Friday, 29 August 2014

A Good Death

A/N: Part II, paper 13 essay written in Michaelmas term of the 2009/10 academic year. 

What Constituted a 'Good Death' in the Middle Ages?

If medieval religion was obsessed with death, as historians have long asserted, it was perhaps even more acutely concerned with ‘good death’. This was a death that conformed to certain expectations, both religious and social. Understandings of what constituted a ‘good death’ did not remain entirely static across the period, reflecting changes in theology and social structure. However by the fifteenth century was even a growing demand for ‘handbooks’ on how to die, such as ‘The Art of Dying Well’. Yet even with this apparent codification of the ‘good death’ there remained inconsistencies. The Church and the people were not always in agreement.

The cornerstone of a ‘good death’ in this period was a death in which the dying person’s faith was above suspicion. Temptation bore heavily on the dying, the deathbed becoming the scene of a battle between the forces of good and evil for the soul of the dying. The belief that this battle was happening around them can be seen in the way people interpreted what the dying person said. Ailred of Rievaulx’s fevered rambling in 1167 was believed by those around his deathbed as a dialogue with angels for example. If the temptations planted by the devil, such as impatience and vainglory, could be overcome then, as Richard Rolle’s The Book of the Craft of Dying claimed, ‘The day of a man’s death is better than the day of his birth.’ Yet, as St. John had made clear, ‘He who does not believe is already judged.’ This understanding can be seen in the treatment of the non-Christian dead. Jews, Pagans, ex-communicates, and even unbaptised infants, were all barred from burial in consecrated ground. In the mid-thirteenth century Pope Alexander IV even went so far as to rule that anyone who knowingly buried a heretic in consecrated ground would themselves be ex-communicated. To die convinced of the Christian faith was of the utmost importance.

It was not enough however to just assume that the dying had faith. Instead they had to prove it. A long list of questions and answers, ranging from whether the individual believed in God to their willingness to amend their ways if they should recover, were prescribed. Beyond this the dying were expected to make confession on the deathbed and, in return, receive the sacrament of anointment and the viaticum. The importance of making confession can be seen in the ruling during intense plague years that emergency confessions could be made to lay men, or even lay women. The anointing of the body too was believed to safeguard the corpse from being used as an instrument of the devil. Deathbed rituals readied the soul for its journey, and provided a time frame for the dying and those attending the deathbed. In spite of ecclesiastical reassurance many lay people continued to believe that those who were administered these last sacraments and survived, would go on to lead a kind of half life, prohibited from eating meat or engaging in sexual intercourse. So far we have seen that a ‘good death’ comprised of proving one’s faith, and the following of ritual.

The lengthy obligations tradition demanded of the dying hints at another component of the ‘good death’, namely that it be sedate and somewhat prolonged. Sudden death was feared by Christians, the popularity of St. Christopher being largely the result of his status as a protector against it. It meant that people did not have time to arrange their affairs, or make confession and receive the sacraments. In literary examples of ‘good’ deaths the dying often make long speeches, as Cardinal Wolsey does in George Cavendish’s ‘Life’, and have time to pass on advice and make wills. They are aware of death approaching and might, like monks, ask to be laid on the floor or dressed in a hair shirt as a symbol of piety. Even at the everyday level wills were routinely made on the deathbed; the highly stylised conventions of medieval wills suggest that those attending the deathbed made sure to prompt the dying into remembering what was expected of them in such documents. As Binski argues a ‘good death’ in this period was ‘domesticated and regulated’.

Equally as important were the contents of these vital documents. As the doctrine of purgatory became more clearly defined over the eleventh and twelfth centuries the importance of provision for alms and charity in wills grew. Now it seemed more likely that everyone would have a chance of eventually reaching heaven, not just the like of monks and nuns. These final acts of kindness were thought to help ease their souls through the pain of purgatory. For this reason the better off also organised trentials of masses for the anniversary of the death, the poor gave money for votive lights or other small gifts as a way to get their name on the bede roll. In fact such provision was deemed so important that many organised their wills years before their death. Edward the Black Prince established his chantry chapel, to say mass for his soul in perpetuity, in 1363 – 13 years before he died. It was also a time to organise funerary arrangements. Philip Repingdon asked for a pauper’s burial in 1424 as a sign of his piety, whilst John Paston I’s family spent over £200 on his funeral in 1466. If one died a ‘good death’ there would be time to deal with all their remaining worldly affairs so they might concentrate solely on what was to come in their final moments.

