Visit any historic site or town today and you can reasonably expect to find some form of heritage interpretation board. But you might not realise that visitors and pilgrims to the churches of medieval Europe would have found historical information displayed in a similar manner.
Normally referred to as tabulae or ‘tables’, these were texts written on parchment and attached to boards that were then placed around the church. They were intended to be read by literate visitors or used as an aide memoire by members of the religious community when showing people around the church. A popular topic for these boards was the history of the church or monastery – many of these were of course foundation myths! An example of this time of tabula is the Magna tabula Glastoniensis which is held in the collections of the Bodleian Library – catalogue entry here. It consists of six parchments leaves mounted on a wooden frame and recounts extracts of the history of Glastonbury and the saints said to be buried there.
As can be seen from the Glastonbury example, saints were another popular topic for tabulae. They would recount the life of the saint and were usually displayed near a relic associated with them. As well as saints, medieval abbeys and cathedrals were often the last resting place of Kings and noblemen, many of whom would have had an epitaph dipsplayed on a tabulae alongside their tomb. Much of the knowledge we have of the early life of Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk, comes from a transcription of the (lengthy!) narrative tabula displayed near his tomb in Thetford Priory. An alternative to a prose epitaph, was poetry, such as the poems by John Skelton which were hung near the tombs Henry VII, Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort.
In England, the tradition of tabulae continued into the late-16th and early-17th centuries but began to fall out of fashion. Instead, tombs began to incorporate increasingly large numbers of stone panels carved with lengthy epitaphs. Existing, wooden tabulae began to disappear from churches by the early-18th century and very few of them survive today. Peter Sherlock states that the tomb to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and Lettice Knollys has a wooden board hung on it with a poem by Gervas Clifton but I haven’t been able to identify this on photographs of the tomb (road trip to Warwick St Mary coming up, unless some can put me out of my misery and confirm whether it is still there).
So how do we know about these wooden boards and the texts on them? For this we have the antiquaries of the 17th-century to thank. Inspired by William Camden’s work on the inscriptions in Westminster Abbey, antiquaries took a particular interest in epitaphs and, fearing they would be lost as a result of vandalism or iconoclasm, started to transcribe surviving texts both on monuments and on nearby tabulae. Such was their their determination that the written word should not be erased from history, they tended to focus on epitaphs more than the visual appearance of tombs – a source of frustration for anyone interested in the art and sculpture of monuments! However, we do have some surviving drawings which show tabulae, for example the drawing of the tombs of King Sebba and King Ethelred in Dugdale’s St Paul’s – see here. In addition to the Glastonbury table, examples of tabula recounting the histories of religious houses and the lives of saints are preserved in the Dodsworth manuscripts held by the Bodleian (miracles of St William of York said to have been copied form a table in the vestry of York Cathedral) and Dugdale’s Monasticon (the description of the priory of Stone includes a copy of a table that recounted the priory’s foundation).
J. Weever, Antient Funeral Monuments of Great Britain, Ireland, and the Islands Adjacent – includes details of tabula in Westminster Abbey in the early-17th century.
J Muttley, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, Borough of Southwark and Parts Adjacents, vol 2 – includes details of tabula in Westminster Abbey, some which are now lost
W. Camden, Reges, Reginae, Nobiles & Alij in Ecclesia Collegiata B Petri Westmonasterij Sepulti – records the Skelton poems in Westminster Abbey
W. Dugdale, The History of St Paul’s Cathedral in London – includes drawings by Wenceslaus Hollar showing tabulae in place
W. Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum – records instances of tabulae detailing the history of a religious houses
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2008)
Sonsoles Garcia Gonzalez, ‘The tabulae. Ephemeral Epigraphy in the Surroundings of Medieval Tombs’, Church Monuments, Vol XXXI (2016), pp. 64 – 80.
R. M. Wilson, The Lost Literature of Medieval England (London, 1952), pp. 94-5.