Death, Plague, and Ritual in the Middle Ages
Updated: Jul 27
With death such an omnipresent part of life, medieval people dealt with mortality in ways that we might find gruesome today.
Today, even in a time of pandemic, we relegate death to nursing homes, hospitals or, in the case of war or tragedy, the evening news. Not so in medieval times, when the aged were cared for by their relatives, the Church, or not at all; a significant number of children died before their first birthday and war, famine, and the plague carried off their share of the population every year. With death such an omnipresent part of life, medieval people dealt with the reality of their mortality by taking refuge in Christian doctrine or by enjoying their allotted time on Earth to the fullest.
During the Middle Ages, for those afraid of death, the Church gave a comforting view of both death and the afterlife. Easing the way of the departed with the rituals of last rites and burial, masses were said for the souls of the deceased—or at least for those whose relatives were able to pay for the privilege—while the Biblically foretold Resurrection gave people hope for personal immortality and a happy afterlife. Christianity provided not only a meaning and order to life but also a happy ending. in fact, from a religious perspective, life was but a preparation for death.
Indeed, it was not so much dying that mattered, but how one died. For instance, those who took up the cross to ﬁght against the Saracens in the Holy Land earned pardons for their sins. Those who died in battle when ﬁghting in service of the Church were given an instant pass into heaven; in other words, a death not to be mourned but celebrated.
PURGATORY AND DEATH RITES
Christian belief is clear on what happens to us after we die: we are judged and either spend an eternity in heavenly bliss or are condemned to hell. Scenes of such judgment are a mainstay of Christian art, especially over the doors of churches.
Purgatory was the invention of the Middle Ages, specifically, in the late 12th century. In medieval theology, purgatory was an "in between" place, where those not eligible for salvation, nor bad enough for outright damnation, were purged of their sins. (Of course, no one wanted to believe their departed loved ones, no matter how imperfect, were destined for eternal fire and damnation.) Fortunately, it was also believed that prayers, good deeds (such as pilgrimages), and financial donations to the Church could shorten time spent in purgatory.
Of course, proper Christian practice was important to escape hell and/or shorten one's time in purgatory. Prior to the Middle Ages, pagans had a variety of ways of disposing of their dead, ranging from simple interment in barrows to spectacular Viking ship cremation. However, early Christian missionaries discouraged these practices, for in order to bring pagan cultures under the sway of the Church of Rome, early Christian priests immediately claimed dominion over their parishioners’ lives and deaths.
Since Christian doctrine taught of the bodily resurrection of the faithful, cremation was discouraged in favor of a churchyard burial. Although the desire to be buried in a holy place was understandable, this custom also gave the Church additional social leverage, as they could refuse to allow the remains of those who had been excommunicated—or those who had died as a result of banned activities, such as death from competing in a tournament—to be interred on consecrated ground.
As the Church welcomed a newborn child into the world with the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of last rites acted as a final farewell. For the institution that claimed to be the gateway to the next world kept tight control over life… and collected a fee for the service. In fact, no medieval death scene was complete without confession, communion, and anointment.
Of course, death rites varied from place to place. For instance, the heretical French Cathars of the 12th and 13th centuries believed that the natural world was inherently corrupt and the physical body was inherently evil, so their last rites consisted of the consolamentum, a sort of baptism by book and words, since the Cathars believed that anything material might become corrupted. After this, the Cathars would deny the dying believer any food until death occurred either through natural causes or by starvation. Abstinence from the corrupt material world was the only way to heaven, they believed.
In contrast to the Cathars’ belief that the ﬂesh was evil, mainstream Christian practices revolved around the cult of the saints. Religious relics often consisted of parts of a saint’s body, usually kept in jeweled reliquaries in the great cathedrals, as their remains were believed to provide a link to the supernatural world, as you see here with St. Catherine's head that is on display in a church in Siena, Italy. In fact, one sign of sainthood was a lack of decomposition in one’s mortal remains. Some sources even described a “sweet odor” that emanated from holy corpses. So rather viewing a dead body as an object of horror, medieval people often openly welcomed it into their public spaces.
There was also a prevalent idea that those who passed on not only kept their individual personalities after death but were also capable of intervening in the world of the living. So then, as now, children were named after a saint in hopes of invoking their holy protection. People also offered gifts of prayer and devotion to their favorite saint in exchange for personal favors.
