Death, Dying, and the Culture of the Macabre in the Late Middle Ages

A publication of the Robbins Library.


'Oh Death!': Death, Dying, and the
Culture of the Macabre in the Late Middle Ages

Prepared by

Emily Rebekah Huber


"Oh death!
Won't you spare me over till another year?
Well, what is this that I can't see,
With ice cold hands taking hold of me?"
"Well, I am death, none can excel,
I'll open the door to heaven or hell.
I'll fix your feet till you can't walk.
I'll lock your jaw till you can't talk.
I'll close your eyes so you can't see.
This very hour come and go with me.
In death I come to take the soul,
Leave the body and leave it cold
To drop the flesh off of the frame.
The earth and worms both have a claim."
"Oh death, Oh death!
Won't you spare me over till another year?"
                                  --Appalachian Folksong
[This image a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut from 1493 entitled "The Orchestra of the Dead." The scene is a fine example of the wild carnivalesque atmosphere emphasized in the popular motif of the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, discussed below. Binsky (pp. 154-55) points out that the Danse may have been an ironic commentary on the Church's prohibition against dancing in graveyards.]

Table of Contents

The Black Death
Preparing for Death
Death Itself
The Afterlife


The popular lines at the beginning of this booklet keenly illustrate several of the key concepts present in a discussion of death-culture in the late Middle Ages. At its essence, the culture of the macabre represented a kind of dialogue between those mortals who would all, someday, face death, and that inevitable, undefeatable force that took their life. Medieval culture fixated on those physical aspects of death that strike modern people as viscerally disturbing: images of physical deterioration, paralysis, burial, and decay are all things that we sanitize and cloister away behind the walls of hospitals, hushed and dimly lit funeral homes, and the silence of graveyards. While our culture, in its increasing secularism, and in its sanitization and silencing of death, is radically different from that of the European Middle Ages, the survival of such images as those depicted in the Appalachian song demonstrates the continuity, albeit uncomfortable, between the macabre culture of the late Middle Ages and our own.

The Black Death


The Black Death refers to the period in Europe from approximately 1347 to 1353, when bubonic plague ravaged the European population and initiated a long-term period of cultural trauma from which, one could argue, we have not yet completely recovered. Every nightmare of apocalyptic pandemics, from bird flu to AIDS to Ebola, registers, on some level, with the horrifying possibility of returning to a world where each and every member of one's family falls victim to a merciless, fast-acting, insidious, and physically horrifying sickness. Bubonic plague is a disease that, in its modern form, still kills 15% of patients treated with antibiotics. In the pre-antibiotic era of fourteenth-century Europe, the mortality rate from plague was between 50% and 90% of those people who contracted the disease. In crowded areas where black rats and their fleas were common, or in small rural hamlets where these hosts lived alongside the human population, the mortality was staggering, and archaeologists have in recent decades uncovered the remains of small villages that essentially disappeared during the period of the Black Death.

Understanding the macabre spirit of death-culture in late medieval Europe requires a familiarization with the terror and panic of epidemic disease, and, more generally, with the fear of catastrophe and sudden death. It is only recently, in the age of mass-media, where photographs, motion pictures, and, more recently, the internet have exposed us to the devastation wrought by such natural disasters as the south Asian tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, and to such unnatural disasters as the Holocaust of World War II, that a large portion of the world population has become exposed to horrific images akin to those presented by the Black Death. On a cultural or psychological level, then, we can experience second-hand, through images, what most of the population of the medieval world experienced first-hand: wide-scale death, physical decay, and the subsequent crumbling of societal infrastructure.

However, what remains irrecoverable for us in the comparatively safe modern world is the sense of sudden, wide-scale demographic change experienced by the medieval world. Historians and epidemiologists have long debated about the total percentage of the medieval population slain by the arrow of the pestilence (as it was known in the fourteenth century); conservative estimates range from 10 - 20%. The most recent estimate is by Ole J. Benedictow, who in his magisterial The Black Death 1346-53: The Complete History estimates the total population loss at 65% in both Asia and Europe. Most average estimates state that about one-third of the population died from the disease in the years spanning the Black Death.

