April Corpses Bring May… Wait, What Rhymes with Corpses? (Blorpses?) (Mmm… Marginalia #69)

April’s here and spring has finally sprung: chirping birds and budding buds and so whatnot. What better way to celebrate than with three grinning reminders of the transience of all mortal delights?

This page above is found in Houghton Library MS Lat. 249, a late fifteenth-century Burgundian book of hours.  The text reads “Placebo [Domino]; dilexi quoniam exaudiet Dominus: vocem orationis [meae],” or roughly “I will please [the Lord]; I have loved, because the Lord will hear the voice of [my] prayer” which is the opening of the Office of the Dead. The man in the central illumination is Job on his dung heap speaking to the Lord, who is indicated by the single beam of gold light that stretches diagonally from the top right corner.

As if Job–you know, the guy whose family was killed, health was ruined, and home and all worldly possessions burned because God made a bet with the Devil–wasn’t depressing enough on his own, the illuminator populates the border with three corpses, one from each estate (clockwise from the top: those who work, who fight, and who pray).  Here, let me gather the gang all together you can see them better:

From left to right: the bishop, the king, and the peasant*

From a distance you might mistake them for monkeys, the way they seem to frolic and ape the different classes of men, but the hollow eye sockets, rotted away noses, and gaping holes in their abdomens (made by festering digestive acids [and bacterially produced gasses] after their deaths)** betray them on closer inspection.

Together with the three men (Job and his two friends) in the main illumination, the corpses create something of an ersatz Three Living and Three Dead, a popular incarnation of the memento mori [remember that you will die] theme that’s often found in later*** medieval art.  (Wikimedia Commons has several other versions of 3 men & 3 corpses available here.)

So, happy spring, everybody!  And remember, the millstone of time will inexorably grind away everything you hold dear!****

*Distinguished from the other two by his lack of distinguishing features.
**Which is what happens when you don’t have an embalmer to vacuum out the insides of the departed and sew them back up for you.
***For “later” read “after the plague that killed 1/3 of the population of Western Europe.”
****On the upside, you’ll be dead for most of the grinding.

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  • Jon Hendry

    "gaping holes in their abdomens (made by festering digestive acids after their deaths)"

    Are you sure that's the right explanation? I'd think it would be either because the viscera were removed before burial, or because they popped due to bacterial action and the gas produced.

    I'm not sure how often viscera were removed, but I'd think it was done sometimes, especially if the body had to be transported home for burial.

  • Kate

    I don't know why Job seems so despondent – at least it looks like a comfy dung heap. :p

  • Got Medieval

    I started to post a defensive bit of snark just now–but then I realized that there's no reason for me to pretend to be an expert of what happens to medieval bodies after they die. It doesn't come up that often in my other studies. All I know is corpses have holes in their stomachs in medieval art.

    I do know, however, that cutting up bodies after death (or boiling them and removing their bones, or taking their organs out and storing them elsewhere, etc.) was something the church was always trying to stop in the later Middle Ages. Ergo, Boniface VIII's Detestande feritatis.

    But researching this question has just now led me to discover Perchta, the Bavarian New Years spirit who leaves silver coins for good children and slits the bellies of bad children, removes their stomach and guts, and stuffs the cavity left behind with straw and pebbles. What the hell, Bavaria? Ever heard of coal in a stocking?

  • Wacky Hermit

    When I first saw the abdominal holes I thought they were vulvas. But that is why I read this blog, to educate myself! 🙂 I don't know what happens to a corpse with the abdomen rotting and all, so I'll just have to take your word for it.

  • Jon Hendry

    No offense intended. I can't help it, I've read Vampires, Burial, and Death, which has lots on what happens to dead bodies.

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