Abstracts 2014



Sophie Bostock, Orientalist Museum, Doha:  The Visual Culture of Death – an Oriental Perspective


From 1588 to 1589 Bartholomäus Schachman (1559-1614), Mayor of Danzig (Gdańsk) journeyed through the Ottoman Empire. His itinerary took him to Istanbul, Jerusalem, Cairo, Ragusa, Curzola as well as the islands of Crete, Rhodes and Chios.  In common with other travellers who visited the Eastern Mediterranean at that time, Schachman commissioned artists to make visual records, in the form of an album of watercolors, of the various aspects of life and culture that he encountered during his adventures. This volume, which now forms part of the collection at the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar, is a remarkable eyewitness account of the people, costumes, quotidian scenes, festivals, and rituals that constituted part of life in sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire.  Among other things, Schachman witnessed various funeral ceremonies and there are five intriguing images that can be understood in relation to the visual culture of death in the Oriental tradition at this time:  1. A Turkish burial, 2. The funeral of a Turkish king; 3. A Jewish burial in Turkey; 4. Christians lamenting their dead, and, 5. Christian ceremonies at the Holy Sepulchre the evening before Easter. This imagery can be explored within its historical, social, cultural and iconographic context illuminating important topics for discussion such as the interaction between Jews, Christians, and Moslems in the Early Modern Period and the funeral ceremony as a gendered space. There will also be an opportunity to compare key cognate works, for example, the Tűrkisches Manierenbuch ca. 1590 at Kassel University Library as well as a watercolor travel album executed during the same period at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.


Cyril L. Caspar (University of Zurich), “New Perspectives of the Early Modern Afterlife: The Last Pilgrimage in the Poetry of John Donne and Sir Walter Raleigh

Apart from the many conceptions of death as rather gruesome, punitive, and annihilating, the early modern period also knew more joyful ones. One of these is related to the trope of the pilgrimage conceived as a journey through life to a heavenly destination. My Ph.D. project posits that the conceit of the last pilgrimage, the final phase of such a metaphorical journey, is capable of generating semantic innovations that profess to transcend this-worldly life and unfold different literary versions of the time to come. The aim of this paper is to approach two very different poems by John Donne and Sir Walter Raleigh, in which this same metaphor of the last pilgrimage is at work, and to examine its potential of opening up new and different perspectives of the early modern afterlife.
    Before turning to the two poems, a cursory overview of some devotional manuals by Erasmus, Thomas Becon, and others will be necessary to understand how early modern divines used the metaphor of the last pilgrimage pastorally to palliate the pangs of death and to evoke a sense of equanimity. In my analysis of one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, I will present a poetical speaker on the threshold of his last journey, trembling at the impending disintegration of his body and soul. While the majority of this poem consists of the ruminations of the moribund pilgrim, I will argue that it eventually suggests a new and uncorrupted unity of a heavenly body and soul, a new heavenly self, that is encapsulated in Donne’s simple use of the first personal pronoun in both this poem and in one of his many sermons. A second literary instance of the last pilgrimage will be used to illustrate that this metaphor can also take a different route: in “The Passionate mans Pilgrimage,” a 58-line poem often attributed to Raleigh, the imminent decapitation of a convict (perhaps Raleigh himself) poses a violent threat to his bodily integrity. While he foresees the sanguinary fate of his body on the scaffold, he envisions his soul taking the last pilgrimage to a final heavenly tribunal that is devoid of earthly corruption. Thus, while Donne’s poem invites the reader into a dying person’s most inner thoughts via the last pilgrimage, the poem attributed to Raleigh uses the trope for a political cause, namely, to denounce those earthly authorities that are responsible for the speaker’s death sentence.


Albrecht Classen (University of Arizona, Tucson): Des Teufels Netz: A Late Medieval German Reflection on the All-Encompassing Power of the Devil

Strangely, while Boccaccio created with his Decameron (ca. 1350) the definitive literary reflection on the Black Death, we find hardly any other fictional text with similar concerns. At the same time, the interest in the devil and death increased tremendously. Devil literature proliferated to an unforeseen extent, such as in the case of Des Teufels Netz (early fifteenth century), which has so far attracted surprisingly little interest. While the anonymous author does not explicitly examine the epidemic consequences of the Black Death, which certainly extended to the fifteenth century, he has his protagonist, the Devil, review all the human shortcomings and outlines, in a way, a Dance of Death, dragging all people with him to hell. Many other contemporary authors elaborated in great detail on the many different social classes and their failings in moral and ethical terms. Des Teufels Netz will serve as the central platform to examine this topic at greater length.


Allison P. Coudert (University of California, Davis): “Changing Attitudes Toward Pain and Suffering in Early Modern Thought”

Today we speak of the “painful” truth without realizing that this innocuous phrase has deep roots in positive attitudes about pain and suffering embedded in European thought. For Christians pain and suffering were essential aspects of human life as a consequence of sin, and the central image in Christianity is the crucified Christ, whose imitation would led to redemption. Painful ascetic practices destroyed the selfish ego to allow room for God. Pain was also thought to destroy the rebellious will that hindered truth-telling, an idea providing a rationale for judicial torture. During the early modern period these assumptions came into question as the meaning of pain, truth, and the body were reconceptualized. Truth was no longer seen a static property lodged in the body but as a construct forged in the mind and will. Instead of revealing the truth, pain concealed it. But most importantly, many people began to doubt that pain had any moral or spiritual significance. The reasons for this profound shift in attitudes towards pain and suffering is the subject of this investigation.