This sense of widespread epidemic catastrophe is terrifyingly evoked in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting The Triumph of Death. Bruegel figures death as a legion of skeletons, attacking the underbelly of society in an overwhelming wave. From peasant to jester to executioner to king, no one is spared.

The Disease

Three seemingly harmless members of the natural world -- the black rat, the rat flea, and a common bacteria that lives in the flea's intestine -- are the host, vector, and agent of one of the most prolific killers of humankind -- bubonic plague. The bacterium Yersinia pestis and the vector by which it spreads, xenopsylla cheopis, the oriental rat flea, were discovered (respectively) in 1894 and 1898, solving the millennia-old question as to what caused the catastrophic disease. Yersinia pestis can be discerned by its elongated safety-pin appearance when examined from blood cultures from plague patients. The rat flea commonly carries the bacteria in its gut and frequently infects rodent populations, which are its common hosts. Plague can be transmitted to humans that live in close contact with rodents, as the fleas bite humans as well. The common black rat, rattus rattus, was the host to the oriental rat flea, and the primary means of plague transmission during the Black Death.

The plague's signature symptom was the bubo, a large, painful, red swelling usually located in the neck, armpit, or groin, the result of a swollen and infected lymph node. Beginning about the size of an egg, the bubo could swell to the size of an apple before death. In addition to the bubo, victims of the plague suffered from high fever, chills, exhaustion, occasional pneumonic symptoms, and eventual septicemia, shock, and death. In the Preface to his Decameron, Boccaccio describes the dark spots (nowadays recognized as indicative of septicemia) that would gradually spread over the person's skin as a sure sign of death. In a woodcut from Nuremberg (reproduced in Platt, p. 2, plate 1), the physician performs a common "remedy" for plague: lancing a bubo. The suffering patient has additional buboes on his head and thigh. Unfortunately, while lancing the painful swellings was believed to provide relief from pain, it more frequently led to excessive blood loss, shock, and death. In another image ([Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek MS Db 93, fol. 458r, reproduced in Siraisi, figure 12, p. 75.]) a physician (in a furred cap and gown) teaches his students at a plague patient's bedside, pointing out the signature bubo on the left side of the groin. The student in the lower left hand corner holds a flask with the patient's urine.

The Spread of the Pestilence

Bubonic plague is generally believed to have arrived in Europe through trade routes that connected the Mongol empire with Europe through Genoese trading posts. The plague arose in central Asia, quite possibly from an overpopulation of ground rodents called marmots burrowing in the Mongolian Plateau. Rodents, and their deadly fleas, could have easily stowed away on trading caravans headed west, to Europe, east, further into China, and south, into India. All of these areas were devastated by the plague. According to Kelly, the crucial hub in the transmission of plague into Europe was the Genoese mercantile network, which included outposts at Caffa on the Black Sea and Constantinople (see Chapter 1 of The Great Mortality). Of particular importance in the history of the bubonic plague was the arrival, in October of 1347, of twelve Genoese merchant vessels in the port of Messina in Sicily:


"At the beginning of October, in the year of the incarnation of the Son of God 1347, twelve Genoese galleys were fleeing from the vengeance which our Lord was taking on account of their nefarious deeds and entered the harbour of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death" (Benedictow, p. 70).

Friar Michael da Piazza recorded these words in his chronicle, thus giving us the first description of the entrance of bubonic plague into western Europe. Two crucial things are of note in this passage: first, Genoese galleys were the common icons of trade and mercantilism in western Europe. The Genoese had extensive contact not only with eastern Europe and the Byzantines but the Mongols as well. In the 14th century, as now, the populations that traveled most frequently became the ideal transmitters for epidemic disease. Second, Friar Michael is quick to blame the Genoese for their "nefarious deeds" which brought the pestilence upon them. While the Genoese were already disliked in other regions of Italy, possibly for their mercantile success and subsequent riches, the passage reveals that witnesses of the plague had to place blame for the arrival of the pestilence on the sins of other people. It was this same attitude that produced some of the violent outbursts of anti-Semitism later on during the period.

