Organising principles

(September 2019)

Tombstone epigraphy is a marvellous (and to date largely unutilised) source of evidence for the moral opinions of the past. Nonetheless, it is subject to various limitations, some inherent in the nature of the material, some arising from the way it has been collected and organised.

First, the vast majority of surviving pre-twentieth-century epitaphs are found inside churches. This skews the record, for it was only notables who were buried inside churches, where their decomposing bodies would assail the noses of worshippers. In 1820 this practice was halted for hygienic reasons, but prominent individuals could still be honoured, for a fee, by a plaque on the nave or chancel wall. The poor, meanwhile, were commemorated in the churchyard. Whatever was written in praise of their virtues has long since been torn down or eroded. Thus of the 338 records collected here to date, 39 are of baronets and peers and their families, 16 of admirals, colonels and generals, and 13 of bishops. Only 4 are of servants. And memorials to men outnumber those to women by about 2 to 1.  

Another kind of bias arises from my decision not to collect Latin epitaphs. These were especially popular in the beginning and middle of the eighteenth century, meaning that this period is not as well represented as it might be. However, my schoolboy classics was not up to the task of translating hundreds of Latin inscriptions into English. When this website is further developed, I hope, with the help of an assistant, to be able to include Latin epitaphs alongside English ones.

Finally, the large majority of these photographs were taken by me on my travels around England. There are thus biases in favour of the South West, which is where I live, and cathedrals, which I like visiting. So far there are no epitaphs from Scotland or Wales, and none from non-conformist or Roman Catholic churches. Again, I hope — with the help of other users — to make good these shortcomings in the future.

In categorising the images, I was forced to strike a compromise. Obviously not everything of historical interest could be tagged, or the website would have become cumbrous to use. Some categories were inescapable: sex, profession, date of death, age at death. Others struck me as potentially useful to researchers with particular interests — tombstone poetry, for instance. In selecting virtue search-terms, I let myself be guided by the actual wording of the inscriptions, avoiding all interpretation. Thus, for instance, I decided not to amalgamate into a single category “kindness”, “humanity” and “benevolence”, on the grounds that these words might once have marked important differences of meaning. (And those wishing to search under all three categories simultaneously can always do so.) But other important concepts can be expressed indifferently in a myriad of ways, which would have been pointless to list separately. Thus “intelligence” here does duty for “vigour of mind”, “strength of understanding”, and so forth. Where virtue categories are “interpretative” in this way, I have placed an asterisk beside them: explanations are then given together with search results. 

I envisage that one of the chief uses of this website will be to investigate trends in word and concept use. For this reason, search results are organised chronologically and bunched into decades, enabling users to see at a rough glance when particular words or concepts were most popular. Alongside each decade, a figure in brackets indicates the total number of records in that decade, or the total number of records with some other selected characteristic.  This is crucial, because it is usually relative rather than absolute frequencies which are significant. For instance, there are more references to charity in the period 1800–1849 than there are in the previous half-century, but only because there are more records as a whole. As a ratio of total records, references to charity go down markedly in this period.