Rosemarie Danziger (Tel Aviv University: Palimpsest in the Service of the Cult of the Saints – The False Arch in the Nave’s Vault of the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe

The faux doubleau – the painted arch decorated with busts of saints – placed across the barrel vault of the Saint-Savin nave, ca. one third-way along its length (viewed from west to east), has intrigued researchers as to why it was painted there and what it means as to the cult of the dead saints. Previous studies (especially that by Jérôme Baschet, who studied the ornamentation of the church), have given different explanations for its placement in this particular architectural location and its possible liturgical function. However, in the iconographic context – the spread and division of the biblical scenes from Genesis and Exodus – this placement remains a mystery. It is especially enigmatic considering that the Saint-Savin edifice – clearly an engineering bravura – presents a rare case of a continuous barrel vault (32m long), uninterrupted by the supporting arches typical for contemporary churches in the region of Poitou. Hence, the question remains, why was the vault truncated by a “foreign element,” visually disturbing the architectural continuity and cutting through the iconographic program?
My conjecture is that the faux doubleau might have been added across the vault in order to conceal a mistake in one of the epigraphy bands running beneath each of the four registers featuring the biblical scenes. The inscription band stretched beneath the northern upper register, before the painted arch, to its west – and its continuation east of the arch, are conspicuously misaligned, missing one another by at least 10cm. The chosen ornamentation on the added painted arch – medallions with busts of saints – is nonetheless of special interest within the context of the general decorative program of the entire edifice. The study of this program starts with the narthex, where a prominent panel is inserted amid scenes from the Apocalypse, showing Maria Ecclesia, surrounded by saints and representatives of Regnum et Sacerdotium, pointing with a finger to the palm of her hand as if showing her stigmata – signaling passion and “martyrdom.” Next is the tribune immediately above the narthex in the west, featuring the Passion of Christ, the martyrdom of St. Denis, and a rich gallery of saints. Following is the axial apsidiole at the other end of the nave, beyond the sanctuary and the ambulatory, presenting icons of martyrs and confessors and some vestiges of martyrdom scenes. The key to the overarching theme of martyrdom is found in the crypt, where the martyrdom of the titular St. Savin and his brother St. Cyprien is told in pictorial details, and where the motto, inscribed around the Maiestas Domini, promises a reward for the martyrs. All these clearly reveal the church to be a shrine dedicated to the cult of the saints. This may explain the choice to depict the busts of the saints on the added arch amid the biblical scenes, thus presenting this palimpsest in a way that is consistent with the unifying idea of the Saint-Savin Abbey Church as a shrine to the saints. It should be noted, however, that in some monuments in the region of Poitou and elsewhere, both contemporary and from earlier periods, the intrados of the triumphal arch delimiting the sanctuary is decorated with medallions of saints, as in the case of the intrados fresco at the baptistery of Saint-Jean at Poitiers, contemporary with those of Saint-Savin, and in the case of the intrados mosaics at St. Vitale in Ravenna from the sixth century.
    Recent research of the lacunae in the arch using relevés )copies of phantom lines and analysis of pigments(, enhanced by computer generated imagery carried out at the CESCM lab, University of Poitiers, has revealed the haloes of the busts, thus corroborating my iconographic observation. The assumption regarding the faux doubleau as a palimpsest awaits either confirmation or refutation by means of the archeological-stratigraphic data which is currently being evaluated at the CESCM lab. One should bear in mind the complexity of the faux doubleau, which constitutes a junction between the median ornamental band in the apex of the vault and the inscription bands. To validate the posited assumption, moreover, the extent of interval regularity between the biblical scenes must be examined, in order to understand how the faux doubleau could have been inserted into the existing iconographic program.

Kim Eherenman (University of San Diego): The Heart of the Matter: Ritual Human Sacrifice in the Florentine Codex

Although the exact number is controversial, it is estimated that some 20,000 to 250,000 people were sacrificed to the gods each year during the height of the Mexica Empire, which flourished in the Valley of Mexico between 1325 and 1521. These sacrifices involved captives, slaves, women and children. According to the Florentine Codex, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s twelve-volume encyclopedic work on Nahua culture, sacrifices were held during each of the eighteen months of the xiuhpohualli, or ritual calendar. Human sacrifice was known, among other names, as neteotoquiliztli, that is, “the desire to be known as a god.” The people chosen for this honor took on the manners and dress of the god or goddess their death was supposed to appease during the monthly rituals. The celebrating crowd would witness heads cut off, skins flayed, bodies dismembered and hearts extracted. Those sacrificed were subsequently flung from the heights, burned and even drowned. When the Spaniards arrived on the scene, they were horrified. The Mexicas had taken ritual sacrifice to an unprecedented scale. My presentation, “The Heart of the Matter: Ritual Human Sacrifice in the Florentine Codex,” examines this clash of ideologies expressed as only Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his Indian informants could record it in the second book of the Florentine Codex series entitled “The Ceremonies.”

