Tombs & Monuments

It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his requiem aeternam deo.  When led out and called to account, he always gave the same reply:  “What are these churches now, if not the tombs and monuments of God?”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125.



The picture above is of an interior wall in the church of St. Peter Mancroft, in Norwich, England.  I took the photo on a recent trip to the UK, and it captures something that I have been wanting to write about but have not found the proper time or venue for doing so.  And since this is my blog after all, I figure now is as good a time as any to get this off my mind.  The subject is as ever, eternity, but more particular the ways in which people approach it.  I am an English historian by training, and I have always had an appreciation for the English attachment to tradition and history, and it is especially the English way of remembering the dead in the post Reformation era that concerns me.  A little background might be in order here, so let me begin with that.


I wrote a paper for a graduate seminar in English lit in which I tried to argue that certain passages in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene could be read as evidence of a peculiar way of conceiving the faculty of memory.  In particular, there are passages of the FQ in which characters read histories or chronicles, one of which is called “Briton moniments,” occruing as transformative moments in which Spenser’s allegorical characaters come to their true identity in the poem.  I wanted to argue that Reformed theology (broadly defined) was more explicitly historical in the way it approached salvation than medieval theology had been, less explicitly concerned with contemplative searching for God than with activity performed within the context of a providential scheme of history, adn that Spenser’s poem was an expression of this characteristic.  Needless to say, my prof did not buy this, the paper was too short explore such a large thesis, was confusingly written and at times poorly argued, asserting more than it reasoned.  Nevertheless, I continue to believe there is something to this, and it is in connection with the picture you see above.


If you look closely, what you see in the picture are a series of plaques, commemorating individuals who died and were buried in or around the church (one assumes they were all parishoners there).  As you can see, they cover much of the wall; what you don’t see is that much of the floor of the church is also covered with stones commemorating the dead who are buried there.  The same thing is true of the church of St. Mary’s in Oxford, where I took this picture of just such a stone slab:

The same can be said of the major cathedrals and basilicas I visited, which included Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, though they are probably not the best examples, since they are both rather more like national shrines than churches these days.  But even their grandeur is but an exaggeration of the more humble pattern:  there are tombs of wellington and churchill in St Pauls, while there is Poets Corner and the tombs of kings in Westminster Abbey, though St Peter Mancroft has plaque just to the left of the altar dedicated to its most famous inhabitant, the religious writer Thomas Browne:


What is significant about all this?  First of all, every plaque I saw (and no, I did not keep a strict account) dated from the period of the Reformation period onward, mostly 16th, 17th and 18th century plaques, with a few from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries represented.  Second, I have seen Catholic churches from the same periods with the founders entombed there, or occasionally a saint; there is of course the tradition of St Denis in Paris, if I’m not mistaken, where the kings of France were buried; occasionally there will be plaques commemorating famous persons, such as those in the Church of St. Etienne du Mont, where tablets commemorating both Pascal and Racine reside; and occasionally one will also see the names of benefactors who contributed to the purchase of stain-glass windows etched below them, or, as a friend informs me, as in the Shrine of the National Basilica in Washington D.C., there are names carved into the crypt for benefactors of the Shrine.  But in the first two cases, these are exceptions, famous people, and the last two are not what the plaques in St. Peter Mancroft are, which are explicit remembrances of the dead, which record their years and occupations, not merely what they donated, as this one from St. Peter Mancroft:


I probably should have visited more Anglican churches to make sure, but at least the ones that I did looked like this, save for St. Martin-in-the-Fields near Trafalgar Square.  My point is that I have never seen the quantity of individual monuments in a church anywhere else, Catholic or Protestant in the West (the Orthodox are another matter, but I’m sure they don’t do this either).  My point is that for a certain period of history, the proliferation of such monuments in such quantity in particular churches appears to be peculiar to the Church of England.  This is striking, and indicates a very different way of commemorating the dead from Catholic and medieval religion.  It definitely indicates a difference in the way they conceive of the dead; but what about eternity?  That seems harder to answer definitively.  One reason for this seems clear enough:  Protestants do not pray for the dead, because that would imply something like Purgatory, so these commemorations might be an alternative way of remembering them.  And it means of course they don’t remember them in the same way; they are gone in a peculiar way, unreachable even by prayer, as in Catholic belief, so commemorating their absence might become all the more important for their loved ones.  This wouldn’t explain why it would be particular to the C of E, though; I wish I had visited more of them, and had some sort of reference from other continental Protestant churches for reference.  


Nevertheless, this type of anecdotal evidence from my travels confirms my earlier idea, namely that English Protestants displayed a greater propensity for erecting monuments to time, as opposed to eternity, and partly for theological reasons, in contradistinction to Catholics during the period of the Reformation (things have changed a bit since then, I am aware).  What I really want to say is that the various Reformers and the churches they founded had to pay attention to history in a way that Catholic authors, theologians and polemicists, could not.  The reason for this is that Catholics could appeal, on the one hand, to unwritten tradition, and on the other, to the authority of the Church itself and the Pope above all for the validity of its theological claims (that is, its claim to its connection with an eternal God–with eternity, in other words).  For most Protestants, following Luther, this ceased to be the case, most obviously because they rejected unwritten tradition but also because they rejected the need for an apostolic succession.  Protestantism, insofar as there is such a singular entity, was and is a religion of the book, not just because of sola scriptura, but because the Reformers had to explain their break with the recent past, and this required that they reclaim an historical connection with the distant past (or invent one) in order to justify the break.  Thus they tended to think in historical terms, usually heavily inflected with a providential scheme in which bible toting reformers came to the rescue of a corrupt church.  This is certainly the case in Spenser’s FQ, and the great Caroline divines of the 17th century would continue this appeal to the past, the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the like.  Combine this with the Reformers emphasis on reading the bible, largely in an “active” as opposed to a contemplative sense (that is, Bible reading was supposed to lead directly to a more godly life, better morals, etc).  Hence English Protestants at least would necessarily put more emphasis on history I think than their Catholic opponents (history being a written discipline, rather than an oral tradition).  Such an emphasis on the written word could help explain the plaques and memorials in the churches I visited, though I don’t think I can press this too far, because I am sure that Catholic authors in that period made appeals to history too. 


