of sword hilts (blades, usually sheathed, are harder to make out).
Brasses of clergy are another large and important group. In fact, the earliest surviving brass is of Bishop Yso Wilpe (d. 1231), located at Verden in what is now Germany. These brasses show members of the clergy of all ranks, and early on, the outfits they are depicted in and objects they hold tell what position they held. As time grew, the distinctions became less clear.
Brasses of wives and noblewomen show a wide variety of outfits, and are interesting studies in fashion, much of which look strange to modern eyes. Other civilian brasses show a similarly complete picture of the development of fine fashion and clothing, and of interest to arms and armour students and reenactors, civilian sidearms.
Shroud and skeletal brasses are a smaller subset of brasses, and a rather morbid one. These often show emaciated or skeletal figures wrapped in a burial shroud. It is thought that these were typically laid down during the life of the honoree as a reminder of their mortality. Skeletal figures, without shrouds, are also known.
Smaller, non-effigial brasses also exist. These could be simple plates incised with names and dates, or plates that picture the sacred heart or things associated with a person (such as the gloves that appear on a brass of a glover).
Further Reading on Brasses
Brasses have been the subject of study for quite some time now, and many books have been written on the subject. Because of the high number of brasses in England, many of these books speak almost exclusively about English brasses, an unfortunate oversight.
An entire hobby has sprung up around brasses: brass rubbing. Brass rubbers lay paper over a brass and rub the image with wax. These rubbings are used as wall art for many people. Museums have collected rubbings as records of these brasses as well; London's Victoria and Albert Museum has a large collection, documented in a nice book, titled simply Catalogue of Rubbings of Brasses and Incised Slabs. This heavily illustrated catalogue also offers a nice overview on brasses. Other titles have been written to cater to the brass rubbing enthusiast, and many offer a decent overview of the topic. Readers should watch out though for occasional misuse of armour terms or for the use of outdated terms and ideas.
Despite the efforts of those who have sought to wipe out these and other ancient memorials, and despite the ravages of time, we are left with a large record of portraiture in metal of our forbears. While those of the highest status still preferred full effigies, brasses were widespread among the lower nobility and the middle class. They offer fantastic insights into the world in which these people lived, and when studied chronologically, show a surprisingly fleshed out picture of the development of armour and fashion.
The value of these memorials is incalculable and it is gratifying to see efforts made to restore found brasses to their original locations (in one case, a brass had been used as the back of a fireplace for centuries without harm before being restored to the church it had been taken from). Though many were moved from their original places during renovations, churches are making efforts to preserve these monuments while keeping them accessible to people who want to view them or make rubbings of them.
Like other period art and literature, monumental brasses are a lens through which we study the past. These monuments, as with all historical records, are best studied in conjunction with other clues left behind by generations past if one wants to see a more full picture of history. By themselves, they are still a fantastic historical and artistic picture of the thousands of people they memorialized.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
Brasses and Brass Rubbing, by Suzanne Mollie Beedell
Catalogue of Rubbings of Brasses and Incised Slabs, by Muriel Clayton
List of Monumental Brasses on the continent of Europe, A, by Hugh Keith Cameron
Monumental Brasses: Together with a selected bibliography, by Herbert Walter Macklin
Monumental Brasses, by J. G Mann