Skip to main content

Death in the Middle Ages

A/N: Everything you ever wanted to know about conking it in medieval England. They say you should revise by explaining to other people, so this blog post was originally written as revision for my undergraduate history exams.

Death in the MIddle Ages

Death in the Middle Ages 

 Late Medieval religion was 'a cult of the living in the service of the dead' - A.N. Galpern. 

This paper covers religion and rituals surrounding death in the period (roughly) 1050 - 1550. This covers key milestones such as the Norman conquest of 1066, the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the Black Death of 1348, and the Protestant Reformation. The general trend is one of increased centralisation of, and codification by, the Catholic Church. 'How To' manuals are issued to priests (E.g. Archbishop Pecham's 'Ignorantia Sacaerdotum' in 1281), and visitations by bishops inspire endless hysteria at the ignorance and wickedness of both parish priests and the peasantry.

For Protestant historians such as Dickens it is this disillusionment with the divide between Church doctrine and actual practice which led to a bottom-up rebellion. The people were sick of the Catholic Church and welcomed Henry VIII's reforms. Catholic historians disagree; Eamon Duffy, the leading revisionist on the issue, argues that Catholicism was a strong and vibrant religion at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Reformation, this school claims, was forced on the people from above. 

Everything for this paper is interlinked, so there may be some awkward overlap between categories. 

The Three Living and The Three Dead
as you are, we once were. as we are, you shall be. 

Before we begin! Britain was a Christian place before the Norman invasion - however much the nasty Normans might have tried and justified their arrival as 'but pope we were just going to show them how to worship God properly'. There is speculation however as to how much the Christianity of the people reflected the Christianity of the Church, there was still a lot of what we would call 'pagan' practice going on.

One of the overarching themes of late medieval Christianity was the obsession with the idea that the End Times were coming. There were Seven Ages and many believed, like Bonaventure (d. 1274), that they were living in the sixth. Soon Jesus would return for the Second Coming and the dead would be resurrected. They would then undergo the Last Judgement and be whisked off to Heaven, or condemned to the fires of Hell. All of this would be preceded by plenty of portents though, so we would all know when it was coming...

In medieval lists there are fifteen signs of the Apocalypse:

  • Sea rises to the mountain tops. 
  • And then sinks. 
  • Fish and sea creatures gather. 
  • The seas burn. 
  • Trees and plants bleed. 
  • Buildings collapse. 
  • Rocks implode. 
  • An earthquake strikes. 
  • It leaves the earth leveled. 
  • People lose the power of speech. 
  • The dead rise. 
  • The stars fall. 
  • The living die so as they can rise with the dead. 
  • Earth and sky are swallowed by fire. 
  • Sun and moon wait for the second coming of Christ. 
So now you know - be on the lookout for imploding rocks!

The transi tomb of Henry Chichele
The transi tomb of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1443). It was built and put in place in 1424-26. 'Transi' is another word for cadaver - looking upon the rotting body was supposed to bring home the vanity of earthly concerns. 

Understanding Sin 

There are two types of sin: 'original' and 'voluntary'. The former refers to the intrinsic sin everyone was believed to have inherited from the Fall of Man, following the failure of Adam and Eve to resist the temptation of eating from Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This was dealt with by baptism. The latter was a far more complicated matter entirely.

There are four steps to the absolution of voluntary sin:

  • The penitent must feel inner sorrow or contrition for hir sins. 
  • Ze must make confession of them by mouth to a priest. 
  • Ze must perform some penitential act to make amends for them. 
  • Ze must be reconciled by the priest who utters words of absolution over them. 
(Furthermore there are three types of voluntary sin:

  • Spirit (pride, sloth, wrath, and envy - countered with prayers, and acts of humility and compassion) 
  • Flesh (gluttony and lust - countered with mortification of the flesh (i.e. fasting, scourging, etc)) 
  • Intermediate (greed and avarice - countered with almsgiving and mortification of the flesh)) 
Which step of the absolution process was seen as most important changed over the period. In the twelfth century contrition was seen as the most important aspect by theologians such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1142). But Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) stressed the role of the priest - it was felt in the later middle ages that Jesus worked through the priest to absolve the penitent, in a way analogous to the baptism formula.

