On the commemoration of the dead, and poppy season

A thing about being alive is that someday you won’t be. This is, of course, a matter of fact and also something that humans have always had to deal with. The dead, writ large, outnumber the living, and it is the living who have to deal with the dead. The bodies of the dead can harm us if they are not sufficiently dealt with, of course, however there is also the significant psychological connection that the living have with the dead. We grieve people that we have lost, and as a part of that often seek to commemorate them. That happens on a small scale when we have funerals for our loved ones who have died, which is a way of allowing those who knew and cared for someone to connect to their memory. Then you also have forms of collective grieving and commemoration of the dead as a large group, and let me tell you what, over here in the UK we are very much in the middle of one of those, because it is poppy season.

For those blissfully unaware of what goes on here on TERF island, every year we treat Remembrance Day (November 11th) as a big fucking deal, and quite rightly too. I don’t know if you heard about World War I, but turns out it was a horrible meat grinder, where young men were sent to die in their millions because a bunch of rich cousins got in a fight. There was absolutely no great cause involved, and it was absolutely nothing but a horror perpetuated for no reason at all whatsoever.

Anyway, Remembrance Day is supposed to be about, well, remembering the fact that the powerful send the disempowered to die for nothing but their own self-interest, and that we should not allow that to happen ever again. A symbol of that is meant to be the poppy, which is taken from the poem, “In Flanders Fields” written by John McCrae, which references the poppies that grow over the graves of the dead at Ypres.

Friends, that is not actually what happens anymore. Instead there is a big thing about how you have to buy and wear a poppy to support our troops who fought for your freedom (???citation needed???) which leads to, well, stuff like this:

1 phone call for scaffolding = 1 respect
Respect the fallen by creating a Lovecraftian horror.
Respecting the troops on the way to buy a reasonably priced vibrator at Ann Summers.
L – and I cannot stress this enough – MFAO.

So yeah, just a bunch of normal stuff, am I right? (Shout out to the excellent Twitter account Poppy Watch for collating these.)

Anyway, this is of interest to me, your local medieval historian because I would argue that what we experience during poppy season is a cult of remembrance, which is very much something that existed in the medieval period.

Now, to be fair, the medieval period never experienced a war as horrible as World War I. The modern area is really unsurpassed for absolutely devastating stupid wars that kill a bunch of people for no discernable reason, and that’s that. Of course, people still died in the medieval period, and both the dead and their loved ones wanted to make sure that they would be remembered.

From at least the thirteenth century, we can see that in some Italian cities there was a specific interest on the part of the living for setting out what their funerals were to be like in the testaments of the wealthy. This would include references to how they wanted to be buried, how much money should be put towards masses for them, and towards food for the poor, as well as money for wax for the church they were buried in, which would provide candles. Pretty often there would be stipulations that more money should be given to the poor for food and clothing on the seventh and thirtieth days after their burial. If the people really had the money and wanted it, they might sometimes also do the same thing for the anniversary of their burial.[1]

A medieval funeral service, Walters MS W. 265, f. 117 r.

Arrangements like these did a few things – firstly, they were a way of forcing people to remember you after your death, obviously. It is an opportunity for your loved ones to mark your passing, but if you are feeding people in the street and they learn your name you are also expanding the field of people who will remember you. But there was more to it than simply memory. The whole feeding and clothing people thing was a sort of two-pronged approach to the afterlife. In the first place, feeding and clothing the poor was a good thing, so if you were in purgatory (which you probably were) it buys you some time off of torture and gets you closer to being in heaven. Secondly, maybe the people that you gave food to will pray for your soul, an act which does exactly the same thing.

Say you were particularly worried about having enough prayers said for your soul though (IDK maybe you were a really bad but rich person – a common theme) there was also a way you could up your remembrance and also get more time out of purgatory: you could have a whole ass altar established for yourself. If you have ever been in a large Catholic church you may have noticed that aside from the main altar up the front there are several smaller altars all around the sides, that’s where all those come from. In fourteenth-century Prague (shout out!) one parish church, St. Gall managed to accrue ten side altars from 1340 to 1400, which shows you how popular a choice it was for the wealthy.[2] Some of them even had their own little chapels for the same purpose. Of course, this also had the effect, once again, of forcing people to remember you. If they are sitting in church and can see your altar, odds are that they know your name.

