A century ago, brass rubbing was one of the choice hobbies of the intelligent schoolboy. Armed with rolls of thick paper and cobbler’s wax – the forerunner of shoe polish, also known as heelball – serious young men would cycle around medieval churches and lay the paper over monumental brasses set in the church floor. By rubbing the wax over the paper, they would create an impression of the brass: and very handsome some of these were, too.
Half a century ago, when as a small boy I accompanied my father on church crawls, we once or twice saw those schoolboys – now men in late middle age – arthritically lowering themselves on to kneelers to take another rubbing.
What was rare then is almost unknown now: rubbing a brass wears it out, which is why many churches explicitly ban the practice, hide their brasses under rugs or matting, and ask the ladies on the church cleaning rota not to polish them.
It is well to preserve them. The earliest recorded brasses – in that era, a lifesize effigy of the subject – date from the 13th century. From that period there are two well-known brasses of knights in full armour, of Sir John d’Aubernoun at Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey (died 1277) and Sir Roger de Trumpington at the village of the same name in Cambridgeshire (died 1289). Almost as handsome, and as old, is the brass of Sir Robert de Bures (died 1302) at Acton in Suffolk. These are all astonishing survivals and, apart from the glory of their workmanship, they open a window on medieval England for anyone who looks at them.
We call them brasses, but the material from which they were made was called latten. It was two parts copper and one part zinc, with a touch of lead. Brasses are most plentiful in the east of England: not just because at the time it was the most heavily populated part of the country and, with the wool trade, just about the wealthiest, but because it was within easy reach of the Netherlands, from which Flemish engravers, who specialised in this sort of work, came.
Between the early 14th century and the Civil Wars, monumental brasses became cruder; and the fashion of lifesize brasses was replaced by effigies, perhaps only a foot or two long, or simple crosses, chalices or hearts. By the mid-14th century, the middle classes embraced the fashion, complementing the knights and divines who were the subjects beforehand.
Although the standard of engraving reached its zenith in the early 15th century, the sheer popularity of brasses lowered the price and quality. By the second half of the century workmanship was in serious decline, though the brasses are invaluable to students of the period because of the vogue for displaying both male and female costume on the brasses.
Aside from some self-conscious Victorian Gothic revivals, brasses died out in the early 17th century, after further debasement of craftsmanship and materials in the 16th. Luckily, hundreds survive to connect us with our distant forebears, works of high art that deserve too much respect even to think of rubbing them.