'A York Priest's Notebook' (1470s): Penance is the remorse for wicked things done and the pious resolve not to commit them again. Penance has three parts, namely contrition, confession, and satisfaction. 

Regular (i.e. annual) lay confession only became a universal practice after it was demanded by Lateran IV in 1215. Before this it tended to depend on the zealousness of local priests, as with the Laon school in the twelfth century. The Vita of William of Norwich describes throngs of people queuing to make confession on Maundy Thursday in the 1140s, for instance. Lateran IV also warned that any priest who broke the sanctity of the confessional would find themselves consigned to a strict monastery to conduct their own penance.

Hell where there is no redemption, Purgatory where there is hope, and Heaven where there is Beatific Vision. 

Penitential handbooks, such as Burchard of Worms early eleventh century work, were widely used. These laid out the penance to be carried out for sins. In 1070 penitential ordinances were imposed on the Normans who had fought during the invasion. For example 'anyone who knows that he killed a man in the great battle must do penance for one year for each man that he killed. Anyone who wounded a man, and does not know whether he killed him or not, must do penance for forty days for each man he thus struck (if he can remember the number).' He also stated that killing in a private war or feud demanded a penance of seven years. (Tariffed penance wasn't new however - in 747 the Anglo-Saxon council heard of a man who had racked up 300 years worth of fasting.)

Gregory the Great (d. 604): Let us consider how severe a judge is coming, who will judge not only our evil deeds but even our every thought. 

In the early period these penances were so arduous that people put off making confession until the deathbed, which was seen as a very risky thing to do by the Church. Leo the Great (d. 461) said that they would likely still be saved as 'no-one was to be despaired of while he was still in body', but Augustine (d. 430) maintained that delayed repentance could not guarantee salvation. In our period rigorous punishment of the flesh is not fully satisfactory, merely an outward sign of contrition. Penance was becoming less of a public humiliation (perhaps most famous is Henry II prostrating himself in front of Beckett's tomb in 1174), and more of a private practice.

Purgatory stems from this idea, codified by Anselm, that baptism was an unearned gift. Nothing done on earth could be sufficient to remove voluntary sin. The 'culpa' was absolved, but the 'poena' remained. But, as God was merciful and would not see his flock burn in Hell, there had to be some way in which satisfaction could be made in the otherworld. In the 1150s Peter Lombard claimed that, so long as one was contrite, their sins could be purged in purgatory.

King Richard II
Richard II (1367 - 1400, ruled 1377 - 1399) and his wife, Anne of Bohemia, are sometimes said to have had a 'chaste marriage', the desire for which arose from their great piety. Others (oh, alright, Thomas Walsingham) say he just couldn't bring himself to touch her because he was too in love with Robert de Vere. Robert died of wounds sustained whilst out hunting a boar in 1392. In 1395 Richard had his embalmed body shipped back to England from France - then proceeded to open the coffin and kiss Robert's hand. Lush. 


Purgatory is a kind of middle ground, where the not so good and the not so bad souls go. Here you are purged of earthly sin, the soul cleansed in readiness for the last judgement. Le Goff claimed that it was a concept 'born' in the twelfth century (reflecting the growing use of tertiary models of understanding, rather than simple binary) but, whilst it may not have been formally codified at the beginning of our period, there were vague ideas that the division between heaven and hell might not be strictly clear. Bede's Vision of Drythelm (c. 730) tells the story of a pious Northumbrian layman who dies and is shown the afterlife, before returning to life the following morning:

'A countless host of deformed spirits were tormented far and wide in this wretched condition without any interval of respite as far as the eye could see, and I began to think that perhaps this was Hell, of whose intolerable torments I had often heard tell. But, as if in response to my thoughts, the guide who preceded me said: "Do not think this; for this is not Hell as you imagine." ... "The valley that you saw, with its horrible burning flames and icy cold, is the place where souls are tried and punished who have delayed to confess and amend their wicked ways ... [but] they will all be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven on the Day of Judgement."' 

