THE MIDDLE AGES
AND DEATH

For the people living in the Middle Ages death was a most serious affair. Death was the beginning of the journey to eternity and it was crucial to get everything right. But even so death was about belief and devotion it was also a perfect way for people to show off their money and good taste. As always.


Main Page

Dying in the Middle ages
The Early Middle ages
The Gothic fashion
The Black Death and other disasters
Heaven, Hell and the Purgatory

Dying in the Middle ages
Everyone will die. Eventually. This is a truth today and it was a truth for the people who lived in Europe a thousand years ago – in the dark and dreary time later called the Middle Ages. It was not all that dark and dreary – but of course they did not have any electric lightning,. And to die was a most serious business that had to take place the right way, otherwise the soul was condemned to an eternity of pain and torment.

To die correctly it was very important to die the right way. The right way meant you were prepared, had received the extreme unction by a priest and died in peace in your bed with all your sins forgiven. That meant a sure way to get to heaven. The problem was of course that this seldom happened. To die of old age was a rare treat, most died of sickness and ill health and accident in much greater extent than nowadays. This was much due to a schism between reality and ideals. It is a very nice thought to die in peace in your bed, but if you know you have to work in the fields to get some food for your children you are very likely to do that. Even f that might mean you died behind the plough.

And dying in bed was not something to be appreciated by the upper classes either. Tournaments were constantly banned by the church as a sure way of getting straight to hell, but that did no make them any less popular. Combat and war in different forms, and also hunting, was other things that was very sought after by the nobles, and an easy way to die in a way not recommended by the church. But glory on earth was obviously even in this very religious era more popular for many than glory and peace in heaven.

The Early Middle ages
There is a very fine line between ancient times and the Middle Ages, people did not go to bed one night as ancient and then wake up the next morning in a new era. The change was much subtler than that. In the parts of Europe that never was a part of the Roman Empire this new era can be said to begin with the coming of Christianity, which happened from the 5th century and onwards. And in the former territory of the empire the change can be said to have come when the habits of the Roman were more and more forgotten. One of the really great changes in this aspect was the habit to start burying people inside of the cities – a habit unheard of in Roman times.

The Christians wanted a Christian burial. That meant they wanted their whole body to be buried in consecrated ground. But this an idea that was kind of new for this religion. Before, in Roman times, the main problem had been to be buried as close to the city as possible since they could not be buried in the city and people wanted to be seen even after their decease, and the early Christians were for the most part also Romans. But the catacombs changed this a bit. Now it became more important to be buried close to the right people. This has to do with the Christian martyrs and saints. They were often buried among the other Christians, but the common man wanted to be buried as close as possible to these holy men and women.

When the remains of the holy ones started to be brought into the churches inside of the towns (Christianity was in the beginning very much a religion for the towns and not the countryside) the burials followed. This probably was partly due to the fact that the Roman systems were breaking up and there were no precise norms to follow for the people. This meant that it was now perfectly ok to be buried inside of the city-walls. And people chose to do this. Another problem was the obvious that not all people could have a place in the churches, this meant they had to take a new step and the cemetery as an idea was founded.

But the great difference between Christian and pagan graves continued. Pagans had also moved over to inhumation. But the pagans still continued to add grave-goods to the graves as a farewell token – whether or not they believed that the gifts were necessary in the after-life. This said it must also be remembered that the Christians also could put things in the graves. Like a crosier for a bishop or some jewels for a rich lady. There was also a difference in the direction people were buried, with the pagans being buried mostly east-west and the Christians north-south. This said it must always be remembered that there are always exceptions. Generalisations can never be made, but it is hard to be an historian without making them.



The Gothic fashion
The gothic style hit it big time in Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. This was mainly seen in the influence on art and architecture, and this of course included the tombs that were designed at this time. But the main event at this time was the theologically revolutionary new idea of the purgatory. The Christian church had developed the idea of heaven and hell, but they had realised that most people weren’t ready for either which meant they needed a new institution, i.e. the purgatory (see further below).

