“As thou art, so once was I”

This post was first published on the History Girls back in November. Its rather gloomy tone well suited the dark days of November, and is perhaps less appropriate now that the days are lengthening and bright daffodils are blooming everywhere! Nonetheless, I offer you the story of “The three living and the three dead”…


I’ve been delving once more into the history of plague in the 14th century, in preparation for writing the fourth book in my novel series, the Meonbridge Chronicles. In my reading, I came across a reference to the story of “the three living and the three dead”, and to the images of these unhappy characters that abound in European churches, including many in England. I’ve known about this trope for years, but I was prompted to revisit briefly what I had read before about the effect of the Black Death on art in Europe, simply out of fascination! I apologise in advance that this is not going to be an especially cheery little piece!

There are three types of art that I am looking at in this context: images of the “three living and three dead”, in manuscripts and on church walls throughout Europe; cadaver or memento mori tombs, and portrayals of the danse macabre or Dance of Death.

The three living and the three dead

The three living and three dead was a common theme in paintings prior to the arrival of the Black Death in the mid-14th century (1348-50 in the UK). But it seems that, after the Black Death, the images became even more plentiful and more shocking and realistic in their presentation. 

The British Library blog https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/01/the-three-living-and-the-three-dead.html tells us a little more about the Three Living and Three Dead trope. The tale was clearly commonplace in Europe, especially in France and England, and dates back at least to the 13th century.  The basic story is that three wealthy young men are out hunting when they meet three corpses in various states of decay but which can nonetheless talk, and they remind the young men of the transience of life and the need to mend their dissolute ways.

This page from the early 14th century Psalter of Robert de Lisle, from East Anglia, which is held in the British Library, has three kings meeting the three corpses, and underneath are lines from an Anglo-Norman poem Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs. Some of the words are familiar enough: “I was well fair” (Ich wes wel fair) say the corpses, and “Such shall you be” (Such schel tou be). We will meet these sentiments again.

By “De Lisle Psalter”. British-Library-Arundel-127.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And here is another similar image, from the manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France:

By Variés XIIIe (BnF Ms 378 Roman de la rose. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I am struck by how, in both these manuscripts, the corpses look so unfailingly cheerful, as if they are saying “yah sucks to you”!

An Italian fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco in the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, painted in 1338-39, roughly a decade before the Black Death spread over Europe, shows The Three Dead and the Three Living, as well as the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgement, Hell, and the Thebais. It is a bit more serious in tone than the two manuscripts. A group of youths are enjoying themselves in the garden while angels of Death collect corpses over their heads. The painting is thought to have inspired the setting of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written a few years after the Black Death and, apparently, Buffalmacco himself is depicted in three of the Decameron’s stories as a merry prankster. How very curious!

Fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco in Pisa. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Images of the three living and three dead abound on the walls of churches throughout Europe and in England. Of the English examples, I’ll show two, both 14th century and both from Norfolk: one from the church of St Margaret and St Remigius in Seething, and another from St Andrew’s Church in Wickhampton.

Part of the mural in Seething.
Evelyn Simak / The church of SS Margaret and Remigius, in Seething – Three Living and Three Dead. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Part of the mural in Wickhampton.
By David from Colorado Springs, United States (St Andrew’s church, Wickhampton, Norfolk). [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Again, how very cheerful those grinning corpses are, presumably having a huge laugh at the expense of the living!


Cadaver tombs

Much less jolly-seeming, however, are the cadaver or memento mori tombs, which became popular, if that can be the right word, in the 15th century, alongside the wall paintings. In these, the understanding of the inevitability of death and the ultimate futility of wealth, power or beauty are depicted clearly in the gruesomeness of the sculptures.

A cadaver tomb is a type of gisant, a recumbent effigy tomb, which has an effigy of a decomposing corpse, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms, either on its own or together with an effigy of the living (in a “double-decker” tomb). Memento mori (“remember (that) you will die”) is the medieval view on mortality, a reflection on the vanity and transience of earthly life. 

The “before” and “after” images of the deceased are reminiscent of the three living and the three dead.

Cadaver tombs were of course only for high-ranking people because one had to be rich enough to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space in the church. Which is rather ironic given the nature of the memento mori premise…

Examples in England include the tomb and effigy of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel, who died in 1435, in the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel, West Sussex, which I have seen. The sculpture of the corpse is hideously realistic.


The Earl of Arundel’s tomb. By Lampman.
[CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Another example is this one in Fyfield Church in Essex, of John Golafre (died 1442), an English courtier and Member of Parliament. Again, the cadaver sculpture below his armoured effigy, is one of the more realistic products of this macabre late-medieval tradition.

John Golafre’s tomb in Fyfield. By William M. Connolley.
[CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
John Baret, a wealthy burgess from Bury St Edmunds, Norfolk, who died in 1467, doesn’t have a “living” effigy on his tomb, but just a cadaver, and again horribly realistic. And, grimly, the inscription says: “Miserable one, what reason have you to be proud? Soon you will be as we / a fetid cadaver, food for worms.” Indeed!

Danse macabre

That Death is contemptuous of rank and wealth was an egalitarian message that found further expression in late medieval Europe with the images of the danse macabre or Dance of Death. The message of these paintings, on walls and on canvas, is the same: what point is there in wealth, power, gentle birth, beauty etc etc, when the end is the same for all? This populist theme of Death as the Great Leveller was taken up everywhere in 15th century art.

In a late medieval poem The Disputacione betwixt the Body and Wormes (c1440), the poet has seen a cadaver tomb of a young woman, her effigy shown as both “living” and “dead”. In his reflection on her death, the poet has Worms argue with the Body that their role is not to consume her once fresh Body “with one insaciabylle and gredy apetite”, but in fact selflessly to devour her rotting flesh. “With alle that wer mighty”, they add: “even though she was so grand”. 

In the danse macabre images, the dead or personifications of Death summon representatives from all walks of life to dance towards the grave. A splendid example of this is a mural in a church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, painted at the end of the 15th century. It shows men and women of every rank and station being led, again by grinning skeletons, towards a grave.


Mural in Hrastovlje, Slovenia. National Gallery of Slovenia.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The leftmost section of the Hrastovlje mural.
Bibliofil at cs.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons
Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) was the eldest son of Edward III, but died before his father and so it was his young son, Richard II, who succeeded to the throne. Nonetheless, Edward was revered as one of the most successful English commanders of the Hundred Years’ War, and was thought by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest knights of his age.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his elevated status, Edward evidently thought it right to show humility on his tomb. He died of dysentery in 1376, and was buried with great state in Canterbury Cathedral. But his epitaph, inscribed around his effigy, includes these lines:

Such as thou art, sometime was I.

Such as I am, such shalt thou be.

I thought little on th’our of Death

So long as I enjoyed breath.

On earth I had great riches

Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.

But now a wretched captive am I,

Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.

My beauty great, is all quite gone,

My flesh is wasted to the bone.

The tomb of the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD.
[CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons


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