The altars did more than just sit there, however. Along with their foundation often a certain amount of money for masses was left to be said for them – often into perpetuity – to help with the whole purgatory thing. When people left money for masses in this way, it was usually connected to, say, rent from a building or land, and was meant to pay a salary for a priest, and we refer to them as chantries. Depending on how much money you expected the rent to keep bringing in you could request more or fewer masses. We have records, for example of a dude Called Marco Carelli in Milan who started masses for his soul before he even died, and said that he wanted them said daily, as well as one big annual one into perpetuity, for both him and any of his family members. In return the priests would receive sixty-four lire a year, which was a lot of money at the time.[3]

A very pretty chantry in Lincoln Cathedral, my fav English cathedrsal, just FYI/

However the commemoration of the dead wasn’t just for the wealthy and well connected. There was also a lot of concern in medieval society that the outcast dead could come and haunt your ass if you didn’t remember them properly after death. A twelfth-century text from England, William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum records that a man called Brihtwold … “being slow to do good but quick to do evil, [who] came to a pitiful end, dying in the town surrounded by the materials for a drinking bout, and was buried among his predecessors in the church of St. Andrew, which is right next to the big church. It is generally believed that the watchmen at the church were disturbed by dreamlike shadowy shapes, until they dug up Brihtwold’s body and sunk it in a deep marsh far away from the monastery. At intervals a noxious smell rose from the marsh and spread its noisome stench over the surrounding countryside”[4]

So, the dead might be vengeful and you needed to make sure that they were kept happy with masses, and proper burials and whatnot. Otherwise you were gonna find yourself exhuming a body and yeeting into the swamp one fine day.

So with chantries and what have you, the dead could be placated, and the living would be assured that they would be remembered and were similarly soothed. However, the living in the medieval period sometimes found their responsibilities for the dead absolutely crushing. There was the real concern that the unremembered might actually take vengeance on the living, which is one thing, but even in the cases of the rich who left money behind there were worries. Say you are a priest and you have ten altars in your parish, aside from the main one, like in St Gall, and each of the families with an altar commissioned one mass per day – that’s eleven masses per day you were saying. And yeah sure you can hire help, but was the money left actually enough to keep doing that as time and inflation march on? Meanwhile, family members of the dead might be exhausted from making sure their great great great uncle’s masses were still being said and assuring that there was still enough money coming in for all of that.

As I am sure you can understand, what that meant is that eventually this sort of stuff falls by the wayside, fears of ghostly retribution or no. Sixty-four lire just ain’t what it used to be, and eventually most of us will be forgotten, wills be damned. Medieval people worried about this, and it is not uncommon to hear people refer to the dead as “friendless” having lost their living allies to look after them.

A burial scene from Morgan MS M.1027 fol. 130 r.

So, there was a sort of tension going on here: on the one hand you want to do the right thing for the dead – after all one day you will be one! – and on the other, oh my god I am so tired, please no more masses, who was that guy even? Eventually even the most loved, best connected, and well-remembered are amalgamated into a generalised group of All Souls to be remembered together unnamed on October 31st. We simply cannot keep individual and targeted reverence for the dead going, even if it is seen as an important aspect of cultural and religious life.

Here in the UK what we are experiencing is a sort of version of that gradual forgetting. There are few people alive who can remember anyone who died in World War I, and most of them are close to dying themselves. As a result, we are in a sort of perpetuated mourning which is continued out of guilt, as well it might be, but in order to keep the tradition alive we have completely changed its meaning. Culturally, we have jettisoned the calls for peace and an end to needless fighting in memory of those who died, and instead turned it into a chance to show how respectful we are and how totally fine we are with an ongoing imperial war machine.

 We still care about making a show of remembrance, but we have become unmoored from what was meant to be the key lesson about why these men’s deaths needed commemoration. We’re out here stacking up poppies as a way of telling ourselves that we are doing something respectful here, and it has nothing to do with the wishes of the war dead.

Nothing says never again like a respectful poppy thong. Yes, this is real.

The dead are always with us, but ultimately their remembrance is linked to the societies tasked with doing the remembering. In the medieval period you might be able to cajole your way into commemoration through threats of haunting, or with enough money to buy some masses for a point in time, but ultimately the dead eventually recede into the past. In the twenty-first century we are in the process of centering ourselves and our beliefs over the wishes of the World War I dead as they fade into a depersonalised amalgamation of our own feelings about violence, empire, and ourselves.