Acceptance of death can be inferred from all this as a component of a ‘good death’. The Art of Dying Well, a popular pamphlet of the fifteenth century, advised that ‘one should never give a sick person too much hope that he will regain his physical health’. This might prevent the dying from properly preparing for death. Examples of those who accept death calmly, even with welcoming arms, are praised in medieval literature. The death of Abbot William of Fecamp in 1031 for example was described in glowing terms by Ralph Glaber. The abbot, knowing his time was short, dispensed advice and then retreated to his rooms to wait patiently for death. This correlates with The Book of the Craft of Dying which advised the dying to pray, cry out and weep (in the heart), commit the soul to the father, and then willingly give up the spirit. Just as Christ did on the cross. In this way the process of death could be, to an extent, understood in a time when it was often not even certain if death had occurred.

For Philip Aries this regulation of death represented a ‘tame death’, a death that was accepted and carried out with the minimum of fuss and emotional attachment. However there is much to suggest that this ideal death discussed here, the death of the prescriptive literature, did not always correspond to the reality. For example in the guide books the family and friends at the bedside grieved with restraint, the dying person themselves quietly accepting their fate. Yet evidence shows this was not always the case. Margery Kempe described how she was often invited to attend the sickbeds of the dying; her tendency to exaggerated grief, wailing and howling, was certainly not what the Church advised for such scenes. The dying too could be less than resigned to their fate. Cardinal Wolsey only became accepting in his final moments, having argued with his physicians and servants that he was going to recover. In the Danse Macabre this is exemplified in the peasant’s admission that “I have wished after death full oft, although I would have fled him now.” It is apparent that the ideal, the ‘good’ death did not always reflect the reality of death.

In some instances there was disagreement between social groups over what constituted a ‘good’ death. For the Church a sudden death, as discussed, was the marker of a ‘bad’ death. Yet for some of the military men of the aristocracy a quick death on the battlefield was preferable to the sedate, domesticated death encouraged by the Church. Even in instances where a complete consensus might be expected there are complications. The death of criminals was likened to the death of Christian martyrs and, indeed, if they confessed and requested the sacrament of the viaticum executed criminals could be buried in consecrated ground. Even if the Church could not absolve their sins there was still hope that God might take mercy upon their souls, they were not beyond help. Again with cases of suicide, the worst death in medieval understanding, the individual would not necessarily be denied a proper burial within the boundaries of the graveyard. Concessions were made for those who were not mentally sound at the time of the act. If consensus could be reached over what constituted a ‘good’ death, it was also not always clear cut what constituted a ‘bad’ death.

In conclusion the ‘good’ death of the middle ages was, to a large extent, a literary construct; an idealised version of something which was inevitably an individual experience. There was sometimes disagreement over what constituted a good death, as in the case of the militaristic aristocracy. A sudden death, in their opinion, was not always bad. Whilst a majority might have strove to conform with the Church’s prescribed way of death, and the popularity of death ‘manuals’ from the fifteenth century seems to suggest this was the case, the reality was often quite different.

Bibliography 


  • P. Aries, Western Attitudes towards Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1974) 
  • N.L. Beaty, The Craft of Dying: a study of the literary tradition of the ars moriendi in England (New Haven, 1970) 
  • G. Cavendish, Life of Cardinal Wolsey 
  • D. Crouch, ‘The culture of death in the Anglo-Norman world’, in Culture and the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, ed. C. Warren Hollister (Woodbridge, 1997) 
  • C. Daniell, Death and Burial in medieval England (1997) 
  • P. Jupp & C. Gittings (eds), Death in England, an illustrated history (Manchester, 1999), chaps 3-5. 
  • M.R. McVaugh, ‘Bedside Manners in the Middle Ages’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 71 (1997) 
  • B. Poschmann, transl. F. Courtenay, Penance and Anointing of the Sick (1969) 
  • J. Shinners, ed. and transl., ‘The Art of Dying Well’, in Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: a reader 
  • R. Swanson, ed. and transl., ‘The Book of the Craft of Dying’, in Catholic England: faith, religion and observance before the Reformation (Manchester 1994)





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