Death and mutability

The reality of death in medieval England

The chances of living to old age were much lower in Chaucer's time than they are in modern England. During the fourteenth century there were famines as well as, the plague known as the Black Death, in 1348-9.

Even without the plague, there was high infant mortality, while sudden and unexpected deaths were relatively common hazards. Many men and women died young because it was not realised that poor sanitation and hygiene helped disease to spread. These normal dangers surrounding medieval people made acceptance of one's own mortality a sensible outlook.

See The world of Chaucer > The tangible world > Death in society and culture for further information.

The idea of death

It was believed to be beneficial to face up to the fact that death awaits everyone. The prevalence of death was a major theme in European medieval art, literature and religious practices.

The teaching of the Church

The Church used the every day reality of death to stress the need for penitence and confession. Pictures, preaching and poetry reminded people that life was short and death came to all, whether high or low. It was emphasised that wealth, status, beauty and happiness lasted only for a time. Far more important was the permanent life beyond the grave. By stressing the mutability (changeableness) of all worldly things, such art helped to focus minds on the importance of confession, in order to be prepared for death, whenever it came, with some hope of salvation and eternal life.

More on the influence of classical thinking regarding death: Contempt for the material world had a long history in European culture. Medieval Christianity had inherited from the classical world a worldview that stressed the inferiority of material life compared to the life of the mind and spirit. In medieval Christian culture, this developed into stressing how transitory were life, pleasure and wealth in the material world. This tied in very well with the development, from the twelfth century onwards, of the Church's emphasis on penitence and confession in the face of impending death.

Mutability and transience mean changeability, a fact about the world. It was taught that, because the world is constantly subject to change — nothing remains stable — that was a sign of its inferiority to the world of the spirit. Although God never changes, human experience is both short and unstable.     

The personification of death

Death as a skeletonDeath was often envisaged as a sinister figure or a skeleton, appearing in front of people when they least expected it, claiming them and carrying them off. Sometimes he was represented with a spear. What mattered in such representations was that those encountering death were not ready. Any soul unprepared for death, dying with its burden of sins, would be in danger of eternal damnation.

A positive view of death

Far from being simply morbid, the use of death in medieval art and literature tends to be remarkably robust. It is based on the premise that this world is ultimately worthless and the important thing is the soul and its journey to heaven. The themes of mutability— ‘changeability' —and transience—‘passing away' are favourite ones in advice about the best ways to approach human life. Nothing material will last; the important things are moral and spiritual values, which are eternally significant. In this light, death is a welcome gateway ushering believers into a 'real', penchant life with God.

Advice on how to live with death

There arose a whole body of art and literature designed to teach people to focus on the right values (according to Christian teaching). Images were used to warn that people absorbed in materialism were stupid. They failed to be aware of the reality of death and mutability and were blinded by purely worldly goals.

There were two key phrases which summed up the message: ‘Think about your soul and the next life, not you body and the pleasures of this world':

  • ‘The art of dying' (in Latin Ars Moriendi): how to train yourself, while alive, to do the right kind of things, and live the correct kind of life, to have a hope of heaven
  • ‘Remember you must die' (Latin: Memento mori): how to maintain constantly a sensible and devout awareness that the things of this life don't last and are not, therefore, really what is important.

Examples of common devices presenting this teaching include:

  • People enjoying a luxurious lifestyle (e.g. kings enjoying a hunt) are suddenly brought face-to-face with three dead men who warn them, ‘As we are now, so you will be'. They prompt the living to repent of their sins and concentrate in future on the state of their souls, rather than on the pleasure of their bodies
  • Graphic portraits of how death and decay bring low all the pomp and pleasures of this world
  • A skeleton figure, personifying Death, demonstrates ‘his' complete rule over - and mockery of - people's lives in this world (e.g. Death snatches people away from their daily lives, jobs or pleasures). 

The idea was to shock the onlooker into accepting that the fate of the soul is far more important than any aspect of life in this world. 

Death and humour

Modern Western culture tends to hide from the facts of death and mutability. Youth, health and the beautiful body are celebrated. Focus on death is regarded as morbid, rather than affecting most people's attitudes and values.

It was different in Chaucer's day:

  • Medieval culture was robust about many aspects of life that modern society is more evasive or sensitive about
  • The confidence that there was life beyond death made death itself less of a final or fearful event to contemplate
  • Medieval literature about death often has an element of humour and wit. To perceive that this world is — ultimately — less important than the next world leads to a contempt for the cares and desires that occupy people so much while on earth
  • Medieval moral teaching often tended to make sin and sinful people look stupid as well as evil or harmful. Worldliness too is often presented as an absurd thing to care about. Thus, a somewhat mocking, witty, style is common in writings whose aim is to turn people away from being absorbed in materialist, worldly, concerns.
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