Here the idea of an intermediate place between Heaven and Hell is clearly established. (There are in fact four places: Heaven, Hell, and a lesser version of each.) This view was also made explicit in the writings of St. Augustine (d. 430) and Julian of Toledo (d. 690). Later, in 1184, The Knight Owein's Journey Through St. Patrick's Purgatory - which proved to be wildly popular with medieval audiences; more than 150 Latin manuscripts are extant - sketched a similar picture. These middling places were often held to be accessible from Earth, like St. Patrick's cave in Ireland. In Italy it was even believed that Mount Etna was the mouth of Hell.

'Some were suspended in fires with iron nails stuck in their eyes, or ears or nostrils or throats or breasts or genitals. Other were burning in furnaces of sulphur; yet others were frying as if on pans; others were roasting on a fire, skewered on blazing spits which were turned by demons.' - A few of the punishments the Knight Owein witnessed in St. Patrick's purgatory. The Archbishops waiting for Owein tell him that through masses, prayers, psalms, and alms 'their torments are alleviated'. 

What we're seeing is a bottom-up demand for more inclusive religion. In the tenth century the Church, using Anselmian thinking, was teaching that only pious monks and martyrs were guaranteed to be saved. ('Few will be saved, and most of these will be monks.') This became more of an issue as the aristocracy became better educated, and more capable of understanding what they were being told. Ignorant bliss was now the preserve of the peasantry. The rich were aware that their privileged lifestyle would make it harder for them to get into heaven, even if they confessed regularly as the Augustinians recommended.

Herbert de Losinga (d. 1119), Bishop of Norwich, had stressed the importance of praying and giving alms for the dead. This intensified. This, in part, explains the rise of the friars who were 'in the world but not of the world' in the thirteenth century. Their lives of poverty and simplicity make the ideal reciprocants of charity, as they could then sing mass in return, another way in which to ease the soul through purgatory; by 1300 the Franciscans and Dominicans had 120 houses in England. Indulgences and pilgrimages also became popular ways to garner holy favour. Urban II issued a plenary indulgence to those who took part in the First Crusade in the late eleventh century; crusading was seen as a 'supersatisfactory' penitential act.

The Church now made efforts to encourage the establishment of perpetual chantry chapels. Here a resident priest would say daily mass for the soul of the benefactor. In the 1930s H. Maynard Smith said that these cantorists were 'pests in the parishes' but, in actual fact, they often performed an invaluable pastoral role. Either way, spending on them by the aristocracy was lavish as, in the words of Colin Platt, a way of 'easing their way through purgatory'. The Black Prince established his in 1363, a full 13 years before his actual death.

By the time the doctrine of purgatory received official papal sanction at the Council of Lyons in 1274, there was already a whole industry in place to support it.

The Reformation saw the entire concept of purgatory swept away. The Chantry act of 1547 put an end to masses being said for dead. Tyndale said purgatory's only purpose was 'to purge thy purse', referring to the expense incurred in obtaining them in the first place. In 1604 alderman Richard Goddard refused even to provide a distribution of alms at his burial, arguing that such an action was 'but a popish imitation of such as were desirous after their death to have their souls prayed for'. Henry Brinklow (d. 1546) claimed that prayers did as much good for the soul as 'a man's breath blowing in the sail' did for a great ship.

King Edward II
Ed II is by far my favourite medieval monarch, mostly for his general ineptness. The massive social gaffs he commits to prove his devotion to Piers Gaveston (letting him wear the royal purple for instance) and his love of hedging, ditching, and boating with the common folk. And then, of course, the whole Despenser affair. If you want to know more about Ed - which I'm sure you do - check out the Edward II Blogspot. Here you will find info and excitable squee over how much Ed loved Piers (4eva!) in equal measure. 


'The day of a man's death is better than the day of his birth.' - Richard Rolle's The Book of the Craft of Dying (1450). 