A PERILOUS LIFE
During the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was only about 33 years, but this is a misleading ﬁgure. Once a person had survived childhood, one had a reasonable chance of living to the age of 40 or 50. (For instance, from 1000 to 1500 AD, the kings of England and Scotland died at the average ages of 48 and 51 years, respectively, although Eleanor of Aquitaine lived to the venerable age of 82.) Of course, the average lifespan was offset for men due to the dangers of warfare—especially from diseases contracted in camp—and for women, by the dangers of childbirth.
Indeed, the very act of bringing forth new life was fraught with peril. Doctors and midwives did not know how to perform Cesarean sections. And since many women married in early adolescence—and many others’ bone growth had been stunted by malnutrition—difficulty with labor was not uncommon. The 12th century manual on women’s medicine known as the Trotula suggests only baths and herbal remedies. Meanwhile, with birth control limited to folk medicine or abstinence, the bodies of older women who had been burdened with multiple pregnancies throughout their life often simply gave out.
But women of child-bearing years were not the only ones who led dangerous lives. Some sources estimate that during the Middle Ages, 30% to 50% of all infants died of childhood diseases compounded by malnutrition. Even if a child lived, carefree childhood was short; children were put to work as young as ten, and girls were often married as early as 12 years of age.
Despite the fact that the dangers of childhood were many, a parent's grief at the death of a child was very real, as described in one of the greatest pieces of medieval English literature, Pearl, a 14th-century poem about a distraught father who is comforted by his deceased two-year-old child:
Deem God unjust, the Lord indict,
From His way a fool He will not wend;
The relief amounts not to a mite,
Though gladness your grief may never end.
Cease then to wrangle, to speak in spite,
And swiftly seek Him as your friend.
Your prayer His pity may excite,
So that Mercy shall her powers expend.
To your languor He may comfort lend,
And swiftly your griefs removed may seem.
THE EFFECTS OF THE PLAGUE
Though death was an everyday occurrence, the Great Plague that carried off a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1352 stands out as one of the most inﬂuential occurrences of the Middle Ages. Sources from the time describe vacant countryside, abandoned ﬁelds, and towns where the dead so outnumbered the living that there was no one to bury them.
With such mass decimation, it is no surprise that the plague elicited a psychic toll on the population, for late medieval art shows an unusual fascination with the macabre. Death was often depicted as a rotting corpse striking down the young and beautiful, or leading armies of the dead against the living.
Even manuscript illustrations of the Resurrection took on a grim tone, with corpses rising from the grave to meet their eternal reward. In fact, the effect that death had on art persisted for centuries, as seen in the memento mori (Latin for “reminder of death”), represented by such symbols as skulls, hourglasses, coffins, or extinguished candles that were often featured in paintings and illustrations.
Another motif reﬂecting these grim realities was the (“Dance of Death”). Beginning as illustrations for a 14-century morality poem, by the early 1420s, the Danse had evolved into its own genre. Such illustrations typically showed Death leading his victims—from the Pope on down to a beggar—to their eternal reward. The message was clear: the comforts of this world are impermanent and, sooner or later, everyone dies.
Since death was inevitable, preparing for it took on great importance. The Ars Moriendi (”Art of Dying”) was a book intended as a preparation for the afterlife, a sort of primer on how to die well. Illustrations depicted deathbed scenes, with the dying man surrounded by saints and devils, each vying for his soul. Such books urged believers to reject the vanity of the world in their ﬁnal hours and turn to God.
But just as death acted as the great leveler as it affected both poor and rich alike, so did the Plague help medieval society become more equal. With the sudden loss of manpower due to the disease, wages increased and capital could accumulate in the hands of plague survivors. Some historians argue that like a brush fire clearing out the dried bracken from a forest, the Black Death renewed overcrowded medieval society. It also proved a truism that would have been well-known to medieval people: that after winter comes spring, and after death, rebirth.
This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #28 and expanded in 2020. A jouster and fencing master, Ken Mondschein has since gone one to become a professor of medieval history and is the author of many books, including Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, The Art of the Two-Handed Sword, The Art of the Rapier, and The Knightly Art of Battle. For more info, check out kenmondschein.com.