Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Take hede unto my fygure
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This colored pen drawing presents a monument known as a transi tomb which gives two views of the body of the deceased. In this case in the compartment above the woman is beautifully dressed, reclining with her hands folded in prayer, and further distinguished by the heraldic signs of many noble families. Below she is a cadaver in a shroud, her head a grinning skull, her fine clothing gone, and her flesh a feast for worms, lizards, and toads. The details of each figure are carefully represented for greater contrast. The richly dressed woman wears a red, flounced robe, a decorative bodice, perhaps made from ermine, and a lined mantle. Her multicolored, horned headdress with a veil bears witness to fashionable tastes, while the crown marks her high social status. She rests in comfort on a rich pillow decorated with four tassels. In the grave below the woman has lost all these marks of distinction. She has pulled a scrap of the shroud across her hips as a last defense against the vermin. Unlike the figure above, she turns toward her viewers and engages them directly while they read her words about the inevitability of death and the need to prepare for it (see the full inscription below).

    The illustration serves as the preface to a short text, The Disputacione betwyx the Body and the Wormes in which a narrator introduces a vivid debate between the body and the worms. Scholars have signaled the importance of gender in this regard, since The Disputacione is unique among Middle English debate poems in having a female body as the protagonist. With the many associations that women had in regard to sexuality and the body, this contrast between the courtly beauty and the rotting cadaver emphasized the inherent repulsiveness of the carnal, even in the guise of a most attractive woman. In the course of the debate the female body reaches the abject humility that Christians need to embrace in the hope of spiritual redemption. Robertson argues that the struggle between the worms and the body is conveyed in an erotic tone that suggests the literary rape of the pastourelle. After many regrets about her lost honor and nakedness, the woman complains about the worms’ growing size and refusal to leave. Eventually she gives into their assault (“Do your will with me.”). Despite these traditional binaries of the female and corruption, Matlock suggests that the poem and its illustrations ultimately go beyond these opposing categories to demonstrate the fluidity and overlapping meanings for body and soul and for female and male.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also):
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1475-1500
  • Related Work: An illustration of the female skeleton and the worms disputing: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0192abf663e8970d-500wi See the full manuscript digitized on the British Library website.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Additional Manuscript 37049, fol. 32v
  • Original Location: A Yorkshire or Lincolnshire Carthusian charterhouse
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Paper; Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 2.7/2/
  • Inscription: “Take hede unto my figure here abowne And se how sumtyme I was fressche and gay Now turned to wormes mete and corrupcion Bot fowle erth and stynkyng slime and clay Attende therefore to this disputacion written here And writte it wisely in thi hert fre At ther at sum wisdom thu may here To se what thou art and here aftyr sal be When thou leste wenes. venit mors te superare When thi grafe grenes. bonum est mortis meditari” (Translation: Take heed of my figure here above and observe how I once was fresh and gay and now am turned to worms’ meat and decay, nothing but foul earth and stinking slime and clay; attend therefore to this disputation written here, and write it wisely in your free heart so that you may acquire some wisdom here by seeing what you are and hereafter shall be; when you least expect it, death will overcome you; when your grave groans, it is good to meditate upon death.)
  • Related Resources: Matlock, Wendy A. “The Feminine Flesh in the Disputacione betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in The Ends of the Body: Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross. University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 260-282;
    Robertson, Elizabeth. “Kissing the Worm: Sex and Gender in the Afterlife and the Poetic Posthuman in the Late Middle English A Disputacion betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken. University of Notre Dame Press, 2013, pp. 121-154;
    Brantley, Jessica. Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England. University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 221-227;
    Rooney, Kenneth. “Tradition and Innovation in the Middle English Debates of Mortality,” in Transmission and Transformation in the Middle Ages: Texts and Contexts, ed. Kathy Cawsey and Jason Harris. Four Courts Press, 2007, pp. 157-174;
    Kinch, Ashby. Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture. Brill, 2013, pp. 58-68.