Plague Prevention

"Who will been holle and kepe hym from sekenesse
         And resiste the strok of pestilence,
Lat hym be glad, and voide al hevynesse,
         Flee wikkyd heires, eschew the presence
Off infect placys, causyng the violence;
Drynk good wyn, and holsom meetis take,
         Smelle swote thynges and for his deffence
Walk in cleene heir, eschewe mystis blake."
          (Lydgate, lines 1-8)

Above are the first eight lines of one of the numerous regimen sanitatis, or rules of healthy living, circulating widely throughout the period after the Black Death (see Rawcliffe, p. 37). The author, John Lydgate, (a contemporary of the famous Geoffrey Chaucer) recommends that, in order to avoid the pestilence (the plague), one should live cheerfully, eat healthily, "walk in cleene heir," and "eschewe mystis blake." These last two injunctions reflect the popular belief that plague was spread by infectious air, which, given the likelihood of plague taking on its deadly pneumonic form, was not as inaccurate a theory as it at first seems.


"All the citizens did little else except to carry the dead bodies to be buried . . . At every church they dug deep pits down to the water level; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese" (Platt, p. 4).

The pestilence killed so frequently and so fast that those still living were hard put to bury the dead. The above passage, recorded in morbid detail by a chronicler of Florence, Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, describes the creation of mass graves for plague victims. Occasionally the dead would be left unburied and putrefying, as described in the Preface to Boccaccio's Decameron:

"A great many breathed their last in the public streets, day and night; a large number perished in their homes, and it was only by the stench of their decaying bodies that they proclaimed their death to their neighbors. Everywhere the city was teeming with corpses. A general course was now adopted by the people, more out of fear of contagion than of any charity they felt toward the dead. Alone, or with the assistance of whatever bearers they could muster, they would drag the corpses out of their homes and pile them in front of the doors, where often, of a morning, countless bodies might be seen" (trans. Winwar, p. xxviii).

Public Response to the Plague

Most sufferers during the plague outbreak turned to their religion for solace. Some saw the plague as God's punishment upon humankind for its manifold sins; others saw it as a test to try their faith. Many found comfort in the image of Saint Sebastian, a Roman martyr shot to death by arrows during the time of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Although Sebastian had no specific association with plague, the iconography of the saint assisted in linking the two, as plague was often "visualized as arrows fired by God" (Naphy, p. 45). After the period of the Black Death, Saint Roche became known as a patron saint of sufferers from the plague; born in Montpellier around 1350, Roche fell victim to the plague, but was miraculously nursed back to health by a dog. Afterwards, he cured many plague sufferers.

Others responded to the plague by blaming themselves. Members of the previously obscure flagellant movement, known in Germany as the "Brethren of the Cross" roamed central and Eastern Europe, processing through towns and whipping themselves. (This movement is facetiously portrayed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) The self-punishment was significant on an individual level, as it supposedly brought one closer to Christ's experience at the hands of the Romans, and on a community level, as self-flagellation forced the social body to publicly acknowledge the sins of its members and, in turn, look inward to their own sins. Pope Clement VI quickly condemned the movement as heretical in October of 1349, although the flagellants continued to exist in pockets throughout Europe and were persecuted well into the fifteenth century.

Still others responded to the pestilence by blaming not themselves, but others. Most often these "others" took the form of the Jews, who were accused of fumigating the air and poisoning wells with plague-infected water. Christian Europeans, terrified by the inexplicable and relentless advance of the plague, needed a scapegoat, and Jewish communities suffered greatly as a result. For example, Strassburg, in 1349, saw most of its Jewish population either burned to death or forcibly converted. The following excerpt is from the Strassburg Chronicle (quoted in Byrne, pp. 187-88):

"On Saturday -- that was St. Valentine's Day -- they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand . . . of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared . . . . Thus were the Jews burnt at Strassburg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine . . . . In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial. In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated themselves."