But I do think the “monumentality” of the Church of England somewhat different, despite all this; Spenser’s poem still illustrates this for me.  The building of monuments is, of course, nothing new; the Romans did this better than anyone, and Spenser (and many others, of course) made appeal to the Romans on this score. But there is a crucial difference between them, in that  the Reformers had a much different notion of history than the Romans did.  Whereas for the ancients in general, time was merely cyclical, repetitive, the Reformers had a linear notion of history in their minds, a progressive one, leading up to the final judgment.  Thus for a Roman, a monument to a great hero of the past, though it spoke to an earlier age, must have seemed different; it was not a record of a unique event, but one that would be repeated again in some way,  hence Plutarch can compare Alexander with Caesar and so forth.  But for the Reformers, there was only one unique event, and it was constantly receding in time.  Hence the need for a certain type of monument, one which is of course dated differently but also which serves a different purpose. Recall that for most of the Reformers (save for Luther, and maybe Calvin) God was not fully present in the Eucharist; he was only present to the congregation somehow, consistent with the broadly Reformed emphasis on “internal” aspects of the faith, as opposed to the allegedly hollow external worship of the Papists.  Also, remembert that the English reformers rejected apostolic succession (till Andrewes and Laud in the late 16th, 17th century), which meant that the immediate, divine authority handed to the Apostles by Christ could not be appealed to as a means of verifying God’s presence, (or for infallibly interpreting the Bible, for that matter) as it was held by most English Protestants to have died with the Apostles.  Taken together, this presents a problem, in that the criteria for knowing God’s presence with certainty become purely internal, and so solipsism becomes a much greater danger as a result.  (And therefore knowledge of the eternal becomes questionable as a result.) Hence, even though they have the Bible, the ultimate monument or reminder of the unique event which brought the eternal into time, they still require constant external reminders, since time is ever fading into the past (and again, this doesn’t mean that Catholics might not have needed the same thing, but I don’t think they felt this as acutely as Protestants did).  Thus, depsite the repeated insistence on the all sufficiency of the Bible, the pens of the Reformers poured forth a never ending stream of supplements to it, in the forms of Catechisms (an invention of Luther), prayer books, devotionals, books on holy living and holy dying, hymn books, books of martyrs (Foxe, of course), religious diaries, and so forth.  And, perhaps, in a more subtle way, the need to reassure the living of the presence of the dead:  with plaques dedicted to their memory, if not their presence, dating specifically the bounds of their lives, in the center of English life in post-Reformation England, the parish church.


Again, having no reference to Europe makes this extremely speculative, as do my constant invocations to a generalized “Protestantism” and “Reformed” theology, about which I know little.  It is basically the substance of what I wrote in my paper, though I confusingly focused on memory, when the issue was really how one knows and relates to the eternal in religious terms.  In any case, I certainly hope it is true:  very little I saw in England seemed, well, specifically English; globalization or Americanization or whatever you call it has taken a large toll there, and this seemed at first glance to provide me with something that was authentic.  I may be completely wrong in ascribing the memorials to theological beliefs, but it doesn’t erase their poignance or charm for me.  They are rather touching in any case, but also a bit melancholic.  It is difficult not to reflect on them and think of the sad state of religious observance in England, and I believe my first instinct (this shows you how partisan and geeky I truly am) was to attribute it to, with my Catholic faith, an inadequate relation to the eternal; I still think that it is inadequate, but it obviously bears no relation to the decline of worship in England, as there are many grand Churches in Italy (and elsewhere in formerly Catholic Europe) which are now merely museums, which you have to pay to see—very much the same “tombs and monuments of God” in Nietzsche’s phrase, that you would find in England.  I wonder what happens to these plaques and memorials in churches when they are sold off and turned into something else, like the one that was turned into a community center on Cowley Road in Oxford; are they left there, or are they disposed of?  Given back to the families that no longer worship there?  I wonder.  But then I guess these religious museums are themselves monuments, reminders now, that when men forget God, they forget themselves too; and in places like St. Peter Mancroft, the memory of individual men and women, whose lives are precious because they are fleeting, historical, time bound, and therefore unique lives, is forgotten, receding, as St. Augustine tells us, into a past “always driven on by the future,” which can only be recaptured by a right relation, not to time, but to eternity itself. 


There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,

No end to the withering of withered flowers,

To the movement of pain which is painless and motionless,

To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,

The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely


Prayer of the one Annunciation.

                —T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” Four Quartets



Feast of the Transfiguration



~ by Alypius on August 6, 2008.

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