Mary Louise Fellows, Everett Fraser Professor of Law, Emerita (University of Minnesota Law School): Death and Ritual: The Role of Wills in Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon wills−a set of sixty-four vernacular documents dating from the mid-ninth century through the eleventh century−reveal Anglo-Saxons’ preoccupation with death and the means by which they tried to control it. The written documents were accompanied by public declarations of testamentary intent to gatherings that included the laity, ecclesiastics, royalty, aristocrats, and others of less obvious social standing, suggesting how the expectation of death was woven into a community’s rhythms and memory. Recourse to a written record of the will also suggests how the expectation of a testator’s death would have brought differently configured communities together. The physical document allowed for broader publication and had the potential to extend into future generations the memory of a testator and the ritual of will-making itself. The publication of the wills also meant that death, even before it occurred, played a role in social relations. Testators would have been intently cognizant of how their wills might affect or reinforce, either positively or negatively, their relationships with kin and religious foundations, as well as their own standing and the standing of their beneficiaries in the community. Yet another aspect of Anglo-Saxons’ fascination with death emerges from requests for intercession on behalf of testators and their families through the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly singing of masses, psalms, and prayers by religious foundations. As priests, monks, nuns, and other officiates prayed for each individual’s soul by name, death served to generate and nourish community. Their effect on the testator’s community during the testator’s life and generations later means that the wills had the power to provide the testator a terrestrial and also a celestial afterlife. What appears to be a curious artifact of uncertain legal and economic significance proves to be revelatory of the substantial ritualistic role that death played in the lives of Anglo-Saxons.

Nurit Golan (Tel Aviv University): Scientific Imagery as a Funerary Art

The northern portal of the Gothic choir of “Unserer Lieben Frau” (Our Beloved Lady), 1354-1370s, in the Parish Church of Freiburg i.Br., displays double tympana: the inner one features the Crucifixion and the outer one a Creation Cycle, accentuating the Creation of the Cosmos. This was an infrequent topic in monumental sculptures during the Middle-Ages. From its foundation in 1146, the church had been surrounded by the towns’ graveyard, which grew extensively during the second half of the 14th century. The corner stone of the choir was laid in 1354, just six years after the first and worst outbreak of the plague.  Near the north portal of the choir was the Andreas Chapel, in which the sacraments for the deceased were held.
In this paper I will address the unique imagery of this Creation of the Cosmos, which displays an acquaintance with the contemporaneous new and contested cosmological theories, which were rarely represented in public art. Unlike earlier research that claimed that this portal was seen only by clerics, I argue, relying on archeological studies and chronicles, that this imagery could also have been seen by the towns’ burghers while using the services of the chapel. It is probable that the portal was even commissioned by the town’s municipality (Rat), as had been the choir itself.  
I maintain that in its display of secular scientific imagery, indicating secular scientific literacy, the north portal becomes even more intriguing because of its time and place. For, while featuring the Creator as the God of the Beginning and the End, the beginning, nevertheless, is not that of the Bible, neither that of Genesis nor that of John, but that of Aristotle. Together with the inner tympanum, featuring God’s sacrifice for mankind, this portal calls for a new interpretation, addressing the question of what kind of consolation was there for the mourners in this novel imagery.

Václav Grubhoffer (University of South Bohemia, České Budějovice Czech Republic): Fear of Apparent Death in Eighteenth-Century Europe

In the history of medicalization of death, the so-called apparent death played a prominent role. It dominated the medical discourse around the time of the middle of the eighteenth century. The following controversy, illustrating different opinions within the intellectual circles of the Enlightenment era regarding the time and spatial dimension of death as well as the idea of premature burials, led to reforms of funeral services as well as to practical arrangements. According to Philippe Ariès, doctors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumed that a dead body or a mummy showed certain signs of life but they believed that death and life were two incompatible states. The opinion of their successors in the eighteenth century was just the opposite; that death and life could coexist, i.e., that the apparently dead could rise once again. The miracles of the dead (De miraculis mortuorum, 1670) by Christian Friedrich Garmann were, in medical literature several decades later, replaced by the apparently dead. Both phenomena caused similarly existential confusion, and from the 1740s on, this uncertainty even intensified being supported by rational arguments of the nascent scientific medical research, which presented its findings on apparent death to the educated public. This paper will focus on changing medical attitudes toward death and dying in early eighteenth-century Europe and the concept of apparent death as a cultural and culture-creating phenomenon.