Whether you think medieval Catholicism was vibrant or not, you cannot deny that death was a major preoccupation during this period. And it wasn't enough just to die, you had to die well. There were even the equivalents of 'The Dummy's Guide To...' on the subject, the 'Ars Moriendi' (The Art of Dying, from the fifteenth century). E.g. William Caxton's 1490 'The Arte & Crafte to Know Well to Dye'. Today most people tend to want to die in their sleep, unaware of the event. This was emphatically not the case in the late medieval period.

Ps 39.4: 'Lord, make me to know mine end and the number of my days.' 

Sudden death was feared because it didn't give you time to prepare, and go through all the ritual of death. Ideally you would know in advance when you were going to die, and it was a sign of saintliness to be able to predict it. Others might see signs which would forewarn them. Celestial voices heralded the passing of Wulfric of Haselbury in 1155 for example. In accounts of death, the dying (wo)man is generally said to have known their time was coming. In the Life of Cardinal Wolsey, written in the 1550s for instance, the Cardinal is recorded as saying: 'My time draweth on fast. I may not tarry with you...'

Secular affairs would be settled on the deathbed, as well as religious ones. Wills might be made out, witnessed by the usual deathbed attendants - the priest, family, friends, and neighbours. (To die alone was viewed as a terrible thing, like the death of an animal.) Medieval wills tend to be very formulaic, and full of custom and convention; presumably those in attendance would make sure nothing expected was left out. As well as serving a pragmatic function, this settling of affairs was seen as necessary to make sure the soul was unencumbered with mortal worries. To this end Nigel d'Aubigny wrote desperate letters to King Henry II and his own brother when he fell ill in the 1120s, begging them to confirm the restorations of lands monies to those he had wronged.

'Nothing offends God more than despair' - Augustine. 

The Art of Dying Well (c. 1430): 'One should never give a sick person too much hope that he will regain his physical health.' 

This might seem like a contradiction until you understand that God doesn't want you to despair that you might not get better. Of course you're not going to get better! No, you should prepare to die but not despair that you won't get to heaven. The reason why people wanted to be sentient on the deathbed is so they could reassert their faith, and receive the last rites. The viaticum would only be given if moriens was conscious and able to keep the wafer down. There was real fear that, in the delirium which preceded death, moriens might succumb to the trickery of the Devil. Some tried to pre-empt this in their wills, for example in 1483 Geoffrey Kidwell asks his friends and kinsmen to witness before God that 'whatsoever trouble of mind may happen to me at my departing out of this world that I believe in God and trust only to his mercy.' This was all important because as, St. John had said, 'he who does not believe is already judged'.

‘when my eye mists / and my hearing fails 
and my nose goes cold / and my tongue curls back 
and my face falls in / and my lips blacken 
and my mouth gapes / and my spittle runs 
and my hair stands on end / and my heart trembles 
and my hands shake / and my feet go stiff 
All too late, all too late / when the bier is at the gate’
- thirteenth century poem. 

After death came yet more ritual, the 'ringing of a peal' as an announcement for instance, and the funeral. It was good form to have everything planned out before you actually snuffed it, and many people put a lot of thought into the event. They could be expensive; in 1475 Thomas Stoner's funeral feast alone came to over £74. The arrangements could be meticulous. Lady Bergavenny, for example, wanted to be buried in Hereford, but the journey was not to start until all the equipment – hearse etc – was ready and the whole household had proper black clothing. At the top end of the scale, Henry V’s funeral procession took 2 months to get from Vincennes in France to Dover. Some chose a pauper’s burial like Philip Repingdon (d. 1424) who wanted to be buried ‘under the clear and open firmament of the sky, not in church or monastery, because I think I am unworthy of such burial’.

Of course what you actually got depended on how well your wishes were carried out. In 1466 John Paston I's funeral cost £230, 4x the going rate. Two windows in the church had to be removed to clear the smoke from the number of torches lit during the dirige! Yet in 1471 his wife was still moved to write to her son, John Paston II, ‘It is a shame, and a thing that is much spoken of in this country, that your father’s gravestone is not made. For God’s love, let it be remembered and purveyed for in haste.’ Action had yet to be taken in May 1478.

