medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Dear Paul,

I think part of what makes this issue confusing is that there was not one
single attitude towards death in the Middle Ages. Rather, a vast variety
attitudes towards death coexisted, differing according to region, cultural
level, and time period. Theology, medical traditions, and popular stories
all have somewhat different "takes."

Thus Camille is right, at least for some parts of medieval culture. In some
regions there are stories of certain dead bodies coming back to life as
long as there is flesh on the bones. These usually may be characterised as
"popular" stories, and many of them come from the British Isles. Walter Map
includes a story about a dead Welshman who keeps clambering out of his
grave and attacking people, for instance, and there are many other tales of
wandering corpses from this part of the world. Usually they are the bodies
of people who died suddenly or through violence. I published an article
about these stories and their implications for attitudes towards life,
death and decay in Past and Present #152, August '96.

However, the correspondent from Southern California (sorry, didn't note
your name) also is right: the theology of death taught by clerics
throughout Europe emphasized the immediate separation of body and spirit.
The inevitability, unforeseeability, and permanence of death are big
theological themes, reaching their apex, in terms of both theological
reflection and outreach to the laity, in the 15C- ars moriendi. Even within
"clerical culture," however, there existed some porousness to the boundary
between life and death. Witness the stories of people who "die," are led on
a tour of the afterlife, and then resurrect with warnings for others. Thus,
although the permanence of death was a theological commonplace, this
position occasionally was modified in order to present stories with
important didactic messages about the fearsomeness of Purgatory and Hell,
and the rewards of Heaven.

Sorry to be so long-winded. Hope this helps.

Nancy Caciola
History, UC-San Diego

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