Preparing for Death

Debate Between the Body and Soul

The best way to prepare for death was to continually remind oneself of its inevitability. One of the ways to remember death was to remember the pains of hell in the afterlife if one led a sinful life. Debate poetry between the body and soul enabled a medieval audience to consider where the seat of their humanity resided -- in their carnal flesh or the spirit. According to orthodox Catholic theology, both body and soul were essential components of the human being. Witnessing what happens to the physical flesh and non-corporeal spirit through these poems was one way of encouraging people to look ahead to the time when they, too, would be separated into their two halfs. The dreamer/narrator of the following poem, and ideally the poem's audience, would look towards making their souls better governors of their bodies, so they did not face the terrible fate described for the hapless knight in the poem. The following excerpts come from Conlee's edition of the Middle English Debate Between the Body and Soul.

                 (lines 1-8)

Als I lay in a winteris nyt,
In a droukening bifor the day,
Vorsothe I saugh a selly syt:
A body on a bere lay
That havede ben a mody knyght,
And lutel served God to pay;
Loren he haved the lives lyght,
The gost was oute and scholde away.

As; on a winter's night
depressed state
Truly; saw; strange sight
had been; proud
And did little to please God
Lost; had; life's light,
spirit; would go

This narrator sees a vision in his sleep, in which the soul of a dead knight flees out of the body, but first turns to address the body, accusing it of all sorts of vile corruption -- of gluttony, lechery, and pride in worldly things. The body responds by insisting that the soul should have governed it correctly. The two engage in a debate which cannot be won, addressing the central question: Whose fault is it that this person led such a sinful life, the body's or the soul's? The dreamer, as witness to the debate, gradually infers that the soul of the knight has been damned. As the body and soul argue over whose responsibility it was to maintain proper living, what becomes clear is the poor spiritual governance the soul had over the body. The soul's attempt to lay blame on the body also reveals its sinful tendencies; like the sinners in Dante's Hell, it is always someone else's fault that they are damned.

                  (lines 249-56)

Ne nis no levedi bright on ble,
That wel weren i-woned of the to lete
That wolde lye a-nighth bi the
For noughth that men mighte hem bihete.
Though art unsemly for to se,
Uncomli for to cussen suwete;
Though ne havest frend that ne wolde fle
Come though stertlinde in the strete!

There is no lady fair of face
used to allow you to
at night; by thee
promise them
unseemly; see
Unattractive; kiss sweetly

Here, the soul mocks the poor dead body, describing the horror that his former lovers and friends would suffer if he approached them in his present, rotted form. Following their debate, the terrified dreamer witnesses fiends burst out of hell and torture the soul before dragging him back to the abyss for eternal torment. The dreamer ends the poem with a description of his own reaction as well as an admonition to the reader.

                  (lines 609-24)

Wyan it was forth, that foule lod,
To helle wel or it were day,
On ilk a her a drope stod
For fright and fer ther as I lay.
To Jhesus Crist with mild mod
Yerne I kalde and lokede ay,
Ywan tho fendes hot fot
Come to fette me away.

I thonke Him that tholede deth,
His muchele merci and is ore
That schilde me fram mani a qued,
A sunful man as I lai thore.
Tho that sunful ben, I rede hem red
To schriven hem and rewen sore:
Nevere was sunne i-don so gret
That Cristes merci ne is wel more.
When; done; load
each; hair; drop [of sweat]
yearned for; ever
[For] when; foot-hot (quickly)

suffered death

great; grace
shields; from; sin
sinful; lay there
Those; sinful; advise them
confess; regret
sin; done
is not well more

This kind of a poem has the desired effect upon the dreamer: he wakes up in a cold sweat and gets himself to confession quickly before the fiends fetch him away hot-foot (quickly). What is important to note is that the effect that the dream has upon the dreamer is the effect that the poem should have had upon the audience; the Body and Soul debate material was not just there to entertain, but to put everyone in mind of making a good end.

