Sunday, November 26, 2006

Now And At The Hour Of Our Death: The Late Medieval Ars Moriendi & Catholic Tradition (2)



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


The Ars Moriendi

Against the background of increasing familiarity with death, a more literate society began to move from a communally or liturgically expressed religion to an urge for a more personal and intimate relationship with God. This was heavily influenced by the Devotio Moderna – a body of works including The Imitation of Christ drawing on the spirituality of quasi-monastic communities of Northern Europe.[8] In England, popular devotion, still deeply Catholic well into the 16th century, spread through the use of the primers, especially the Sarum primer. These works were based on the personal devotions of monks and were a rendering for the use of laymen of the liturgical hours with supplementary, especially indulgenced prayers for the living and the dead. Perhaps the most significant development in the dissemination of this devotional literature was the development of printing. Latin Ars moriendi were produced in Germany from 1475 onwards. They were widespread across Europe in a variety of translation (German, French, Dutch, Castilian and Catalan) from the end of the 15th century on. In 1491 Caxton produced an English translation of what was to become one of the most popular printed works in Europe. By 1500 there were over one hundred editions of the Arte and crafte to know ye well to dye.

There were two main forms of the artes moriendi. The longer piece was a translation of the pastoral handbook Tractatus artis bene moriendi promulgated by the Council of Constance as a popular usage of the liturgical office of the visiting the sick, De Visitate Infirmorum. The version more commonly used by the laity was a book of eleven blockprints with a shortened Tractatus. In this review I will principally discuss the longer incunabulus as the shorter piece was merely an abridgement of the Tractatus.[9]


[8] Huizinga J. The Waning of the Middle Ages p216. London Penguin 1955

[9] O’Connor M C. The Art of Dying Well: The Development of the Ars Moriendi. New York: Columbia University Press 1942.

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