‘Consider Augustine, who says that the loss of one soul is greater than the loss of a thousand bodies’ 

However this was not the only model of the 'good death'. Sometimes a sudden, and even violent death could be welcomed. Death on the battlefield was attractive in two ways. If on crusade the victim died a martyr, and was guaranteed salvation. In more mundane scenarios the culture of chivalry put the battlefield death on a pedestal. Violent deaths could be martyrs' deaths: St. Stephen, for instance, was stoned to death.

Other deaths were definitely bad however. There was a legal distinction between natural and unnatural death, with coroners to rule on it from 1194. The worst was suicide, from which there could be no redemption. (This stance was progressively softened during this period, with more and more people being excused under the 'not in their right mind' banner.)

The Reformation did away with much of the ritual death, although a lot of it lingered on under the guise of tradition. As late as 1623 William Reade, minister at Cropredy Oxfords, offended parishioners by refusing the 'ringing of a peal' for local widow Margery Winter. Roy Porter argues that it wasn't the Reformation which changed attitudes to death, but the advancement of medical science. The use of painkillers (laudanum from the sixteenth century, and morphine from the nineteenth) at the death bed meant people were no longer sentient at the time of death. (Although there is controversy over whether Porter's argument of linear progression on this is valid.)

King Henry I of England
Henry I (1068 - 1135, reigned from 1100) died in Normandy, but was carried back to England. Henry of Huntingdon says that the smell of the King's putrescent remains caused 'horror and faintings'. 


Much about a good death was ensuring you would be remembered. Death days were more important to the medieval psyche than birthdays, exemplified by the numerous Saints Days celebrated. In fact, birthdays were often so hazily remembered others needed to be called in to corroborate the date. In 1407, for instance, a writ of age for Bernard, son and heir of Edmond Mussenden, used the following to prove the boy's age:

  • Simon Herryes, 60 and more: his father died that day. 
  • William Wodeward, 50 and more: that day married Alice his wife. 
  • Philip Wolf, 50 and more: his daughter Joan broke her shin that day. 
Wills contained lots of individual bequeaths, so as to remain a part of many people's lives. They also left money and goods to the Church, and arranged for masses to be said. William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1396), requested 15,000 masses. Lady Alice West of Hampshire provided £8.10s for 4,4000 masses to be said within 14 nights of ther death in 1395. In 1509 Sir John Gilliot gave 60 shirts to the bedridden poor in his will. In 1514 Alice Bumpstead left 2d to each of the ‘two women that shall sew my winding sheet.’ Common people left rings to adorn the saints, E.g. Yorkshire widow, Margaret Stapleton, left her best gold ring to hang around the neck of an image of Christ at Newburgh in 1466. The less well off could plump for votive lights. These tokens could get your name on the Bede-Roll, which would be read aloud in church.

The will of Thomas Kebell, 1500: (He was a rising lawyer.) £20 to poor on day of burial Curates. Eg. 20s to the parson of Rearsby. For prayers. Eg. Abbey of Leicester, 5 marks. ‘I will that all the good, jewels and chattels before designated for my said son shall be retained by my said executors until my said son attains the age of 24 years, with the intention that they may see his disposition and inclinations. And if he is disposed towards virtue and goodness, he is then to receive delivery of them, otherwise they shall be retained until he is so disposed.’ 

Churches became something of a museum for the history of the local landed family. Almost everyone dreamed of being buried within the church in the late medieval period; in Salisbury, for instance, 65% of wills expected burial in the churchyard before 1399. In the fifteenth century 61% were asking for burial within the church. The rich might literally spread their memory around a bit; separate burial of the heart was well established by 1200. For example in 1199 Richard I’s was granted to Rouen Cathedral. King John’s went to Caxton Abbey. The papacy regularly complained about this division of the body and in 1300 Boniface VIII had to pass the Detestande Feritatis Bull which prohibited boiling the flesh off the bones for the purposes of transportation for burial.

