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Shakespeare Connected - Discovering the Guild Chapel

An allegory of mortality: ‘Erthe oute of Erthe ys wunderly wroght’

On the west wall of the chapel is an allegory on the theme of mortality. ‘Erthe Upon Erthe’ is a well-known medieval poem which survive in manuscripts and epitaphs on funerary monuments. The verses are on scrolls surrounding an impressive feathered angel, possibly St. Michael. They are read here by the Rev. Dr Paul Edmonson, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


Erth upon erth wold be a kyng
But how that erth got to erth he thyngkys nothyng

When erth byddys erth hys rentys whom bryng
Then schall erth apon erth have hard ptyng

Erth apon erth wynnys castellys and towrys
Then seth erth unto erth thys ys all owrys
When erth apon erth hath bylde his bowrys
Then schall erth for erth suffur many hard schowrys

Erth goth apon erth as man apon mowld 
Lyke as erth apon erth never goo schold
Erth goth apon erth as glesteryng gold
And yet schall erth unto erth rather then he wold

Why that erth loveth erth wondur me thynke
Or why that erth wold for erth other swett or swynke
When erth apon erth ys broght wt.yn the brynke
Then schall erth upon erth have a fowll stynke

Lo erth upon erth consedur thow may
How erth comyth to erth nakyd all way
Why schall erth upon erth goo stowte or gay
Seth erth owt of erth schall passe yn pour aray

I counsill erth upon erth that ys wondurly wroght
The whyl yt. erth ys apon erth to torne hys thowht
And pray to god upon erth yt. all erth wroght
That all crystyn soullys to ye. blys may be broght

Below the angel, two kneeling secular figures point to an eight-line stanza which is a reminder of the suffering for sins which follows death:

Whoo soo hym be thowgh
Inwardly and ofte
How harde hyt ys to flett
From bede to peyt
From peyt to peyne
That nevr: schall seys serten
He wolde not doo no syn
All ye world to wyn

This grim reminder of mortality is accompanied by a gruesome image of a shrouded corpse in a grave, covered in worms and surrounded by grinning skulls and bones. These images were probably used by the guild chaplains to illustrate their sermons and their ‘memento mori’ theme may also been acceptable well into the later 16th century.


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