Ideas Concerning Death in Medieval Culture and Society

The Three Living and the Three Dead and Decorated Text Page from Crohin-LaFontaine Hours

By Dan Giglio / 10.14.2016

Winchester University History Students’ Blog

The various rituals, practices, observances and perceptions of death in the Middle Ages are well worth discussion and debate. Death is and has been a present and fascinating concern for every civilization as it is one of the universal certainties of the human experience. This fascination is heightened however in Medieval European societies where death was so commonplace and disease and hygiene problems plagued everyday life at all levels of society.

When looking at the representations of death in the Book of Hours it is interesting to note that the virgin Mary is depicted as a reassuring presence at the time of death. Other Medieval texts are also relevant and can provide insights into the medieval psyche in relation to death. Of course in the Medieval era the very real knowledge that death could come at any time was tempered by the Christian belief in god, It was also believed that a good Christian life would result in the perfect death. These medieval reflections on death could well have been used as a controlling method on the population by religious authorities as well as being an integral aspect of true religious belief.

Reminding yourself of the inevitability of death was a way of combatting it and you could supposedly alleviate your suffering with a long decline that allowed you to reflect on and repent for sins committed across your lifetime. Treatise on the subject of dying and death seemed to be very popular, one such exam is the Ars Moriendi which basically served as an advice leaflet on how to die well within the context of Christian belief in the High Middle ages.

The Danse Macabre is also worth consideration when examining cultural representations of death in the middle Ages. The various examples of Danse Macabre inspired artworks frequently depict people from various social settings and ranks from the highest – often depicted by a Pope or a Monarch – to the very lowest labourers all dancing together towards their death. The purpose of this genre is supposedly to remind the viewer of the universality of death and remind them that life on Earth and earthly pleasures are reduced to unimportance in the face of what awaits them in the afterlife. These images may also have provided the knowledge to the medieval viewer that whatever their status in life all will be equal in death.

Death as an idea was often provided with a personification in many examples of medieval art and literature. Often depicted as a cadaver wearing a robe, many European cultures had different personifications based on myth, tradition or language ideas. This allowed death to feature as a character in various poems and songs in the late medieval era. Many of the instances of death as a person have been when deathbed scenes are being depicted; occasionally this is accompanied by a person protesting against their death. This phenomenon of having death as a sort of character to be used in artistic narratives such as paintings and songs probably allowed the people of medieval Europe to make more sense of/visualise death as force, perhaps providing some comfort as well as creating a sense of dread. Inevitably though these scenes where often used to prepare people for the idea of death and dying so they are more prepared when the time comes.

Many of these ideas about death in the medieval era came after and were shaped by the horrific impact of the Black Death on Europe in the 14th century. The various ideas and cultural discussions about death after the almost cataclysmic plague were almost certainly a response as well as an attempt to cope with the impact the bubonic plague had on both the population through first-hand experience and the overall effect on the landscape and population. The Black Death was depicted in various medieval literary sources such as Piers Plowman and The Decameron where emphasis is often placed on the fact that social status couldn’t save you from the effects of the plague. These works along with the many ideas about death portrayed in the art and musical traditions previously discussed allo0wed for a continually evolving cultural acceptance of death. Whereas in the modern world we are afraid of global warming and possible pandemics to the extent that death has become almost a taboo subject. This shows that in some ways the cultural maturity established in the Middle Ages can rival our own in its ability to tackle and debate death as a difficult subject in an attempt to allay their own fears and provide an ultimately optimistic Christian message concerning the afterlife.