Some were prohibited from being buried in consecrated ground: pagans, Jews, excommunicates, lepers, pregnant women, unbaptised infants, etc. Heretics could be removed posthumously. John Wycliffe - the father of 'Lollardy' - was buried at Lutterworth in 1384. His works were found heretical in 1415 and an exhumation order was issued. Another in December 1427 finally forced action. Wycliffe was dug up, burned and had his ashes thrown into a nearby stream.

The Black Death
The Black Death of 1348 is estimated to have killed between a third and a half of the population. The situation was so bad that some clerics, like the Bishop of Bath and Wells, ruled that confession could be made to lay men and even women. However stories of bodies being dumped into mass burial pits seem to have been an exaggeration. The excavations at Smithfield found that the dead had been carefully laid out, head west and feet east. 


Today the returning dead, in their various forms, are little more than a source of titillation. RPatz covered in white pressed powder, or the cast of zombie movie remake 306 lumbering around like a bunch of overpaid idiots. But back in the later middle ages the returning dead were much more of a real concern; Richard II even employed a bodyguard to protect him from the Earl of Arundel's corpse. This fear was undoubtedly encouraged by the less advanced medical knowledge they had on hand. It was all too common for a 'corpse' to still be alive, King Louis IX (d. - for real - 1270) went on to live for years after being pronounced dead! Bodies were typically watched over before the burial, just to make sure.

Attitudes towards the dead body were not the same as they are today. Whilst the corpse inspired revulsion, it was likely less intense than we would feel: death had yet to be sanitised. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council insisted: 'all rise again with their own individual bodies, that is, the bodies which they now wear'. Saintly bodies were revered, and it was believed that the something of the saint lived on in their remains. (There was always a fine line between miracle and magic as far as the laity were concerned. If they weren't sprinkling the holy wafer on their crops, they were busy dipping handkerchiefs in the spattered brains of Thomas Beckett or stealing finger bones for personal use when remains went on display.) The gall bladder and three small gall stones of Chiara of Montefalco, Abbess of an Umbrian monastery (d. 1308) were displayed at the Church of Santa Crace, and were reputed to have healed several people.

Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, cut the cloth covering the arm of the remains Mary Magdalen at Fecamp Abbey, Normandy on a visit in the late twelfth century. He then proceeded to kiss the bone and bite into it - much to the horror of the Abbot! When the remains of Bishop Hugh Latimer performed a miracle by curing a blind women before being buried in Lincoln Cathedral, it was seen as proof 'that he was alive and present'. In 1240 the Abbot of Pontigny had to admonish the corpse of Englishman Edmund Rich of Canterbury not to do anything spectacular until they reached the abbey lest the crowds become uncontrollable. Not all the dead were saints however.

In the early medieval period the returning dead were invariably hostile: restless evil spirits, usually intent on revenge. They were dealt with by being buried in boggy places, or being pinned in the grave to stop them walking. Caesar of Heisterbach (d. 1240) said that bad death led to unquiet souls and, indeed, the living world was plagued with visitors from the other side. Accounts of these creatures were so frequent that in c. 1196 William of Newburgh said 'were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, he undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome'.

Augustine: ‘Human weakness seems to be such that when anyone sees in his sleep one who is dead he thinks he sees the soul of the dead person.’ Some people were always skeptical about ghosts, even when they were part of official church doctrine. 

Initially the returning dead are similar to the modern day vampire or zombie, in that they keep their physical body. These 'revenants', it has been suggested, had a lot in common with the Icelandic draugr (vampire), perhaps suggesting a survival of Norse beliefs in England. The revenant rots, but it does not decompose, and spreads sickness and disease wherever it goes. The Abbot of Burton, c. 1090, told the story of two peasants who run away from their lord and seek refuge in another's jurisdiction. (Under medieval law unfree peasants were chattels of the lord whose land they are on, thus a lord could not just take back an escapee peasant as he was poaching his neighbour's property.) Having started a feud they died but,

'the very same day in which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. They spoke to the other peasants, banging on the walls of their houses and shouting "Move quickly, move! Get going! Come!' 