The Three Living and the Three Dead

Three young kings go on a hunting expedition, revelling in the glories of youth and wealth. In the woods they come across three corpses in various stages of decomposition. Recoiling in horror, the kings are even more surprised when the corpses address them directly. The dead remind the kings of the transitoriness of earthly things and remind the kings that they will, despite their rich apparel and fine living, inevitably become rotted corpses as well. The dead function as a mirror image to the three fine men, and the message is inevitably the same: "What you are, so once were we; what we are, so shall you be" (Tristram, p. 162). The encounter encourages a change of heart in the hunters, who, perceiving themselves now hunted by death, resolve to focus more on their spiritual welfare. This transformation is clearly expressed by the words of the Second Living King from a French version of the poem: "I desire, / . . . to amend my life: / I have over-indulged my whims / And my heart is eager / To do, as much as my soul submits / To God the King of Pity" (Binsky, p. 136).

The story of the Three Living and the Three Dead is told in over sixty literary sources across Europe. The motif also survives in numerous manuscript illuminations, and, most interestingly, in over fifty wall-paintings from after the period of the Black Death. This would suggest that there is some attempt at the motif reaching a lay-audience, who would learn from the story the same lesson learned by the three kings. While the core of the story remains the same, the variations are numerous; the three kings become three representatives of different social classes or they represent the three ages of man: Youth, Middle Age, and Eld. Inevitably the images that survive demonstrate a mirror-effect, where the three dead directly oppose the three living, and to a certain extent mimic the living either in posture or attire. The only English version that survives is a poem by John Audelay, in which the three dead are the deceased fathers of the living, come to remind them of the harsh realities of death. See poem 54 in The Poems of John Audelay.

For further discussions, see Binsky, pp. 134-40 and Tristram, pp. 162-67. See also Matsuda, p. 74n144, for further references to the motif.

Deathbed Scenes

Dying the good death was the ideal situation for any Christian; a prolonged sickness, or advancing old age, would give an individual ample time to consider one's sins, confess to a priest, repent, perform penance, and achieve salvation. Numerous deathbed scenes in medieval writings recount a dying person's crucial last moments -- whether he would turn to God and repent or whether he would be caught up with more worldly concerns such as the distribution of his wealth. In an illustration from a British Library manuscript (London, British Library Additional 37049, fol. 38v, reproduced in Hogg, p. 54), a dying man is shown at the moment of death. To the right, Death strikes him a terrible blow, reminiscent of the wound on Christ's side inflicted by Longinus. The priest by his bedside has evidently heard his confession, as Christ announces from above that he will have mercy.

The Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, was a didactic treatise that gained popularity in the vernacular in the fifteenth century. In a woodcut from a German Ars Moriendi (reproduced in Bayard, p. 51) shows the dead man, his widow beside him, surrounded by saints who pray for his soul. Above, the image of Christ on the Cross looms over the scene. Below him are fiends to tempt him. One of the angels has received his tiny, naked soul. This common depiction of the soul emphasizes the fragility of the human moral condition, as the soul appears helpless before the angels and demons that fight for it.

Death Itself

Middle English Lyrics

Lyrics such as these detail the medieval fixation upon the physical reality of bodily decay after death; however, what is important to note is that both poems emphasize the relative unimportance of the World when one is dead. Here, the world can be understood as those material things that distract one from the spiritual goal of attaining salvation. Both poets point out that the physical distractions of the world remain irrelevant when our very last physical possession -- our body -- is in the process of decaying. [Both poems and glosses adapted from Luria and Hoffman, ed. Middle English Lyrics.]

               Luria and Hoffman, #232:

When the turuf is thy tour,
And thy put is thy bour,
Thy wel and thy white throte
Shulen wormes to note.
What helpet thee thenne
All the worilde wenne?
Worms shall have to eat
will help
world's bliss

               Luria and Hoffman, #234:

Whanne mine eyhnen misten,
And mine eren sissen,
And my nose koldeth,
And my tunge foldeth,
And my rude slaketh,
And mine lippes blaken,
And my mouth grenneth,
And my spotel renneth,
And min here riseth,
And min herte griseth,
And mine honden bivien,
And mine fet stivien --
All too late, all too late,
Whanne the bere is ate gate.

