Medieval Zombies: Transi Tombs and the Undead


My proposal was accepted to the Death, Art, and Anatomy conference at the University of Winchester in southern England. Here's the proposal I sent:  

“To tell the todus theropon with tung were ful tere:”

Transi Tombs, Toads, and Luxuria in Medieval Poetry

 Unlike English transi tombs, that of François de la Sarraz in Switzerland (late 14th century), and later German examples (1450-), feature the decaying corpses of the men they memorialize crawling with snakes and toads. The description of the ghost of Guenevere’s dead mother in The Anturs off Arthure (late 14th century) as having exposed bones, tattered clothing, and being covered in toads and snakes, is uncannily similar to this particularly gruesome type of transi tomb. Similarly, the Disputacioun Betwyx the Body and Wormes depicts a dream vision of a conversation between a woman’s body and the worms eating it within the grave (vividly depicted in an illumination accompanying a Northern England version (ca. 1435-40).

I intend to argue that the unusual representations of dead noblemen in continental transi tombs and descriptions of dead noblewomen in English alliterative poetry both have their roots in traditional images of luxuria. Transi tomb imagery and epitaphs that condemn a luxurious lifestyle specifically include toads, changing the message from a simple memento mori to a commentary on luxuria. When allegorized, Luxuria is often depicted as a woman devoured by toads and snakes as punishment for her sin. The Anturs and the Disputacioun, therefore, present a specifically feminized iteration of the transi tomb imagery. Their appearance draws on the memento mori tradition of the transi tomb, but combines it with the more specific representation of Luxuria, who is not just licentious but also vain and covetous.