By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
Transi tombs had existed in some form prior to the mid–14th century but became much more prevalent in the aftermath of the Black Death. These tombs depict their occupants in effigy. Did this effigy represent the deceased in their best? What were the reasons behind the exponential rise in the use of the transi tombs in Europe?
The Burial Tradition
The long-standing burial tradition was especially popular among nobility and royalty, and the typical form these take is of a large, raised sarcophagus with a statue of the person inside lying on top of it. These kinds of tombs even have a special name—gisants.
The statue usually represents the deceased as both asleep and looking their finest, often wearing their armor or best garments, and maybe holding a sword, or in the case of the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine, holding a book.
A transi tomb is similar to a standard gisant with one very important exception—the effigy is not of the deceased represented as when they looked their best and were at their most powerful. No, in the case of the transi tomb, what we get is an effigy of a decaying corpse.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Growing Popularity of Transi Tombs
There are some early 14th-century semi-transi tombs in England. These predate the plague, and instead of a full statue above the sarcophagus, they are usually in the church itself, along the nave leading up to the altar, on the floor.
On the cover of these interior graves, one will often find an incised covering or slab with raised metalwork—the kind of thing people like to do rubbings of—and in a few of these, a skeleton is depicted. The idea that death is always coming—memento mori—was always a part of medieval life. But, the transi tombs took this to a new level.
In the two centuries following the initial wave of plague, those who could afford it took care to arrange for large burial spaces to be elaborately decorated, and there was an explosion in requests for effigies to be included in the memorial.
More than one scholar has commented that this can arguably be seen as a reaction to the necessity of mass graves during the worst of the plague. There was something so horrifying to the medieval mind about being lost to eternity in a plague pit with no marker to note your place or any living person to point out where your earthly remains are buried. The vogue in tombs with effigies may have been a direct reaction against that horrifying anonymity.
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The Effigy of La Sarra
One of the earliest and most striking examples that we know of is the tomb of the judge François de la Sarra who died in 1363 in what is today Switzerland. The effigy of La Sarra is sculpted to show worms crawling out of the judge’s arms and legs, with his face and genitals represented as being gnawed on by frogs and toads.
We know that many chronicles and medical accounts mention worms as being part of the symptoms that accompany infection with plague. Medieval people had enough familiarity with death to have noticed that maggots usually appeared to feast on a rotting corpse.
But they believed, incorrectly, that these worms were already inside the human body, and the infection was part of what caused them to emerge and go into a feeding frenzy. After La Sarra, we see the construction of many more transi tombs throughout Europe.
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People Wanted to Be Remembered
In addition to the increase in the number of transi tombs, in the face of the Great Mortality those who could, took steps to ensure that they would leave some trace on the world. Black Death scholar Joseph Byrne observes that an examination of wills from before the plague shows people making charitable bequests here and there, and the terms of the bequests are rather general.
After the first wave of plague, however, Byrne notes, more and more people from further down the social ladder were making these bequests. In the wake of the plague, more people went and had wills drawn up because they saw death all around them. People gave to charity—probably at least in part because they hoped a good deed done on earth would help them get to heaven more quickly.
When they made these bequests they wanted to ensure that their generosity was commemorated. Commemoration usually took the form of some sort of work of art. Even people further down the social ladder than we might expect commissioned works of art, including architectural pieces and paintings. Among the unlikely commissioners of art post-plague, we find not only nobles, but also bakers, gardeners, blacksmiths, and many other trades and craftsmen.
Common Questions about the Emergence of Transi Tombs during the Black Death
The main difference was that in a transi tomb, the effigy of the deceased wasn’t based on their best appearance. The gisant represented the deceased as both asleep and looking their finest, often wearing their armor or best garments, and maybe holding a sword.
Some scholars have suggested that the popularity of transi tombs increased in Europe because of the fear people had when it came to being buried in mass graves without anybody knowing where they were actually buried.
One of the earliest and most striking examples of transi tombs is that of the judge François de la Sarra who died in 1363 in what is today Switzerland.