The people of Europe believed that they were not only victims of famine and disease, they also believed that illness and death could occur due to malicious and supernatural causes. This was the idea that began the witch craze. When the Dominican Order monks, Krmer and Sprenger published the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ in 1486, suggesting the correct way to detect and punish witches the idea of mass persecution spread across Europe.
It was still a prominent idea in the 16th Century when Martin Luther used the idea of witchcraft and magic to slander the Catholic Church and its Saints days of celebration. Due to this Protestants persecuted more women than Catholics, thus we can see a geographical distinction in the areas more affected by the witch craze. Germany for example, saw 63 women killed in Wiesensterig in 1563. This up until that date was the biggest number of witches to be killed at one place and time.
The aspects of death we have so far looked at all have their individual ideologies based deeply in religion. Aspects of the spirit after death were dealt with by the church as well. Specifically Catholicism taught that at the end of one’s life a type of judgement would take place. In the early Middle Ages the ideologies of the afterlife were used to decorate the tombs of the rich, like the Bishop Agilbert of the Monastery of Jouarre. On is tomb is the resurrection of the dead on judgement day. It depicts Christ waking all Christians who have been looked after by the 7 sleepers of Ephesus to go with him and live in paradise.
At this time it was generally believed the only people who did not go to heaven were those who were not Christians. By the 13th Century the Judgement day has become a reflection of a medieval court room and Christ has become the Judge, his apostles the jury. However the idea of judgement had evolved by the 15th Century from being a universal gathering of all souls to the individual on his deathbed. It has been depicted in woodcuts that al well as the family and friends of a dying person being present, the Holy trinity and Satan is also present. They are there to give the dying man one last trial, that determines whether he will go to heaven or hell. This is different to the idea that all his life’s choices are weighed up, as was done on the Last Judgement day.
By the 16th Century the idea of Afterlife had been complicated by the added idea of Purgatory. As Christians the people of early modern Europe had been taught that death was a state to which look forward to, as they would be reunited with their creator and that they should spend their preparing for it. However the idea of purgatory was integrated into religion, mainly by the writer Dante Alighieri and his work ‘Divina Commedia Purgatorio’. When this occurred many people became very afraid of dying, due to the fact they believed that apart form the clergy most souls would end up in purgatory where they would stay until the fires had burnt their sin away.
They believed the only difference between Hell and purgatory was that you did not spend eternity in purgatory. It was feared by all people across the society however there was a way of lessening own personal stretch in purgatory. Henry VII paid for 10,000 masses to be held after his death as to make sure his soul got to heaven. People from poorer communities would club together to pay for masses for family members and prayer chains were held in churches which involved paying for your name to be read out so the community could pray for you. There was a feast on the 2nd November, after All Saints day that was for the celebration souls and prayer for their passage to heaven.
As well as the great impact of the spiritual side of death, the physical idea of death also had a great impact on people in the late medieval and early modern Europe. The main ideas that were widely explored were the idea of physical human decay, the pointlessness of material objects and the idea of the Danse Macabrï¿½. The image of human decay was used popularly to decorate the tombs of the rich. There seemed to be a fascination with the average image of a naked corpse with their bowels hanging out and covered in worms. The idea that death was the great equaliser was also popular because it meant that the poor and rich would end up in the same rotten state, and that the rich man who could pay money to bypass purgatory could not do so for death itself. Nor could he take it with him. The pictures of this time suggest this in there variety and vastness.
There have been many woodcuttings that show old men and young men, the rich and the poor being lead away by the corpse. This image was named the Danse Macabr after a book published by that name in 1485 by a Parisian printer, Guyat Marchant. In his images the corpse leading each living person away is actually not death but the corpse of their dead self. The Danse Macabr also expressed gender equality as women were depicted as well as men. The idea that a corpse could rise again was based on the horrific fact that when mass graves were introduced at a time of disaster, they tended not to be deep enough thus they would rise to the surface. This caused not just a smell but fear of the dead thus the graveyard that was at the centre of community to be relocated to the edge of a village or town.
This essay has looked many different factors of death in the late medieval and early modern Europe. I think the fact that death occurred frequently due to illness such as plague and starvation heightened the idea of mortality. It would have been further heightened by the religious ideas of the afterlife and purgatory, as their lives were meant to be used for preparation for death and as Christians they were not meant to fear it but embrace it. For many it could have been seen as equalling out the unfair hierarchy of society, and the persecution of minorities. However it was also used as a punishment for those who threatened Christianity. The fact that we in the modern day do not dwell on death does emphasise their dependence on it. However I think we still share the same morbid fascination with death.