Faith S. Harden (University of Arizona): Writing Against Death: Autohagiography and Jerónimo de Pasamonte’s Vida y trabajos (1605)

In the first part of Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote encounters the prisoner Ginés de Pasamonte, who proudly claims to be currently engaged in writing the story of his life. When Don Quixote inquires if the manuscript is near completion, Pasamonte’s bemused response points to a fundamental irony of the autobiographical act: “How can it be finished . . . when my life is not yet finished?” (Book I, Chapter XXII). As usual, Cervantes anticipates the insights of latter-day literary theory, with the recognition of the artificial perspective assumed by the autobiographer, who necessarily draws the contours of his life in imitation of a fixed narrative. In the case of biography, the pre-determined point of perspective is often the subject’s death; lacking such a perspective, Cervantes’s Pasamonte imagines an ideal (and impossible) autobiography coterminous with his own existence. Though several scholars have argued that the fictional Ginés de Pasamonte was modeled on the former soldier and captive Jerónimo de Pasamonte, such an identification has yet to be conclusively established. Nevertheless, where Ginés appears to be blithely unconcerned with the structural relationship between a retrospective self-narrative and his future death, Jerónimo de Pasamonte’s Vida y trabajos (completed in 1605) is propelled by the author’s awareness of his own imminent (and most likely ignoble) demise. Beginning with an account of the demonic depredations he endured as a child, through the eighteen years he spent as a soldier captured by Ottoman Turks, and concluding with a meticulous report of alleged poisonings and bewitchings suffered at the hands of his neighbors, Pasamonte’s Vida is haunted by near-death experiences and driven by the fear that the author – who, in addition to being gravely ill, also stands accused of heresy and sexual sin – will die without having been able to defend his reputation. While the document is neither an Inquisitional testimony nor a soldier’s memorial (an official account of military service), Pasamonte’s Vida bears the imprint of both genres, and shows striking similarities to accounts of saints’ lives. Reading the Vida in this light shows Pasamonte preemptively portraying his death as martyrdom, forecasting this future event as the point of perspective that will organize his life story along the lines of hagiography.  In attending to the multiple resonances of the textual models marshaled in Pasamonte’s self-defense, this paper explores early modern notions of death and its relation to writing and subjectivity.

John M. Hill (U.S. Naval Academy): Heroic Deaths in Old English Literature

Whether eventually burned or dying in prayer, the fighting hero has remarkable self-possession and singular honor in a culture that valued such qualities preeminently. We have often misunderstood Beowulf’s decision to fight the dragon alone and also Byrhtnoth’s bold move in front of the battle line. Both strike many readers today as instances of excessive pride or even hubris. By censuring those moves we misunderstand them. They are rooted in a psychology of personal luck, in tasks that are the hero’s own, by which he would test his fate and, if possible, keep his retainers out of harm’s way. In Byrhtnoth’s case the move has transcendent implications, making him a secular saint whom his good retainers follow in the either/or of revenge or martyrdom, whatever their professed, warband motivations.

Jean Jost (Bradley University, Peoria, IL): The Effects of the Black Death: Indications of the Plague in Fourteenth-Century Art and Literature

The Dies Irae . . . La Dans Macabre . . . the Ars Moriendi all penetrate fourteenth-century European culture. The significance of the Black Death, inspiring art and culture positively and negatively, cannot be too highly estimated. Church and art historians such as Emile Male, cultural and literary historians such as Norman Cantor, Carolyn Bynum Walker and Paul Freedman, economists such as Fernand Braudel, demographers and infectious diseases specialists such as Graham Twigg, and general historians depict the past pandemic of a culture turned morbid. Scholars can now consider what happened and how the populace responded. Many fine studies have acknowledged various ramifications of this catastrophic Black Death throughout Europe after 1350. John Henderson has written about Florence, Milton Meiss about art in Florence and Siena, Ormrod and Lindley about England, Samuel Cohn about Italy, Graham Caie about opposing cultures in England, Bowsky about Siena, and others about Europe in general. However, the numerous cultural and artistic consequences of such extensive devastation have not been fully compared and categorized. This task I look forward to pursuing.
Preceding famines may have diminished the English population of six million (see Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague; Hatcher’s Plague , Population, and The English Economy; Hilton’s Bondmen Made Free; and Binski’s Medieval Death), but the Black Death utterly crushed the citizenry. During their long struggle back, victims found multiple methods of coping with the shocking loss of family, friends, and neighbors. Their communities had dissolved before their eyes. As Gordon Home notes, “After ten years, a third of the walled area [of London] was void of inhabitants. The main effect of this fearful visitation was to dislocate the economic structure of the kingdom. Labour became scarce, and the working man’s services were so valuable that he could extract higher wages. . . . Further, there was a tendency to migrate from one place to another”(135). The lasting impression such deadly chaos imprinted upon their minds triggered a vast emotional and cultural change. Now the new norm reached a highly emotional pitch–in religion, art, music, and literature.
    The self-flagellation and affective piety movements revealed new instances of the sorrows carved from Christ’s agony, his Mother’s passion, and martyrs’ suffering. A confluence of art burgeoned forth in which people’s fears and anxieties were manifested. Across the continent, painters, sculptors, engravers, and wood-cutters found themselves recreating that very death they so abhorred. The Golden Age of the Book of Hours, occurring from 1350 to 1480, evinces this death-obsession. For example, Jean, Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures, folios 142-57, well depicts this suffering, as do French Gothic Illuminators. Painters such as Albertus Pictus (Taby Kryka), Rogier van der Weyden (Descent from the Cross [1435-40]) and Hans Balding Grien (The Three Ages of Man and Death [1539]). The frescoed cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris (1424) graphically realizes death. Hans Holbein the Younger, Bernd Notke in Lübeck and Konrad Witz further the obsession. Writers such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, Langland, and Chaucer soon joined the band of death-obsessed survivors, producing a fanatical, but also amazing, flowering of the many testimonies to death’s power. These wide-ranging backgrounds need further investigation and connection to each other.
Gruesome as the Black Death may be, it yet holds a certain fascination for modern scholars, historians, and particularly young people for whom the ordinary world of art and culture may not be compelling. The more seductive skeletons, ghostly manifestations, and other-worldly visions may well be an entry point to captivate students. Currently, no in-depth exploration of the nature and effects of the plague from varied perspectives is included in curricula of existing programs. Biology students will find the conflicting views of the nature of the disease particularly interesting. General Education programs, civilization courses, history of art programs, languishing from lack of student interest, may benefit from this connection between medieval suffering and artistic creation still vibrant today. Professors learning of the many cultural results of the bubonic plague may carry these outcomes to classrooms with vigor. My plan is to incorporate this theme into two classes: a unit in an upper-level general education writing course focusing on the early history of humanity; and a unit in the upper level Survey of Middle English Literature exploring social and cultural history of England and Europe. I believe the fascinating nature of the topic and the many angles from which it can be approached will captivate students.