Thanne I schel flutte

From bedde to flore,
From flore to here,
From here to bere,
From bere to putte,
And the putt fordut:
Than lyd min hous uppe min nose.
Of all this world ne give ic a pese.
eyes/become dim
becomes cold
complexion/shows impairment
become black
hair/falls out
is frightened
feet/become rigid

bier/at the


hair-cloth, shroud

shut up

The Moment of Death

In an illustration from the Rohan Book of Hours (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale Française, MS. lat. 9471, fol. 159. [reproduced in Boase, p. 118]), the soul at the moment of death, in the form of a miniature person, rises up from the dead body to be battled over by a demon and an angel. The old man's last words, detailed in Latin, read: "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth." God, on the other hand, speaks in French: "Do penance for thy sins, and thou shalt be with me in the judgment" (trans. Boase, p. 119). This alludes to the idea that at the moment of death, the soul does not actually rise to heaven or descend to Hell or Purgatory, but instead waits until the Last Judgment, when it will be assigned its place.

Death Personified

Death was not only allegorized in artwork, but literally embodied as a character on the medieval stage. In the pageant of the Death of Herod, in the N-Town cycle of Corpus Christi plays, Death comes out on stage and abruptly slays King Herod, his wife, and their fellow revelers. After a fiend leads them off to Hell, Death comes downstage and addresses the audience directly. The eerie breaking of the boundary between audience-members and actors gives the audience the feeling that they are being directly confronted by Death at his most macabre; this Death is not the comforting force that brings one out of pain and to union with Christ, but instead a merciless opponent, one who will "chalange" each mortal being, inevitably win, and finally discard each body to decay. The image below, a photograph of the 1992 Toronto production of the N-Town pageants, is reproduced with permission of Russell Peck.

  "Whan I yow chalange at my day,
   I shal yow make right lowe to lowte
   And nakyd for to be.
   Amongys wormys, as I yow telle,
   Undyr the erth shul ye dwelle --
   And they shul etyn both flesch and felle,
   As they have don me"
         (lines 278-84, ed. Bevington).

The Danse Macabre

The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, was a popular artistic motif in the late Middle Ages. The Danse Macabre frequently showed the inevitable death of each class, from peasant to knight; the victim is often resistant, but is pulled along by a grinning skeleton to the grave. Below, two examples are from The Danse Macabre of Women, a text depicting every possible social class falling prey to death. Here, the bride, at the prime of her life, has no more power over death than does the shepherdess, who pauses in the dance to bid farewell to her small dog (for illustrations, see plates of 35 recto and 40 recto, between pp. 24-25 of Harrison's edition)

Death and the Sheperdess: (translation from Harrison, p. 92)
         Death: I will not leave you behind.
                   Come along, take my hand,
                   Listen, pretty Shepherdess,
                   We walk along hand in hand.
                   You won't go to the fields any more, morning or evening,
                   To watch the sheep and care for your animals.
                   There will be nothing left of you tomorrow.
                   After the vigils come the holidays.
         The Shepherdess: I say goodbye to the stout shepherd
                   Whom I regret leaving greatly.
                   He won't ever have another hawthorne cap,
                   For here is sad news.
                   Goodbye shepherds, goodbye shepherdesses,
                   Goodbye fair fields that God made grow,
                   Goodbye flowers, goodbye red roses.
                   We must all obey the Master.
Death and the Bride: (translation from Harrison, p. 112)
         Death: To show you your folly
                   And to show that people ought to watch out for Death,
                   Take my hand, pretty Bride.
                   Let's go take off our clothes;
                   There's no more work for you
                   You will come to bed in another place.
                   You shouldn't get too excited.
                   God's acts are marvelous.
         The Bride: On the very day I desired
                   To have a special joy in my life,
                   I only get grief, unhappiness,
                   And I must die so suddenly.
                   Death, why do you lust
                   For me, why take me so quickly?
                   I haven't deserved such a blow.
                   But we must praise God for everything.

Representations of Death

Numerous illustrations survive from the Middle Ages of Death as a personified figure, usually a skeleton or cadaver, either rising from the grave or approaching dying figures with a dart in his hand. Two illuminations from medieval books of hours are particularly striking. First, in an image that introduces the Office of the Dead in the early fifteenth century Hours of King René of Anjou, Death is depicted as a crowned corpse who is also a macabre self portrait of King René. The figure is fronted by his coat of arms, and reminder of mortality. He holds a scroll in his hands that reads "Memento homo quod sinis es in sinere reverteris" [Remember man that you are ash [and] into ash you shall return.]. The image is from British Library, MS Egerton 1070, fol. 53r, and is reproduced from Harthan, p. 90.

