Medieval Zombies: The Undead in Northern Alliterative Poetry

My proposal to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at the University of West Michigan was accepted. The proposal comes from the same paper as the one I'll be presenting in England in June, but this conference paper is more skewed to poetry than art. Here's the proposal I sent:


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

Transi Tombs, Toads, and Luxuria in Medieval Alliterative Poetry by Caroline Diezyn

Until the last years of the fourteenth century, medieval tomb imagery reflected a hope for salvation, with calm-faced figures representing a confidence in God’s mercy. Then, a strikingly different type of monument appeared in Northern Europe: the transi tomb. Gruesome emaciated corpses with exposed organs, skeletal frames with skin and tattered clothing drawn across the bones, and decaying bodies covered with snakes and toads were all incarnations of the new type of sepulchral memento mori. Kathleen Cohen writes that the transi tomb is not merely another iteration of a memento mori; the transi tomb also played a role in the expression of hope for the salvation of the soul of the deceased (181). I intend to argue that there is a link between this representation of the dead in transi tombs and descriptions of the dead in Northern English alliterative poetry – but not just in the male depictions of ghosts in poems like The Three Dead Kings. Guenevere’s mother in The Anturs of Arther is crawling with toads – just like the first known transi tomb in Europe, and unlike any others until the mid-fourteenth century. I intend to argue that The Anturs of Arther represents the specifically female counterpart to the male transi tomb representation – that of Luxuria. Transi tomb imagery and epitaphs that condemn a luxurious lifestyle specifically depict toads, changing the message from a simple memento mori to a commentary on Luxuria, the iconographic symbol of a woman devoured by toads and snakes as punishment for her sin. Guenevere’s mother, a ghastly animated corpse described in the same way as the transi tomb corpses, disavows covetousness. Her depiction and disavowal cast her character in a specifically feminine sinful way when we consider the symbolic significance of the toads devouring her as representing Luxuria.


Works Cited


Cohen, Kathleen. Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Oakland: University of California Press, Print.