This meant that it was even more important to die in the right way, and be dead the right way. The importance of the intercession was much greater now, the surviving was supposed to pray to the saints so that they would pray to God so that you did not have to spend more time than necessary in the purgatory. But to do this it was important to be remembered. This meant that if you had money you placed yourself as close to one of the many altars that all churches could show (and still can, especially in catholic countries), so that both saints and the living would remember – both figuratively and quite literally. So the great monuments from this time was not just a way to show your status and be remembered for it, it was also a way to be remembered to ease the way for the soul.

Not everyone could be buried inside of the churches, that coasted money and the space was very limited. That meant that most people had to settle for the churchyard. It was obligatory to be buried there and there was a strict hierarchy even out there. The closer to the church the better, and the closer to the altars the better – it did not seem to matter that there was a wall between. There one also had to deal with the perplexing matter of north versus south. South was considered the better side and north the lesser so, and it was connected with Hell and the Devil and other foul things. At the same time north was also the women’s side and south the men’s. This should mean that the women were buried north of the church and the men south. Of course it was never that simple. People obviously tried to avoid being buried there altogether and women still had a right to be buried in the churchyard. This meant a mixing of sexes, even though this was unheard of inside of the churches.

Being buried in consecrated ground was a must for any Christian. But this meant you had to be baptised and those children who died before that had a hard position. They could be buried in the wall surrounding the churchyard as a way to perhaps reach salvation anyway, even though the doctrine said that just being born a human meant you were a sinful creature. A group who definitely did not belong to the group who could receive a Christian burial, except for the obvious examples of those who did not count themselves as Christians, or who the Christian community did not view as a part of them, was those who committed suicide. This meant that they were domed to an eternity in Hell without a chance of getting pardoned.

The Black Death and other disasters
When talking about death and the middle Ages it is impossible not to mention the Black Death, a plague that struck Europe in 1348. This caused a great decline in the population with thousands and thousands and thousands dead. Since we do not have any exact records over the population we cannot say how many who actually died, but we can be sure that it struck hard and very effectively even though it also struck very uneven over Europe. Another problem for the people in Europe at that time was that even though you could survive this first, great epidemic this was soon followed by others, all the way into the 18th century.

But there were of course many other ways for people to die back then, a part from the plague, ways that are very uncommon today, or just seen in underdeveloped countries. Many illnesses that today are curable led to a certain death back then in a community that lacked much of the knowledge we have today. The rich had it marginally better, not because they could afford better help while it was not that much help to get, but because they could afford better food and in other ways better living-conditions. On the other hand, if you did survive your birth, youth and, if you were a woman, your child-bearing years you had a very good chance of living to at least your sixties.

Heaven, Hell and the Purgatory
Up until the 13th century the church teach that when you die you go to either heaven or hell so you better do the right thing when you lived because that was the only chance you had to end up in heaven. Heaven was of course the goal for everyone – but the emphasis in the teaching was placed on hell, the preachers wanted to scare the population into submission and fear of God almighty. They probably succeeded quite well as most people had on obvious interest in trying to die the right way.

One of the more interesting things in the teachings over Hell must be that the ones condemned to an eternity of sufferings had Sundays off.

With the 13th century came the teachings on the purgatory, a place there the souls were cleaned from all the evils committed by man during his or her life. It is not a complex belief but rather straightforward and logical. This meant that the more evil things you had done the more you had to pay with your own sufferings. But on the other hand it also meant that you were not a lost soul, domed to an eternity of torment, but that it all had an end and you could come to Heaven in the end. It is a very nice thought, and reflects well the fact that few are altogether good or bad, but of course this lead to other changes too, some which perhaps were not all that good.

This view of things not altogether lost meant that this was something one could affect. That is why it became popular to pay priests and members of the cloth to pray for ones soul. Which they did – and which supposedly also had some effect. One could also buy letters of indulgence to relieve one of a few years. Members of the family were also supposed to pray for ones soul, that was why it was so important to make conspicuous grave-monuments. It was of vital importance to be remembered; otherwise one was easily domed to an eternity in Hell – or at least more time than necessary in the purgatory.



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