Second, an image of Death rising from a coffin in the Hours of Anne of France (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 677, fol. 245, reproduced in Binsky, plate XI, p. 129) bears a striking similarity to figures of the "Man of Sorrows," that is, Christ, bearing the stigmata, rising from death to eternal life. In the The Trés Riches Heures of John, Duke of Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé, fol. 75r, reproduced in Harthan, p. 63), Christ is depicted as the Man of Sorrows, is rising from his coffin and displaying the wounds that signify his death and resurrection. In the Hours of Anne of France, Death, likewise, is rising from a coffin, assumes a similar posture, and displays the dart that strikes mankind down. Both figures are surrounded by countryside. In the Hours of Anne of France, the image of Death specifically evokes images intended to remind the audience of the possibility of eternal life, while at the same time emphasizing for the audience the difference between their own corruptible body and the eternal incorruptible body of Christ.

The Death of a Miser

Finally, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch vividly illustrates late medieval ideas about death. The famous Dutch painter of the Garden of Earthly Delights finished the Death of a Miser around 1490. Here, Bosch relies on late medieval iconography of Death in his depiction of the skeletal figure entering the room with a dart (compare the image from the Hours of Anne of France, above), and of deathbed images from the numerous Ars Moriendi. The dying miser, wasted by sickness, at the moment of his end, focuses entirely on the frightening specter before him, rather than the crucifix above the door. The angel's encouragements go unheeded as the miser, surrounded by demons, has fallen prey to that "sinkhole of Hell," avarice. The priest who should be looking out for the dying man's spiritual welfare is instead distributing money to a demon in the miser's chest. What is unclear is whether the fiend with the moneybag is offering money to the miser or taking it away from him. For commentary on the painting see Marijnissen, pp. 320-24, and Fraenger, pp. 298-300.

The Afterlife

               Luria and Hoffman #245:

Here lieth under this marbill ston,
Riche Alane, the ballid man;
Whether he be safe or noght,
I recke never -- for he ne roght!


This lyric displays the key reason for thinking about death in the Middle Ages: the salvation of the soul. An individual who went through life without paying heed to his impending death would likewise not keep in mind the care of his soul. Death functioned not just as a terrifying adversary who would inevitably conquer you, but as an agent of God who potentially brought you to union with Christ. Those who took proper care of their souls would find the utmost reward at the end and enjoy the blisses Heaven offered. Those who remained careless and sinful would suffer pains in Purgatory, or, if they neglected to repent, would endure eternal suffering in Hell.

Judgment Day

Judgment Day represented not the end of time as the end of the relevance of time. Eternity was not so much far in the future, as constantly the present. The bodies of the dead were each resurrected, and would be judged by God according to their deeds in life, then consigned to bliss in Heaven or damnation in Hell. An illustration from the Grandes Heures de Rohan shows the resurrection of the dead, who are assisted in climbing out of their graves by angels. To the left, Eve greets Adam. God sits enthroned as Judge, a conflation of Christ the redeemer, with crown of thorns and bleeding side, and God the Father, the orb in his hand representing his dominion over created things. The fully clad man at the bottom right contrasts with the naked figures of the resurrected dead; his despairing expression and downward gaze are juxtaposed with the heavenward glances of the more hopeful figures. Harthan (p. 84), supposes that this figure could represent those people still alive at the time of the Last Judgment. The illustration is from Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 9471, fol. 154r, and is reproduced in Harthan, p. 83.


