Death and the Afterlife in the Middle Ages – A CeSMA Day School

“Pale Death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.” – Horace (65–8 BCE)

It is the universality of death – the great leveller – that makes it fascinating to the living. As an inescapable human experience, it also represents a compelling theme through which to explore diverse cultures across time and space. This is no less true for the study of the medieval world. On 31 October 2015, the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at the University of Birmingham hosted a day school entitled, ‘Death and the Afterlife in the Middle Ages.’ Around fifty members of the public attended to hear four of the Centre’s academics, and one postgraduate, speak on themes relating to medieval European understandings of mortality and immortality.

Given the theme for the day, and the not entirely unintentional date chosen for it, the lectures spanned a suitably ghoulish range of topics. Dr Philippa Semper, lecturer in the Department of English Literature, opened proceedings with a dicussion of the language of immortality in Old English texts in which, we learnt, death was commonly expressed as departure. Philippa’s talk, entitled ‘Not Like the Living: The Language of Anglo-Saxon Immortality’, explored the significance of the term undeadlic (i.e. not in the form of the dead), which was chosen over liflic (i.e. in the form of the living) in the corpus to identify those who – like the walking dead – had departed from mortality yet retained an analogous state. Philippa linked this to a need for terminology distinct to these folkloric forms of life after death and distinguishable from the Catholic vocabulary of immortality.

CeSMA Day School 1.jpg Dr Chris Callow, lecturer in Medieval History, then introduced some of the most famous of the grisly revenants which stalk the pages of the Icelandic sagas in his talk, ‘Zombies versus Historians: The Case of Medieval Iceland’. Chris explained how medieval historians have sought to understand these stories of the undead, and the sorts of challenges that they might pose. Tales of heroes like Grettir the Strong, or the villainous Thorolf Lame-foot, test modern historians’ assumptions about whether the seemingly remote population of medieval Iceland shared ideas about the supernatural which were prevalent in parts of western Europe. Certainly, both Chris’s Icelandic and Philippa’s Anglo-Saxon sources contain versions of a walking dead (though it is perhaps safe to conclude that the Icelandic sources have the monopoly on ghostly seal heads emerging out of fireplaces).

The focus then moved from the hearth of a medieval Icelandic home to the walls of Antioch during the First Crusade, where – according to one contemporary source – a deserter saw a vision of his deceased brother mysteriously floating before him as he shinned down a rope. The deserting crusader was chastised, and returned to the besieged city. My talk, ‘Spectres in the Sources: Ghosts on the First Crusade’, introduced the audience to instances taken from the Latin narratives of the First Crusade which discuss the dead as appearing to the living. Encounters between the living and the dead in these texts show that the dead – as privileged witnesses to the hereafter – might continue to have a vested interest in the spiritual wellbeing of the living. These were not ghosts as we might understand them now; instead of haunting and tormenting, they advised and chastised the living. Looking at ‘ghosts’ in these particular sources also provide an – albeit frosted – window onto western European concepts of martyrdom and the development of the concept of Purgatory.

CeSMA Day School 2.jpg From considering textual portrayals of the afterlife to reassessing the reality of the most devastating epidemic in European history; the fourth talk of the day was ‘“That Great Mortality”: The Black Death in England’. Dr Miriam Müller, lecturer in Medieval History, argued that the current estimates for the percentage mortality rate for the Black Death are in fact conservative, and that we should look towards the higher estimates for an accurate understanding of that plague’s impact upon mid-fourteenth-century England. Miriam’s introduction to the topic included a consideration of how the plague reached English shores. More than one south-western port town claims the dubious honour of being the landing point of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis, the bacterium which causes bubonic plague, is thought to have been carried by flea-infected rats on board ships), and indeed it is entirely possible that the lethal bacterium was carried ashore at several locations during the summer of 1348. Miriam’s talk brought home the devastating impact that the Black Death would have had at all levels of society. You can stay up to date with Miriam’s research into English rural daily life in the Late Middle Ages by reading her blog, Medieval Rural Communities.

Fittingly, the final theme of the day was the material commemoration of the dead; the ‘cult of memory’ and the ‘cult of family’ in the parish churches of medieval England. The fifth speaker was Dr John Hunt, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History, whose talk was entitled ‘Family and Soul: Memorial, Commemoration and the English Parish Church’. John introduced us to the various ways that a knightly family might choose to memorialise their dead, or the provisions that an individual might put in place for their own body (and soul) after death. The argument was made that memorialisation within parish churches played an important role in the relationship between these churches and the local lords who chose to be buried inside them. Through several case studies, John also traced the various forms of memorial design and architecture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, from knightly recumbent effigies – such as those of Henry de Hanbury in St Werburgh’s Church at Hanbury (Staffordshire) and the Marmion tombs at West Tanfield in Yorkshire – to intricately designed brasses and slabs.

CeSMA’s ‘Death and the Afterlife’ Day School was a thoroughly enjoyable entrée into how certain medieval cultures commemorated life, understood death, and percieved the hereafter (and, equally important, how we might go about studying these). On behalf of all the speakers, I would like to thank the organisers at CeSMA for putting the event together, and for all those who attended, contributed to discussion, and made the day so enjoyable.

Beth Spacey, PhD Candidate in the Department of History, University of Birmingham


Stay up to date with the details of upcoming CeSMA events, including a second day school later in 2016, via the CeSMA Blog. 

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