Thursday, 26 May 2011

Death the Leveller

Last weekend four intrepid Ragged Ramblers made their way west towards Methwold, a village that stands on the very edge of the Fens. A good number of the Learned Society out that day, for although we Ramblers have on many occasions ventured forth as a threesome we are learned enough in the ways of history, myth, legend and folklore to know that the number three is not advantageous to adventures of any sort. Even those not schooled in the way of folklore will i'm sure remember what happened to the three little pigs and as our good friend the Yarnsmith of Norwich always reminds us, when it comes to three travellers two at least are likely to come to a bad end - more likely all three. A fact that is attested too in some of the medieval art that we Ramblers sometimes stumble upon on our expeditions.

Why on this our last Ramble we came across such a 600 year old warning recently rediscovered at the church of St Andrews in Northwold near Methwold in West Norfolk. The painting is in need of further repair and restoration and is difficult to make out, but having seen a very similar one in the coincidentally dedicated church of St Andrew's in Wickhampton we recognised it as the three living and the three dead. Three noble men, maybe even Kings who went out hunting and were hailed by three representations of Death.

The three living and three dead at Northwold
Click on image to make larger

Death beckons the living

Detail of the noble holding a hunting hawk at Northwold

The subject is said to have been a popular one in the wake of the Black Death and is a recognition that Death is no respecter of status, he steals the life from all eventually. He levels all men, for all will be the unwilling victims of his crimes. A common enough conceit in a time when all those who could afford to commission momento mori were desperate to demonstrate their humility in the face of death and disease, although the Yarnsmith says that he has as yet to find the story in text form. He does however note that it bears similarities with Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, a version of which can be found on one of the Yarnsmith's blogs by clicking here.. A story where three foolish youths go in search of Death with the aim that they will kill him for stealing the life of so many of their friends. Suffice to say that it is Death who kills them by exploiting their greed. So not that different to the three nobles whose vain dress and pursuits may well have been seen as punishable by Death, for there were many who believed that the Pestilence was a punishment from God for our medieval forebears vain and wicked ways.

The three living and three dead at Wickhampton

Detail of the noble holding a hunting hawk at Wickhampton

Now we Ragged Ramblers like to think that we are probably not that wicked nor vain, but perhaps our love of the latest gadgets like iphones and more especially our foolhardy attachment to the latest flasks with their 'twist-&-pour' technology, will mark us out for punishment (If we believed in such things) There are some who believe they will and even though we don't, we are respectful to the old beliefs and even we on a day that some claimed would be our last, traveled forth as four not three. A happy accident perhaps like so many of the discoveries we make.

The Thomas Gooding Memorial in Norwich Cathedral
Typical of Momento Mori of Medieval times it says:

All you that do this place pass bye
Remember death for you will dye.
As you are now even so was I
And as I am so shall you be.
Thomas Gooding here do staye
Wayting for God's judgement day

And so a warning to all those who wish to follow in our footsteps. Perhaps when you ramble forth you should keep to the path and never travel in threes. That's not to say that we will heed our own advice. Those who stick to the path will never have the happy accidents; they will not make those discoveries that we often make. Nor will they discover the unusual like the Northwold wall painting, although it is perhaps an irony that our latest discovery demonstrates so well the perceived terrors that awaited those who did not heed their 'betters' advice long, long ago!

+Many Coats+


  1. Field Marshall Cockton-Smythe26 May 2011 at 16:55

    A most thoughtful piece, old chap, makes a change from watching buffoons playing with flasks in cars. Was intrigued, don't ye know, to see that in both churches, Wickhampton and what's the other, the paintings both occupy that highly visible spot just opposite the main door, where a fellow would normally expect old St Chris, benefit of travellers and all. Hmm, darned interesting. Carry on.

  2. Well noticed Field Marshall and i suspect it is no coincidence that both paintings are in the same position. Whether the same dedications to St Andrew are also important I cannot say.

  3. I should have said that St Christopher is still represented in Wickhampton Field Marshall. You can just make him out to the right of the three Nobles. It might be that he still lies hidden under the later wall plaster and paint at Northwold perhaps?

  4. I should also have said that on the other side of St Chris is a very fine representation of the Seven Works of Mercy that can be seen in detail on Simon Knott's Norfolk Churches website by following the Wickhampton link in my post.

    +Many Coats+

  5. Really interesting piece. Glad that the RSAR site isn't an entirely earnest endeavour. Me? I unscrew my flask lid and pour, without flourish or affectation, just as my forebears did before me.

  6. Dear Anonymous

    Although we of the RSAR do not know you or your gender, your down to earth approach to flask tea and your love of stuff un-earnest as described on your comment leads us to suspect that you are a good honest son or daughter of soil and toil. And for that we salute you.


    +Many Coats+

  7. That "as I am now, so you shall be" quote was originally Roman, and is found on old roadside memorials - "Stop, traveler!", etc. What a nice church.

  8. Thanks for that Tom. I didn't realise that the provenance was so rich in terms of time!

    Huzzah to you!