Sharon D. King (UCLA): “Je viens…/ d’estrange contrée”: Medieval French Comedy Envisions the Afterlife

Mitigating the harshness of death by a belief in life beyond the grave was a hallmark of medieval and early modern Western culture. Representations of the afterlife in the theatre of the late Middle Ages often focus on serious scenes of supernatural resurrection or infernal torment. Yet just as death is a human constant, so is comedy, and a comic grappling with human transcience. This paper will address how the farces and sotties of France of the late Middle Ages and early modern period portray death and what lies beyond it. I will briefly review how the extant plays comically depict the outward trappings of mortality—deathbed histrionics, eleventh-hour confessions, the making and reading of wills, ghostly apparitions. I will examine in more detail several plays (Martin de Cambrai, La resurrection Jenin à Paulme, Cautelleux, Barat et le Vilain, Janot dans le sac, Les trois galants et un badin, La resurrection Jenin Landore, La sottie des Béguins) in which characters claim (or are reputed) to come back from the dead, or have visions of heaven, purgatory, and/or hell. Accounts of the afterlife given by resurrected or restored survivors vary; some are wondrously imaginative, some sketchy on details—but all give humorous testimony of heavenly evidence that is decidedly to earthly advantage.

Daniel F. Pigg (The University of Tennessee at Martin): Mass, Death, and Plague in Chaucer’s Pardoner: A Critique of Medieval Eucharistic Practices

That the mock mass in the Pardoner’s Tale is a mass of death has been noted by a number of scholars of the tale, who observe the quite obvious Eucharistic and crucifixion imagery.  Paul Strohm has noted the text’s handling of ideas about the Eucharist and masses said in memory of the departed that would have been current debate in Wycliffite circles; he terms it part of Chaucer’s “Lollard Joke.”  Other historicist readings have provided wider contexts for understanding this tale.  The present attempt examines the actions of the three rioters in a new context that the tale attempts to subvert as it mimics the action of the mass.  At the same time, this paper raises some basic questions about medieval studies’ fascination with cultural and folklore studies as a means of opening texts. 

Of the tales in the Canterbury project, the Pardoner’s Tale is the only one set at the time of the Black Death or perhaps more generalized plague, and the symbolic manifestations of this major social and economic disaster in history serve as a major backdrop in the tale.  What has not been observed thus far in studies of the tale are the connections between masses said for the dead and the mock mass of the tale.  For the most part, studies have read from the text outward to find social manifestations that would make the tale make sense.  Thus the literary text is seen as a reflector of external realities.  This paper proposes to read from the outside cultural texts inward toward Chaucer’s tale.  Such an analysis should not be understood as reading in, but as an examination of the contours that might help to shape such a text.  Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors shows how diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis from the nineteenth century on have structured social space, not only in the treatment of illnesses arising from these diseases but also in terms of notions of the effects of tuberculosis, for example, on the creative mode for interpreting and representing life and aesthetics.  The same might well be said of the Black Death in 1348-49 throughout England and Western Europe.  Institutional practices, almost overnight sprung up or intensified, to address the issues associated with death and calamity, whether in sermon or proclamation. 

With somewhere between one third and one half of the population across England and Western Europe without respect to age, gender, or class distinction dying, such an element was bound to restructure social space.  Such an impact can be seen in texts such as Boccaccio’s Decameron and in the increasingly gruesome artistic depictions of Christ’s crucifixion after the plague.  This paper asserts that the plague’s structuring of social space can be particularly well observed in religious practices.  Read along cultural lines, the mock mass of the Pardoner’s Tale assumes even greater relevance in light of late medieval celebrations of Corpus Christi or the mass in general as it also attempts to structure social space in the text. 

