Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present
Although death has inexorably followed life throughout all time, historians have assumed it has no history. They generally prefer dramatic events to the great constants of the human condition—birth, childhood, marriage, old age, and death. Yet these constants have changed, however slowly and imperceptively To give birth and to die today are quite different experiences from what they were in antiquity. They differ at present within the boundaries of the United States, among the Apache, the Hopi, the Cocopa, the Mormons, the orthodox Jews, and the bourgeois of Los Angeles. Anthropologists have treated death as a rite of passage that reveals fundamental aspects of culture. But cultural historians generally keep to Culture with a capital C—or a capital K. Kulturgeschichte, a product of German universities in the nineteenth century, could learn much by following anthropologists into the field.
In the late Middle Ages, the dying man played the central part in a supernatural drama. He staged and managed his death according to a prescribed rite, conscious of the fact that he had reached the climactic moment of his life, that heaven and hell hung in the balance, and that he could save his soul by making a “good death.” L’art de bien mourir, the Ars Moriendi, became one of the most popular and widely diffused themes of literature and iconography in the fifteenth century.
The Ars Moriendi depicted a man on his deathbed surrounded by saints and demons who are struggling for the possession of his soul. The devils re-enact his sins and claim him for hell. If he resists the temptations of pride and despair, and if he sincerely repents, he dies well. His hands crossed, his head facing eastward toward Jerusalem, his face lifted toward heaven, he emits his soul with his last breath. It emerges from his mouth, looking like a newborn baby, and an angel carries it off to heaven. The spectacle reveals the medieval sense of reality, a cosmological clutter of the exalted and the base, in which ordinary objects are infused with transcendental significance. Thus the saints, devils, and bedroom furniture in the typical fifteenth-century woodcut reproduced on this page.
Medieval and early modern man had a horror of sudden death, because it might deprive him of his part in the critical, metaphysical moment. In dangerous cases, a doctor’s first duty was to get a priest. He was under a solemn obligation to warn his patients if death seemed to be even a remote possibility, because they needed time to prepare for death, to meet it according to the traditional ceremony, in bed. The deathbed scene took place in public. Priests, doctors, family, friends, even passers-by crowded into the room of the dying man. In a “good death,” he took stock of his life, called in his enemies and forgave them, blessed his children, repented his sins, and received the last sacraments. Although it varied according to his status and his era, his will regulated the burial and mourning in elaborate detail, specifying…
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