Souls were dispersed to eternal bliss with God or eternal suffering in Hell at the Last Judgment. While the official designation of "saved" or "damned" was not given until Doomsday, medieval writings always depicted departed ones as "already there," as if, for the dead, eternity was always now. Dante, when he travels to Hell in the Inferno, sees departed contemporary Brunetto Latini being punished in Canto 15. Likewise, the anonymous narrator of the Middle English Pearl sees his infant daughter already among the 144,000 virgins in the New Jerusalem, despite John of Patmos' assertion that it would only be built after the Apocalypse. An illustration from the manuscript of Pearl, showing the dreamer bidding farewell to his Pearl Maiden. The river of mortality separates them. Even in the damaged illustration, it is possible to see through their outstretched hands the grief of separation by Death.

Then saw I there my little queen
Who I thought had stood beside me in the valley.
Lord, so much mirth she made
Among her companions who were so white!
That sight caused me to think to wade across
For love-longing, in great delight.

Delight drove me in eye and ear --
My human mind dissolved to madness.
When I saw my lovely one, I wished to be there,
Beyond the water, though she was the chosen one.
        (translation based on Stanbury, lines 1147-56)

Unfortunately for the narrator, he cannot rejoin his child; his attempt to cross the stream wakes him suddenly, and he must resume life in the mortal world, still grieved by his loss. His vision of the afterlife, however, has chastened him into having more of a thought towards his God, whom he now finds "a frende ful fyin" [a friend most excellent] (line 1204).

The glories awaiting those who achieved salvation are most famously imagined by Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, easily one of the great masterpieces of poetry to come out of the Middle Ages. In the third canticle, Paradiso, Dante is led by his beloved Beatrice into Heaven, where he speaks with numerous blessed souls.


What of those souls who had confessed their sins before death but not yet done penance? A widely debated idea in the Middle Ages was the doctrine of Purgatory, a between place where souls were relegated to be "purified" by fire, ice, or other means, before achieving the ultimate reward of Paradise. The evolution of the idea of Purgatory has a long and complex history (see The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques le Goff), and was not clearly condoned by the Catholic Church until the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century theologian, most clearly articulated the church's thinking on Purgatory by asserting that "the priest could absolve the 'culpa' [blame] of mortal sin but the 'poena' (pain or punishment) still had to be satisfied by repentance" (Foster, p. 9). Thus, Purgatory existed as a place where punishment was exacted by means of physical suffering before the soul was taken into Heaven. The prayers of those still living could alleviate the pains of Purgatory to an extent; while not relieving the departed of their obligation to visit Purgatory, the time they spent there could be shortened.


For those misguided souls who neither did penance nor repented their sins, the afterlife consisted of eternal suffering in Hell. As Boase points out, "The human mind has a morbid thirst for horrors," and thus the torments of the inferno "lent themselves to more lurid and haunting concepts" than did the bliss of Heaven (p. 21). We could compare this fascination to a modern cinematic audience's enduring obsession with horror films, where the terrifying and bloody images are at once repulsive and yet compelling. While medieval people certainly enjoyed a kind of morbid thrill from reading about and viewing images of Hell, the didactic purpose of such material was to warn them of the dangers of not taking proper care of their souls.

The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry illustrates the torments of Hell. Satan is stretched out on a grill in the middle, apparently undergoing the worst torment but resolutely grasping the souls of the damned by his side. On either side of the grill, demons pump bellows to keep the fires going. The souls around the grill, roasting in the coals, are marked by numerous tonsures, apparently the result of monastic corruption. See fol. 108r from Longnon and Cazelles.

One of the most chilling visions of Hell comes from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where, in the prologue to the Summoner's Tale, an angel carries a friar to Hell for a vision of the afterlife. When the friar inquires of the angel whether there are any friars in Hell, the angel responds:


   'Yis,' quod this angel, 'many a millioun!'
And unto Sathanas he ladde hym doun.
'And now hath Sathanas,' seith he, 'a tayl
Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl.
Hold up thy tayl, thou Sathanas!' quod he;
'Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place!'
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute,
And comen agayn as faste as they may gon,
And in his ers they crepten everychon.
He clapte his tayl agayn and lay ful stille.


ass/friar see

i.e., in a few minutes

each one

               [Fragment III (D), lines 1685-1699 of the Canterbury Tales.]

Such a horrific vision of the afterlife would certainly persuade any corrupt friar to mend his ways!


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