Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now And At The Hour Of Our Death: The Late Medieval Ars Moriendi & Catholic Tradition (1)

(for the Month of the Holy Souls I want to prompt discussion on the Catholic Way of Dying - comments very welcome)

“Here beginneth a littyl treatyse, short and abrydgyd, spekynge of the art and crafte to knowe well to dye…” [1], [2]

In the literature of palliative medicine late medieval attitudes to death as exemplified by the ars moriendi are sometimes contrasted with modern views. [3]. In the literature there is, however, scant elaboration on the exact nature of the ars moriendi, the art of dying well. In these posts I hope to give an account of the nature of the two principal printed works that were circulated in the late Middle Ages. The major themes of these works will be explored and placed in the context of the times in which the works were composed and the theology and spirituality which begot them. Finally, I hope to show how these themes survived and to discuss whether it might be possible to regain a the concept of dying well.

The Historical Background
Throughout the Middle Ages, death was at one’s elbow. It could be argued that the intimacy with death experienced by medieval society was the dominant force in theology, art and popular religion from the 14th century to the Reformation. The Black Death – an epidemic of bubonic plague – had hit Europe in the mid 14th century. Rumours of the approaching mass death from the East (it had devastated China in 1346) preceded the catastrophe. By 1348 it had found its way across Europe and come to England. The first outbreak in Scotland followed in 1349 (interestingly it was known as ‘the foul death of England’ north of the border!). [4] Successive outbreaks spread devastation throughout the following century roughly every 10-20 years. In much the same way that the First World War brought a generation to know mass death at first hand, so the Black Death brought the peoples of Europe into a hitherto unknown familiarity with death on a huge scale. It is estimated that the first outbreak in England in 1348 killed almost half the population – the majority of them children and adolescents. [5]

There came with this mass experience of death a change in the artistic expression of both popular and officially sanctioned belief. The themes of religious art shifted to emphasise the Last Judgement and the persisting presence of death. Particularly popular across Europe were the images of the Danse Macabre – the dance of Death. The graphic representation of this pageant persists to this day when figures clothed as skeletons dance with their fellows in the Spanish village of Verges on Good Friday . [6] The living dance with the dead as a powerful reminder that to be human is to be mortal. In many parish churches throughout Europe, similar images could be found on the walls. These would typically show all the estates of society – kings, nobles, prelates, priests, monks, merchants and labourers – accompanied by a skeleton. Again the emphasis is on the levelling of social distinctions in death and a community of the living and the dead. [7]

[1] Ars Moriendi. [... A lityll treatyse, short and abrydgyd, spekynge of the art and crafte to knowe well to dye. Translated from the Latin by William Caxton.] London Richard Pynson, s.a.
[2] Comper FMM The book of the craft of dying and other early English tracts concerning death, taken from manuscripts and printed books in the British Museum. London : Longmans, Green, 1917
[3] Corr C A. Death in modern society. In Doyle D, Hanks G W, MacDonald, eds. Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine 2nd edition pp 31-2. Oxford OUP 1993.
[4] Horrox R. Purgatory, prayer and plague: 1150-1380.In Jupp PC, Gittings C, eds. Death in England – an illustrated history. Manchester; Manchester University Press 1999.
[5] Lynch M. Scotland – A New History pp 71-2. London Pimlico 1992
[6] Gascoigne B. The Christians. P83 London 1977
[7] Duffy E The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.pp303-5 New Haven, Yale 1992.


Blogger antonia said...

that's really interesting, I look forward to the rest!

10:48 PM  

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