By Chaucer’s day the connection between the mass and death was already well established in the minds of noble and middle-class people, who were setting the number of masses to be said for the departed souls of their family members in their wills. Priests were increasingly becoming involved in these private celebrations of masses for the dead, often in London and larger urban areas, instead of rural parishes that had shrunk in size as a result of the Black Death.  It seems likely there were more masses said for the dead than the living! Certainly, Chaucer in the Pardoner’s Tale is not ridiculing a late medieval practice of piety, but he may well have in mind that celebrations of the mass were culturally blurry at best.  That death is inscribed at deep levels in the tale suggests further re-appropriation of the cultural practice.  To put it in a metaphorical way, just as Chaucer’s Pardoner carries fake relics which are parodic and denatured emblems of genuine relics, he tells a tale where a mock mass is celebrated in a way that provides a parodic critique of typical religiosity.  The Pardoner imaginatively asks us to enter his own world of blurred institutionalism—where life and death merge in intriguing ways.  Seen in this way, Chaucer’s Pardoner undermines even more institutional forms with his satirically seductive elements. He represents the cultural appropriations of what Derrida would call “giving the gift of death.”


Maria Cecilia Ruiz (University of San Diego), “Sancho IV’s Death in Juan Manuel’s Libro de las armas (1282-1348)

Sancho IV (1284-1295), Juan Manuel’s cousin, died in 1295, having reigned with controversy as king of Castilla for eleven years.  Juan Manuel dedicates a third part of his triptych-like narrative, Libro de las armas (o Libro de las trez razones) to recalling the conversation he had with the king on his death bed, when he himself was twelve years old.  In my paper I will emphasize three aspects of the remembered/recreated death bed scene: 1) the love, male bonding and mourning that Juan Manuel expresses; 2) the actual description of a death bed scene of a king (bedroom, illness, doctors, and rituals); 3) the picture that the dying king’s death bed scene paints of Catholic faith and fear of dying and the afterlife; 4) the purposeful manipulation of the memory of the king’s words on Juan Manuel’s part in order to fit his own political agenda.  

Connie L. Scarborough, Texas Tech University: Finding Humor in Death: Libro de buen amor and Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea

Whether by violent means, illness, accident, or the dissipation of old age, the finality of death is rarely seen as a comic event.  But literature is art, not life and, indeed, death, descriptions of the dead, and characters’ reactions to the dead can be presented with humor.  In medieval and early modern Europe, death was a central preoccupation of Christianity and a weighty spiritual matter which brought with it the last judgment of the soul and the fate of eternal damnation or salvation.  The comic was one way to offset the finality and fear of death.  As Conrad Hyers observes, humor “is analogous to the double-response of fear (repulsion) and fascination (attraction) evoked by the awesomeness and mysteriousness of the sacred….” Medieval and early modern authors expressed both the fear and fascination with death that their contemporary audiences would have experienced and, by treating death with humor, they mitigated (at least for a time) both these overwhelming emotions.  This paper will deal with a text from the fourteenth century (Libro de buen amor) and an early sixteenth century one (Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea) to show how the respective authors inject humor into scenes of death.  In the first text, Juan Ruiz presents a parody of the planctus when the Archpriest (a thinly veiled pseudo-identity of the author himself) laments, in grandiose terms, the passing of the aging prostitute who had worked for him as a procuress.  Juan Ruiz not only likens her passing and eternal rewards to those of a saint but paints a burlesque notion of the greed that overcomes the survivors of the deceased. In the Tragicomedia, Fernando de Rojas mocks the deaths of both upper class and lower class characters alike.  He stresses the explicit, physical descriptions of the dismembered bodies, wresting from them any sense of the reader’s sympathy. All die as a result of greed or lust and Rojas’s reinforces the ludicrous nature of the deaths by clothing them in language which is wholly inappropriate, and thus, funny. Take for example, the implausible exclamation of Melibea’s father to his daughter’s suicide: “nuestro gozo en el pozo” (“our joy went down the drain”).  The humor connected to dying in these works provides a momentary respite from the overarching angst of death and give glimpses into some of the artistic mechanisms authors employed to mitigate this angst.

Werner Schäfke (University of Freiburg i. Br., Germany, and Katharina Baier (GEI, Braunschweig, Germany): The Multifarious Undead in Icelandic sagas: Literary Strategies of Dealing with Sudden Death, Suicide—and Evil Pagan Sorcerers

