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Fresh cadaver to skeletal matter: text, practice and the Cluniac death-course

Fresh cadaver to skeletal matter: text, practice and the Cluniac death-course
Fresh cadaver to skeletal matter: text, practice and the Cluniac death-course
This study examines how the dead were engaged with, treated and managed by one of the most influential of medieval monastic orders, the Cluniacs. At the heart of this study is a consideration of the eleventh-century Cluniac customaries. These invaluable yet under-exploited texts prescribe in minute detail how the dying, the dead body and the monk’s memory should be physically and spiritually treated and commemorated. Through them we see a highly ritualised approach to the body, structured by interplay of repetitive symbolic actions, combined with the practical requirements of treating and disposing of a cadaver. These texts were intended to regulate daily life at Cluny, and of her dependencies and affiliates (Paxton 1993a: 1), for as Abbot Hugh’s statute in 1200 directed, ‘as we are one congregation and order, we should conform in all things’ (Constable 2010: 140). They have, however, been described as ‘living texts’ (Kerr 2007: 14) and the practices they prescribe termed, ‘adaptable to local needs and desires’ (Constable 1976: 160-161). An integration of osteological and archaeological evidence has permitted a direct examination of the extent to which this was the case for the treatment of the dead. Specifically, it questions how far Cluny could impose conformity in funerary practice amongst its dependencies, which although members of the same familia, varied considerably by ‘type’ of house and geographical location. The varied ways in which Cluniac customary practice could be adapted and the diverse temporal and spatial factors influencing conformity and digression are thus addressed.

Over 400 burials from four well-excavated Cluniac sites in England and France (dating predominantly from the late-eleventh through to the fifteenth century) form the comparative data-sets, where their rich archaeological and osteological documentation has permitted a direct examination of text versus practice. These sites represent two very different types of establishment: the large, original foundations of Bermondsey Abbey (London), Lewes Priory (Sussex) and La Charité-sur-Loire (Burgundy), and the smaller reformed house of Beaumont-sur-Oise (Picardy). This study has thus moved beyond individual house-specific enquiries or broad inter-order comparisons to a detailed examination of how diverse houses within one order responded to the spiritual and practical requirements of managing the dead.

Novel in a British later medieval context, the taphonomic approach of anthropologie de terrain has been successfully applied post-excavation using burial photographs and associated archival material. Placing the body at the centre of enquiry, this approach has permitted a more accurate reconstruction (in the absence of ‘direct’ archaeological indicators) of the multiplicity of acts performed to and for the body in each stage of the Cluniac funerary procedure. It has permitted detailed analysis of pre-burial body preparation, interment strategies and post-burial treatment of disturbed remains, as the deceased were manipulated and re-integrated in varying ways within the funerary landscapes. The concept of the ‘death-course’ has been introduced to envisage this continual inter-related cultural and biological process; the body and soul are physically and spiritually ‘managed’ by the living, whilst the corpse is simultaneously transforming through the natural processes of decomposition and decay. Situating the deceased within this framework has helped direct enquiry towards Cluniac attitudes and responses to the dead body in each stage of the death-course, as it evolved from fresh cadaver through to skeletal matter.

The results have demonstrated that a complex and dynamic relationship existed between each of the houses, their relative adherence to the customaries, and their attitudes to the dead. Influence from pre-existing monastic customaries and local traditions, developments in Cluniac customary practice, reform pressures, economic practicalities, varied emphasis on doctrinal and folkloric teachings/beliefs and broader social, political and religious changes all contributed to spatial and temporal variability in adherence. Crucially, underlying this was also the practical and unpredictable requirements of managing the realities of death: the biologically and possible spiritually unstable ‘dynamic cadaver’ (Nilsson 1998).

As well as relative distance from Cluny, the ‘type’ of house was shown to be paramount; circumstances of foundation and community size greatly influenced spiritual and practical responses to the dead. This was also the case on a smaller scale, where the specific burial location was shown to directly influence how the physical and metaphysical manifestations of death were viewed, handled and managed.

For Cluny’s dependencies examined here, the customaries were shown on the whole to be highly theoretical in terms of the death and burial rites. They promulgated a carefully selected or ‘ideal’ image of Cluniac spirituality, which may have been more attainable for Cluny, but practically unrealistic for many of the diverse houses under its rule. This study has revealed, however, that customary influence in funerary practice could be more subtle and indirect. A closer and more holistic scrutiny of these texts, alongside the anthropologie de terrain assessment, has revealed that the dead body (in various stages of decomposition) could fulfil diverse roles. The customaries carefully structured and directed daily practice towards cementing and reaffirming community bonds, perpetual meditation on death and continual commemoration of the dead. A number of the identified practices, particularly those relating to the management of disturbed remains, mirrored this structuring. Through handling and staging of the deceased’s body, it could acquire new meaning and purpose as a ‘tool’ for reflecting on death, as a malleable entity for promulgating Cluniac ideals, and as an ‘object’ around which a shared Cluniac identity and community bond could be created and maintained.
Williams, Eleanor
7c17d8e4-694f-43aa-819c-ba953736bbac
Williams, Eleanor
7c17d8e4-694f-43aa-819c-ba953736bbac
Sofaer, Joanna
038f9eb2-5863-46ef-8eaf-fb2513b75ee2
Zakrzewski, Sonia
d80afd94-feff-4fe8-96e9-f3db79bba99d

Williams, Eleanor (2015) Fresh cadaver to skeletal matter: text, practice and the Cluniac death-course. University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, Doctoral Thesis, 377pp.

