Friday, 4 April 2014
D is for Death
This A-Z, I'm trying to look at aspects of the Middle Ages that might be useful for writers. Death was a big deal in the period, and not just because disease, war and life in general made it so common. It was the period that Aries, in his The Hour of Our Death, characterised as the rise of the Good Death. The good death was the idea that while the Romans and the Greeks might have been a bit vague about death and the dead, those in the Middle Ages thought that it was important to have the right sort of death, with the right sort of rituals around it, and the right sort of commemoration. While his categories always strike me as a bit wide and weirdly argued, the Good Death is a concept that is extremely relevant for the medieval period.
There was a level almost of obsession when it came to death and remembrance in the period. Whole monastic orders sprang up, not because of some philanthropic tendency on the part of the nobility, but because they wanted their own monks to pray for their souls after death. This was also the period when chantry chapels started to spring up, and when many ideas about the afterlife were still being argued over through a combination of religious debate, popular culture, and records of visions.
Then there were the arguments over what you did with the bodies. This was the era of relics, after all, and getting hold of important bits of famous/saintly people was a niche industry. St Wilfred of Ripon's remains, for example, were dug up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and taken there to attract pilgrims, only for those at Ripon to insist that they'd managed to hide the real relics and he was still there.
Yet it wasn't just saints. This was an era when nobles started trying to buy burial space within churches, typically trying to get as close to the altar as possible. It was an era of effigies and remembrances. Of course, it wasn't unique in that. Unlike Aries, I suspect the Romans probably didn't forget the dead as soon as they keeled over. Yet in the Middle Ages, a sense of the dead was definitely all around, making it probably the most death focussed culture certainly since Ancient Egypt.