In medieval Icelandic literature, revenants appear in a number of the Sagas of the Icelanders as well as the more adventurous and fairy-tale like Fornaldarsögur. Saga episodes about revenants have been used as sources for the history of Germanic religion. More recently, however, those revenant episodes that are found in the sagas of the Icelanders are considered literary expressions of the medieval Icelanders’ world view (Hastrup 1985, 1981; Sayers 1996; Böldl 2005). These recent literary anthropological theories state that in medieval Icelanders’ world view, the cosmos was strictly divided into inside and outside opposites – just like the mythological Midgard and Utgard. This division is said to be found on religious, mythological, legal, architectural and agricultural levels of culture. The outside space is assumed to be peopled by revenants, giants, outlaws, and trolls that pose an anti-thesis to all that constitutes society. This paper argues that
(1)    the theory outlined above does in fact fit the revenant episodes found in the Fornaldarsögur as well as an individual episode in one of the sagas of the Icelanders that is by common scholarly opinion regarded as following Fornaldarsögur in style, while
(2)    the episodes in the sagas of the Icelanders have to be understood as more individual literary depictions of dealing with death and suicide.
At 1) The Fornaldarsögur have not yet been researched under the literary anthropological paradigm. However, revenants here tend to fulfill the same narrative function as trolls and giants do in this genre, and can thus be explained by the Midgard–Utgard theory developed for the sagas of the Icelanders.
At 2) The episodes about revenants in the sagas of the Icelanders cannot be subsumed under Midgard–Utgard model, since only a fraction of episodes featuring revenants deal with an intrusion of the chaotic outside. In the Sagas of the Icelanders, characters turn into revenants after
§    suffering ‘social death’ (Hasenfratz 2002), concluded by suicide or execution,
§    after suddenly dying from plagues (Kaiser 1998) or in accidents, and
§    after being executed as sorcerers.
Furthermore, the episodes in question show a range of interactions between the living and the undead that cannot easily be explained as a consistent ritualized strategy of dealing with restless dead. The key in understanding these episodes rather lies in understanding them as individual literary strategies of depicting society’s dealing with sudden death of family and household members or neighbors due to accidents, suicide or execution. Parallels will be shown to stylized suicide in a king’s saga, coping with the loss of a beloved one in chivalric sagas, and killing sorcerers in Viking sagas.
Dealing with revenants can thus rather be seen as an act of actively pursuing the transition of the deceased from the space of the living to the space of the dead, than defending the space of order from chaotic elements. The cultural model thus rather lends itself to be explained by an procedural model of translation (i.e. Lotman 2005) rather than a static model of boundaries as argued by Hastrup (1985, 1981) and Sayers (1996)

Scott L. Taylor (PCC, Tucson): “Pro Defunctis Exorare: The Community of the Living and the Dead in Jean Gerson’s  Sermones de Omnibus Sanctis and de  Mortuis”

In a prior article, “’L’aage plus fort ennaye’: Scientia mortis, Ars moriendi and Jean Gerson’s Advice to an Old Man,” I argued that contrary to Philippe Ariès, Paul Binski, and even Brian McGuire, at least Jean Gerson among late medieval clerics viewed dying not as a uniquely individual experience, but as a fundamentally communal preparation for the final embarkation of the Christian viator.  This paper, also dealing with the Scientia mortis and the Ars moriendi, but more particularly with Gerson’s sermon material, will examine the chancellor’s views not of dying, but of death itself:  what it is to die, the significance of death, the status of the dead, and why the living should pray for the departed and to what effect.  While Ariès and LeGoff both see the introduction of Purgatory in the twelfth century as largely reinforcing the individual character of late medieval death and the climatic aspect of the death bed, what emerges from Gerson’s opera is a view of dying somewhere between the lifelong preparation of the De spiritualibus ascenionibus of Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen and the popular late medieval Artes moriendi coupled with both an altruistic concern for the departed that Ariès asserts emerged only with the affectivity of eighteenth- and nineteenth century Romanticism and with renewal of the emphasis on the communion of the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering and the Church Militant which Ariès finds characteristic of the ancient Gallican Mass or the Mozarabic liturgy but which Ariès argues largely disappeared with the Roman mass.  The paper proceeds to argue that this conjunction of what some scholars would consider inconsistent and anachronistic elements is attributable to Gerson’s view of the primacy of Heaven rather than of Purgatory, a possibility which Le Goff himself conceded would alter the energizing and organizing force of the tripartite system as he had envisioned it, as well as to the chancellor’s insistence on the inviolate integrity of the Church and of the inviolable integrity of the individual personality.


David Tomíček (John Evangelista Purkyne University; Czech Republic): Death and Dying in Medieval Medical Literature

The theme of death is closely related to cultural history and especially to the medical/healing discourse or the tradition of a concrete epoch. Physicians usually do not write the works dedicated to death as such, they try to offer instructions how to put this inevitable reality off instead. Nevertheless, the theme of death and of the dying process is analyzed in their text. We can see it, for example, in case of prognostic treatises which described the signs of lethal sicknesses or even the coming death (so called Facies Hippocratica). Other examples of the medical perception of the decaying process and even of death are contemporary views on human physiology closely related to the microcosmos–macrocosmos theory.  According to this theory, the world is getting older and also the human body is changing in negative ways; hence death is coming closer and closer in every new generation. The theme of death is also presented in the treatises about the healthy regime and plague epidemics. This paper deals with the way how those medical authors of these medieval and also early modern medical texts perceived and dealt with death.

Patricia Turning (Albright College, Reading, PA), “And Thus She Will Perish:” Gender, Jurisdiction, and the Execution of Women in Late Medieval France

