“What Will Survive of Us Is Love”: Memory and Emotion in Late-Medieval England

May 13, 2020, 08:00 AM

Jessica Barker explores the gesture of joined hands on medieval tomb monuments.

Medieval tombs often depict husband and wife lying hand-in-hand, immortalised in elegantly carved stone: what Philip Larkin would later describe in his celebrated poem, An Arundel Tomb, as their ‘stone fidelity’.

These gestural monuments seem to belong to a broader tendency towards ‘expressivity’ in late-medieval sculpture. Whereas the figures on Romanesque portals stare back at the viewer impassively, their Gothic counterparts beam with radiant smiles, wipe away bitter tears or grimace and gurney with uncontrolled rage. The nature and significance of this shift has been much debated in recent years, in particular the extent to which the heightened representation of emotion was designed to provoke an equivalent emotional response.

This talk explores these ideas through the gesture of joined hands on medieval tomb monuments. I first address the issue of why hand-joining tombs are almost entirely restricted to a fifty-year period in England, before going on to place these amorous effigies in dialogue with wedding rings and dresses, changes to matrimonial ritual, and the new economic opportunities offered to widows. What emerges is the careful artifice beneath their seductive emotional surfaces: the artistic, religious, political and legal agendas underlying the medieval rhetoric of married love.