Friday, 4 October 2013

Medicine and Mortality, 1300-1900: Death Medeival Style.

One of the wonderful aspects of attending a history conference is the opportunity to delve into topics and periods outside ones’ general field of interest. As law affects every aspect of our lives, from the cradle to the grave, I am fascinated by the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary people and their resilience in the face of poverty and misfortune, generally aggravated by a variety of social, hierarchal and legal constraints. The recent conference at the Weald and Downland Museum (21-22 September 2013) was no disappointment, offering six papers on ‘Medicine and Mortality, 1300-1900’, focussing on the rituals of human health, sickness, medicine and the trappings of death.

Bier from church at Cowfold, now at Weald and Downland Museum.

Dr Danae Tankard (University of Chichester) spoke on ‘Medieval Beliefs About the Afterlife’, focussing on late medieval, Catholic theology of salvation and damnation. It was a theology based on original sin, following the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, as a result of which mankind was destined to eternal damnation, saved by the death of Christ. The seven sacraments, as outward signs of an inward grace acting on a person’s soul, included baptism (which removed the stain of original sin) and was essential in order for the soul to enter heaven; penance for each sin committed; and extreme unction, through the administration and anointment of the dying.
People believed in a tri-partite relationship between heaven, purgatory and hell. It was believed that, on death, most Christian souls entered purgatory where the soul suffered for a period of time, in order to expiate the debts caused by sins committed on earth. Those guilty of one of the seven deadly sins were damned to go straight to hell for eternity and the pains of hell were described by Wynkyn de Worde. His narrator was Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, who rose from the dead and was, therefore, able to explain what hell was like. Each soul passed through two points of judgment, the first at the time of death, and the second on the final day of judgement.
The Last Judgement was to follow on from a series of apocalyptic events which preceded the second coming of Christ. In order for a Christian to rise and greet Christ, it was important that a body was laid out so that the coffin or shroud covered body was placed in a grave, face upwards, with the body with the head to the west and feet to the east. However, while prayers by the living might ease the suffering and shorten the time spent by friends and loved ones in purgatory, prayers for the souls of those in condemned to hell would only add to their torment. 
Heaven was believed to exist somewhere above the earth and hell below, although the precise location of purgatory was uncertain. As everyone was born with the burden of original sin, a problem arose with the soul of babies who died before they could be baptised and where their souls would reside. By the late fifteenth century, places of limbo were believed to exist, short of purgatory: the souls of the prophets, such as Isaac and Abraham, would have spent time in limbus patrum before entering heaven on the death of Christ; while the souls of unbaptized infants went to limbus infantum, so that they did not suffer but were denied the comfort of the soul in heaven. 

The timing of this paper coincides with a new TV series presented by Dr Helen Castor, starting on 9 October, 'Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death'.

Referenced works:
Wynkyn de Worde (1490) The Arte & Crafte to Know Well to Dye, published by William Caxton.
Richard Hill’s sixteenth-century Commonplace Book.

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  1. Helen Castor's programme articulated the important connection I failed to explain, but Danae Tankard raised, between laws requiring the licensing of midwives by the bishops and the exceptional powers given to midwives to baptise a baby, when it was unlikely that the baby would survive long after delivery.

  2. See