By the time of Henry VIII in England, decapitation served as a convenient way to rid the monarchy of troublesome women like second wife Anne Boleyn and staunch Catholic Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Although the women’s noble status shielded their execution from public eyes, they lost their heads like any seditious male counterpart. In the late Middle Ages, however, historians have insisted that gender played a prominent role in determining how judicial systems executed the most dangerous female criminals. Because authorities considered women the ‘weaker sex,’ they allocated only particular death sentences appropriate for feminine modesty. Medieval executions always had an element of theatricality – even though the punishment may not have occurred regularly, the painstaking processions to the gallows and blood-shed of the prisoner left a lasting impression upon spectators, leading them to recall the particularity and individuality of each case. With a single beheading or hanging, an administration could make a statement about its power, and its intolerance for particular crimes that could endure for decades. Overwhelmingly, French officials sentenced women convicted of capital offenses to be either buried alive with the victim, or to be burned at the stake to destroy her body completely, and (as some historians suggest) to prevent her from returning as an evil spirit. But around the same time that Joan of Arc met her fate at the stake in northern France, the southern city of Toulouse erupted in a controversy over which jurisdiction (local or royal) had the right to decapitate publically a woman named Clare de Portet, guilty of murdering her husband in 1428. Not only was this condemnation extremely rare, but the fact that the official pronouncement also included the stipulation that her head and body be left on display went against medieval attitudes toward the female body. My presentation seeks to contextualize the details of the case in the broader historical framework of France during the Hundred Years War. But perhaps more pertinent to the theme of the conference, the records provide an opportunity to consider how gender complicated both the performance of death sentences (especially decapitation) for medieval jurisdictions, and the reception of that execution by an urban audience.

Christina Welch (University of Winchester, UK): “Brief life is vain, such glory has this end”:  Exploring English Carved Cadaver Memorials, ca. 1425-1558


In this paper I will contextualize a sub-set of Northern European cadaver monuments of the latter late-medieval and early modern era, known as transi imagery. I will explore 37 English carved cadaver monuments (herein ECCMs) dating from between ca. 1425 to 1558; all bar one carved from a single piece of stone, all bar one memorialising high ranking clerics or male members of the wealthy land-owning classes, and all imaging a naked emaciated recently dead individual, often largely anatomically correct despite anatomisation being rare during this period of history. By examining contemporary vernacular theology, perceptions of purgatory, and understandings of the body post-mortem, my paper will support current scholarly writing that these cadaver memorials were pedagogical in nature, prompting prayers from the living to comfort the deceased in purgatory. However, I will controversially argue that ECCMs were also didactic providing a visual reminder to the living that purgatorial suffering was not just spiritual, but also physical during the stage that anthropologist Hertz has described as the ‘wet stage of death’; the stage before the corpse became fully skeletal.

By placing these memorials in their English context, I argue the effects of the Reformation on English death beliefs, and especially artistic interpretations of death become foregrounded, leading to discussions around vernacular belief in post-mortem sentience in lay and clerical individuals during the medieval and into the early-modern.


Thomas Willard (University of Arizona, Tucson): Some Representations of Mortality in Early English Drama

From the summons of Everyman to the warnings given Doctor Faustus and from the ghosts haunting Richard III to Hamlet’s graveyard meditation on the skull of a court jester, mortality is a regular presence in English drama of the late medieval and early modern periods. What begins as an allegorical figure becomes more nuanced over time, as the very human will to live asserts itself increasingly and Christian orthodoxy faces new challenges. Combining religious iconography and stage history, and referring to some English books on the ars moriendi, the paper will show how death confronts central characters and sometimes upstages them.



Queen Claude of France, daughter of Louis XII and the first wife of François Ier, died in 1524 at the age of twenty-four.  Although she was a frail woman with a hunched back who likely suffered from scoliosis, she had given birth to seven children in less than eight years— beginning with Princess Louise in 1515, when Claude was not yet sixteen, and ending with Margaret of France in 1523.  Little more than a year later, the queen herself would be dead , although not technically from childbirth in its narrowest sense, which the World Health Organization today defines as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within forty-two days of termination of pregnancy.” Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Claude’s numerous pregnancies, undertaken for the glory of France and the House of Valois’s patriarchal succession,  contributed to her early death. 

Indeed, the fact that Claude was not pregnant in the summer of 1524, when she succumbed to a brief illness and died, probably relates more to François’s absence for military matters than to concerns about her health and excessive childbearing: for notwithstanding his numerous mistresses, the king is reputed to have slept with his young queen every night when matters of state and war did not separate them.  In 1524, however, François was already deeply embroiled in his ill-fated Italian campaign, which would result in his defeat at Pavia (1525) and subsequent imprisonment in Spain until 1526.  During this interim, Claude’s embalmed body remained at Blois, where her posthumous contributions to French nationhood reputedly included miracles among the faithful who venerated her. Unlike Rabelais’s Gargantua, who opted to carouse at home and celebrate his son’s birth rather than attend his wife’s funeral, however, the King of France would eventually mourn his consort’s loss in a ceremonial procession, mass, and burial in early November, 1526, following his release from captivity—more than two years after she had died.  In death, more than in life, Claude became an icon of French motherhood.

In this paper, I propose to use the model of maternal mortality and sacrifice emblematized by Queen Claude as a springboard for examining the mother’s death in two slightly later literary texts:  that of Badebec, Gargantua’s wife, in Chapter 3 of Rabelais’s Pantagruel; and that of the new mother in nouvelle 23 of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron, whose rape by an impious Cordelier precipitates her own suicide, the deaths of her son and husband, the  indictment of her own brother for murder, and the collapse of her family. While examining the condition of women, and the incidence of and attitudes toward maternal mortality, in early modern France, I will also explore the ambivalent relationship between life and death in the icon of the dying mother, gendered responses to maternal mortality and motherhood in the above texts, and the figurative resonances of matriarchal death within the context of France’s patriarcal culture, patrilineal succession, and nation-building efforts.