Clutching my holdall, I slipped into the chantry of an early fifteenth-century chapel. It was late at night, and the only light in the chapel was provided by half a dozen flickering candles that created disturbing shadows on the walls. I was interested in the tomb of a medieval knight and his lady and although I had never felt comfortable in the presence of death, even in the daylight hours, if I had come during the day, I would have been spotted by the sacristan and asked to leave.
Brass rubbings, the reason for my clandestine visit, had been banned by the church, but I was determined to make a rubbing of the diminutive medieval knight armiger, William, and his even more diminutive wife, Adela. Married in 1381, she had died in 1414, he in 1420 and they lay side by side in the table tomb that I could dimly see in front of me. The extraordinary brass bas relief effigies of the couple occupied the top of their tomb. Stale incense lingered in the air but was not sufficient to eliminate the damp musty smell of that ancient chapel. I shivered.
After peering around in the semi-darkness to check that I was alone, I took out a roll of paper, spread it over the image of Adela and carefully taped it down to ensure it stayed in place when I started the rubbing. Beginning with her headdress and noble features, I was delighted to see how well she was emerging on the paper. As I moved down, her hands held in prayer proved a little tricky because of the way the sleeves of her gown covered her knuckles and it wasn’t easy to see detail in the baleful light, but I eventually achieved a satisfactory reproduction. Then, as I passed the heelball over her hips, I thought I heard a little sigh of pleasure…but that was impossible, surely. I must have imagined it. Nevertheless, as the heelball began to work on the crotch area of her close kirtle, I distinctly heard a squeal of delight followed by a little moan. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I paused for a moment, holding my breath, my ear cocked. Silence. I hastily moved on to the hem of her dress and the effigy of the dog at her feet. At least, it didn’t bark!
Having finished the rubbing of the knight’s wife, I peeled away the tape and the paper, thinking all the time about those sounds of sensual pleasure. Did rubbing the brass cause static electricity, sending a little stimulus into the next world? Was I acting as some kind of Ouija board vibrator between now and the hereafter? What an idea! The atmosphere was obviously affecting me. Putting such ridiculous thoughts out of my mind, I taped the brass rubbing paper over the effigy of the diminutive knight armiger who was clad in spectacular full plate armour. I was particularly keen to ensure that the details of the bascinet with its enriched edging and high gorget, the breastplates and palettes at the shoulders were captured in the rubbing. Having achieved that to my satisfaction, I began to work on his skirt of tassets, cuisses, and jambs. Just when I began to apply the heelball vigorously between the cuisses and the jambs, I heard a man’s deep moan of pleasure echoing round the chantry! I marvelled at the sound. What was going on? My trembling fingers dropped the heelball, which rolled away into the darkness. With the knight’s rubbing only half finished, I scrambled to pack up my belongings and made a beeline for the exit. And that was when, through the gloom, I caught sight of the sacristan, his cassock hoisted above his waist, pulling on some shorts as he emerged from a confessional in the far corner of the chapel. As he hurried away a plump woman, possibly a parishioner, staggered out of the same confessional, busily adjusting her clothing, and followed him through a nearby door into the grounds of the church. “Well, she was certainly no coy mistress,” I thought. So, I wasn’t the only one engaged in some rubbing! And Andrew Marvell was right after all: the grave is a fine and private place, “but none, I think, do there embrace”and it was simply my fevered imagination that had been playing tricks on me! Pity about the knight’s rubbing, though…
Image: Google images.