It’s a fact of the process of time and history, but it is still pretty sad, no matter how banging the rack is on the half-naked chick wearing a poppy.

[1] Samuel K. Cohen Jr. “The Place of the Dead in Flanders and Tuscany, in, Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall (eds.), The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 31-32.
[2] David Charles Mengel,  “Bones, Stones, and Brothels: Religion and Topography in Prague under Emperor Charles IV (1346-78).” 14 Jul. 2003, p. 101. <https://curate.nd.edu/show/cv43nv95885&gt;
[3] Martina Saltamacchia, “A Funeral Procession from Venice to Milan: Death Rituals for a Late-Medieval Wealthy Merchant”, in, Thea Tomaini (ed.), Dealing with the Dead: Mortality and Community in Medieval and Ealy Modern Europe, (Leiden: Brill, 2017), p. 219.
[4] Stephen Gordon, “Dealing with the Undead in the Later Middle Ages”, in, Ibid., pp. 122-123.

For more on death and commemoration, see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
On the commemoration of royal death

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

5 thoughts on “On the commemoration of the dead, and poppy season”

  1. Utterly unconnected with this post—astute as always—but peripherally related to your field is this:
    One troublesome use of indexes is their occasional weaponisation in academic feuds. A masterclass is provided by the Victorian medievalist J.H. Round, whose Feudal England (1895) was in large part a sustained and vitriolic attack on his fellow medievalist E.A. Freeman. The entry devoted to ‘Freeman, Professor’ is by far the longest in the index, taking up one and a half columns of its eleven double-columned pages, and has sub-entries such as: ‘his contemptuous criticism’; ‘when himself in error’; ‘his “facts”’; ‘confuses individuals’; ‘his pedantry’; ‘misconstrues his Latin’; ‘his confused views’; ‘his special weakness’; ‘his Domesday errors and confusion’. The final sub-entry might seem somewhat superfluous: ‘necessity of criticising his work’. And all this when Freeman had died in 1892.

    Andy King
    University of Southampton

    You may have known about this in which case sorry for the redundancy but I appreciate snark and found it entertaining, though I have no clue about the dispute or the combatants.


  2. Have you read Brett Devereaux’s recent and very good vulgarization article about the trench stalemate ?
    The guy’s a right-winger, but he’s not voluntarily inhumane and is quite knowledgeable…

    Also, do you know “La chanson de Craonne” ? Is there something similar in England ?
    I’m a bit confused about what you write in the first part of your post (the one about modern times); here in France the war commemoration has always been quite politicized, with the left commemorating the useless butchery and the right commemorating the courage of “our valiant troops”.
    What have changed over time is that as people die of old age, the anger towards the butchers that sent the youth to their doom has slowly faded, while the right-wingers (and amongst them the veterans of colonial wars, who have associated themselves with 11 November celebrations, and are the only survivors now) are still eager to promote their wicked “sense of sacrifice ado nothing”, and find it especially easy to do it now that opposition to their narrative has faded.

    The way I read it, “In Flanders Fields” is actually more in the camp of “honor our dead and don’t question our leaders” than the famous “maudite soit la guerre” on the Monument aux Morts of Gentioux (or “Maudite soit la guerre et ses auteurs” in Maillard, or the Paul Valery’s citation on the one in Saint-Appolinaire)…

    So is it really a betrayal of its meaning to rally behind the imperial war machine ?


    1. The left commemorating the victims of the useless butchery, of course, if it wasn’t already obvious.

      “Plus jamais ça”, as they say. So, depending on how far left one is, “never again” sending boys to their death without reasons, or “never again” obeying orders from the bourgeoisie to get oneself killed in its war against fellow workers of another country.


  3. I’ve been appalled at how little has been done in recent years to honor the military dead — this is a big deal in my house and seeing it fall out of living memory…well, I think our communities and nations are the worse for it. remembrance unites, as it should, and keeps the dead alive in our consciousness. it is a privilege to be able to carry on their stories and if that privilege is sometimes burdensome, so be it. I taught about WWI this week and not a single one of my students knew why we wear the poppy. They do now.


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