It is the evil of their actions which sees them walk again. The inhabitants of the village fall sick, and most died, not from blood sucking but from disease spread by the foul stench of death. However blood sucking is also implied; 'They found them intact, but the linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood.' Then 'they cut off the men's heads and placed them in the graves between their legs, tore out the hearts from their corpses, and covered the bodies with earth again.' The hearts were burned and 'they crackled with a great sound and everyone there saw an evil spirit in the form of a crow fly away from the flames. Soon after this was done both the disease and the phantoms ceased.'

The concept of purgatory confused the logic of the ghost. Evil souls would go straight to Hell, from which there was no escape. This meant that walking corpses were possessed by demons. In the sixteenth century, Buonaventura Farinerio, a Franciscan Friar wrote an exorcists manual which claimed, ‘When demons enter human bodies, they almost always appear to the person first in the form of a man who died an evil death, or sometimes they show themselves as one of the person’s relatives.’ The other option was that the corpse was inhabited by a good soul in need of help. William Newburgh, writing in the twelfth century, told this tale: #30.

A knight of Northumberland was seated alone in his house after dinner in summer about the tenth hour, and lo! his father, who had died long before, approached him clad in a foul and ragged shroud. He thought the appearance was a devil and drove it back from the threshold, but his father said: 'Dearest son, fear not. I am your father, and I bring you no ill; but call the priest and you shall learn the reason of my coming.' He was summoned, and a crowd ran to the spot; when falling at his feet the ghost said: 'I am that wretch whom long since you excommunicated unnamed, with many more, for unrighteous withholding of tithes; but the common prayers of the church and the alms of the faithful have by God's grace so helped me that I am permitted to ask for absolution.' So being absolved he went, with a great train of people following, to his grave and sank into it, and it closed over him of its own accord. 

The dead were becoming less of a terror, and more of a pain in the backside. They wanted expensive trentals of masses and people - who were sometimes complete strangers to the deceased - to go about putting all their affairs in order. It was also becoming more common for the dead to appear as a non-corporeal wraith, rather than as a revenant. William of Newburgh often writes of ghosts pestering people until they give and conjure them. In the Byland Abbey ghost stories (c. 1400) ghosts are used as exempla, stressing the importance of alms and masses.


Late-medieval macabre: It is sometimes said this developed in response to the Black Death, but the truth is that it was in vogue long before as a way of driving home the vanity of worldly concerns.

  • The Three Living and the Three Dead. 'As you are, I was. As I am, you shall be.' This was around in written accounts by the late thirteenth century. 
  • Transi Tombs. These are tombs carved to represent cadavers, you only see these from the late fourteenth century onwards. Eg. AB Henry Chichele's at Canterbury (d. 1443). 
  • Dance of Death. The earliest known example is from 1312. The text was translated into English by John Lydgate c. 1430s. Holbein's is perhaps the most famous version, from the 1530s. 

"Death spareth not / low nor high degree

Popes, Kings / nor worthy Emperors ... 
[Labourer Answers] I have wished / after death full oft 
Although I would / have fled him now ... 
[The Child Answers] A word I cannot speak 
I am so young / I was born yesterday ... 
I came but now / and now I go on my way 
Of me no more / no tale shall be told 
The will of God / no man can withstand 
As soon dyeth / a young man as an old"

 - The Danse Macabre. 


After the Reformation: Protestant doctrine discredits the idea of ghosts. But ghosts remain in folklore and superstition - suicides were buried at crossroads into the nineteenth century in an attempt to stop them walking. In the seventeenth century ghosts become common motifs, serving a romantic function. Basically we see a move from official doctrine, to superstition.

Classic nuggets of wisdom from William of Pagula's Oculus Sacerdotis (c.1320): 

Priests should warn their parishioners not to put their little ones in the same bed with them so that they will not accidentally roll over on them or suffocate them and hereby be found guilty of homicide. 