Record type: Thesis (Doctoral)

Abstract

This study examines how the dead were engaged with, treated and managed by one of the most influential of medieval monastic orders, the Cluniacs. At the heart of this study is a consideration of the eleventh-century Cluniac customaries. These invaluable yet under-exploited texts prescribe in minute detail how the dying, the dead body and the monk’s memory should be physically and spiritually treated and commemorated. Through them we see a highly ritualised approach to the body, structured by interplay of repetitive symbolic actions, combined with the practical requirements of treating and disposing of a cadaver. These texts were intended to regulate daily life at Cluny, and of her dependencies and affiliates (Paxton 1993a: 1), for as Abbot Hugh’s statute in 1200 directed, ‘as we are one congregation and order, we should conform in all things’ (Constable 2010: 140). They have, however, been described as ‘living texts’ (Kerr 2007: 14) and the practices they prescribe termed, ‘adaptable to local needs and desires’ (Constable 1976: 160-161). An integration of osteological and archaeological evidence has permitted a direct examination of the extent to which this was the case for the treatment of the dead. Specifically, it questions how far Cluny could impose conformity in funerary practice amongst its dependencies, which although members of the same familia, varied considerably by ‘type’ of house and geographical location. The varied ways in which Cluniac customary practice could be adapted and the diverse temporal and spatial factors influencing conformity and digression are thus addressed.

Over 400 burials from four well-excavated Cluniac sites in England and France (dating predominantly from the late-eleventh through to the fifteenth century) form the comparative data-sets, where their rich archaeological and osteological documentation has permitted a direct examination of text versus practice. These sites represent two very different types of establishment: the large, original foundations of Bermondsey Abbey (London), Lewes Priory (Sussex) and La Charité-sur-Loire (Burgundy), and the smaller reformed house of Beaumont-sur-Oise (Picardy). This study has thus moved beyond individual house-specific enquiries or broad inter-order comparisons to a detailed examination of how diverse houses within one order responded to the spiritual and practical requirements of managing the dead.

Novel in a British later medieval context, the taphonomic approach of anthropologie de terrain has been successfully applied post-excavation using burial photographs and associated archival material. Placing the body at the centre of enquiry, this approach has permitted a more accurate reconstruction (in the absence of ‘direct’ archaeological indicators) of the multiplicity of acts performed to and for the body in each stage of the Cluniac funerary procedure. It has permitted detailed analysis of pre-burial body preparation, interment strategies and post-burial treatment of disturbed remains, as the deceased were manipulated and re-integrated in varying ways within the funerary landscapes. The concept of the ‘death-course’ has been introduced to envisage this continual inter-related cultural and biological process; the body and soul are physically and spiritually ‘managed’ by the living, whilst the corpse is simultaneously transforming through the natural processes of decomposition and decay. Situating the deceased within this framework has helped direct enquiry towards Cluniac attitudes and responses to the dead body in each stage of the death-course, as it evolved from fresh cadaver through to skeletal matter.

The results have demonstrated that a complex and dynamic relationship existed between each of the houses, their relative adherence to the customaries, and their attitudes to the dead. Influence from pre-existing monastic customaries and local traditions, developments in Cluniac customary practice, reform pressures, economic practicalities, varied emphasis on doctrinal and folkloric teachings/beliefs and broader social, political and religious changes all contributed to spatial and temporal variability in adherence. Crucially, underlying this was also the practical and unpredictable requirements of managing the realities of death: the biologically and possible spiritually unstable ‘dynamic cadaver’ (Nilsson 1998).

As well as relative distance from Cluny, the ‘type’ of house was shown to be paramount; circumstances of foundation and community size greatly influenced spiritual and practical responses to the dead. This was also the case on a smaller scale, where the specific burial location was shown to directly influence how the physical and metaphysical manifestations of death were viewed, handled and managed.

For Cluny’s dependencies examined here, the customaries were shown on the whole to be highly theoretical in terms of the death and burial rites. They promulgated a carefully selected or ‘ideal’ image of Cluniac spirituality, which may have been more attainable for Cluny, but practically unrealistic for many of the diverse houses under its rule. This study has revealed, however, that customary influence in funerary practice could be more subtle and indirect. A closer and more holistic scrutiny of these texts, alongside the anthropologie de terrain assessment, has revealed that the dead body (in various stages of decomposition) could fulfil diverse roles. The customaries carefully structured and directed daily practice towards cementing and reaffirming community bonds, perpetual meditation on death and continual commemoration of the dead. A number of the identified practices, particularly those relating to the management of disturbed remains, mirrored this structuring. Through handling and staging of the deceased’s body, it could acquire new meaning and purpose as a ‘tool’ for reflecting on death, as a malleable entity for promulgating Cluniac ideals, and as an ‘object’ around which a shared Cluniac identity and community bond could be created and maintained.

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More information

Published date: April 2015
Organisations: University of Southampton, Archaeology

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 377293
URI: https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/377293
PURE UUID: 2a3f028f-4ebd-4f45-81f0-f3a0c76548a0
ORCID for Sonia Zakrzewski: ORCID iD orcid.org/0000-0003-1796-065X

Catalogue record

Date deposited: 08 Jul 2015 15:37
Last modified: 25 Jul 2019 00:35

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Contributors

Author: Eleanor Williams
Thesis advisor: Joanna Sofaer
Thesis advisor: Sonia Zakrzewski ORCID iD

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