Also, he should warn them that boys and girls over the age of seven should not sleep together in the same bed because of the danger of fornication or, if the girl is the boy's sister, incest. 

A priest can confidently tell his parishioners that they should be aware that anyone who ejaculates semen knowingly and willingly in any manner other than the normal way with his wife sins gravely, and he should tell his confessor how he did this. He should announce to them that, without the other's consent, a husband or wife may not take a vow of chastity... But a husband does not sin by revoking his wife's vow because it is within his rights; power over her body rests with him, not her. For if you abstain from sexual relations with your wife without her consent, you are granting her license to fornicate and her sin will be blamed on your abstinence. 

Don't you just love the medieval church!?


  1. Ha! I haven't seen the name Eamon Duffy mentioned since my honors year in 2001 :) Nice to e-meet you, fellow history nut! I write about the history of parenting over at my blog.

    1. That sounds awesome, I'll have to check it out!


Post a Comment

I love to hear from you, so please don't be shy!

Popular posts from this blog

Over 200 UK Refer and Earn Offers for 2022

So many stores and services offer special rewards and discounts for recruiting them new customers. No matter what you're into, there's a refer and earn offer for you! Some of these translate to straight up free and easy money through cashback or reward sites, others require you to be an existing customer or jump through several hoops. There are over 400 offers listed on my Codes, Coupons and Discounts Pinterest board, and I am (slowly) working on updating this post to reflect the cream of the crop! CASHBACK, SURVEYS, REWARDS & DEALS 20 Cogs . Get £20 when your friend completes 20 cogs (i.e. offers), and 5% of their earnings for life. You also need to complete 20 offers yourself before you can cash out. Airtime Rewards . Get up to £1.50 bonus credit for each person who signs up with your referral code. Mine is 9CKQXLH8. Cashback Earners . Earn 5.00 CashCoins and 10% of their earnings from purchases. 20 CashCoins minimum payout. Cashback Kingdom . Both get a bon

Free Magazine Scans

Click the pictures below to find full cover guides to various teen magazines (primarily collated to make scale miniature magazine covers but I figure they'll also be useful for collectors and anyone into media history) and scans from my own magazine collection. I've also got a couple of kids' books I didn't want to part with - The Squirrel and Little Owl Book of Pets . The unwieldy size of my bookmark folders convinced me I needed a reference post for online magazine archives. Or, more accurately, free online magazine archives. Whether you're looking for leisure reading or research avenues, you're bound to find something useful in this list. :) ☆ Archive for the Unexplained - UFO mags galore. ☆   The Magazine Rack - over 140,000 digitised magazines! ☆   Lantern - thousands of vintage film magazines. ☆ FANZINES  - a number of online archives now exist for these including  FANAC  (SF), ScoTpress  (Trek), Sandy Herald Collection  (media fandom, major

Free Fabric Samples x 200

Choosing upholstery and soft furnishings can be a nightmare - especially if it arrives and isn't quite what you expected. Fabric samples are a great way to avoid costly mistakes, as well as providing a fab source of material for your crafts box. Here are over 200 places offering completely free fabric samples in the UK:

Simply Cook Review

I kept seeing ads and deals for Simply Cook everywhere, so as there was a special offer on at OhMyDosh! Rewards (£3 for the box and £3.50 cashback) I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a try. What Is It? Recipe kits packed into boxes which fit through your letterbox. The usual price is £9.99 for a kit of 4, with each one serving 2-4 people depending on your serving sizes. All you need to do is buy the fresh ingredients required and follow the instructions. Here is Simply Cook's own helpful diagram: Does It Work? For me, as the person just eating it, it was awesome. Everything tasted great - the mushroom penne in particular was so good I went back for seconds - and I liked that the sauces weren't as rich as Anthony would usually make them. For Anthony, who cooked them, they weren't as impressive. He complained that the food was bland and that it was actually quite a lot of faff, as Lidl didn't stock everything we needed which meant another trip ou