Death and Mourning, A Certainty in the Middle Ages !

Written by Reinus.

Death. Nowadays when we hear about it, a shiver runs through our body. It is something that we do not know how to deal with, society avoids all talk of death- as if it would delay our date of passing. But in Antiquity, it was rather different.

In Antiquity, death was something very real and very frequent. People always knew it could be lurking around the corner. Conflict happened all the time - whether on the battlefield or an attack/loot on the village. Hunger and disease too were plentiful, accidents could happen all the time, or you could even die during childbirth. In the case of newborns, more children would die than survive. Parents tended not to get attached to their children during the first years of life for this very reason.

So death was a normalised part of the Middle Ages, and mourning was intensely experienced.

Source: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut


Mourning - Pagan or Profane?

Mourning was a time of many emotions and tears, a mixture between the religious and the profane!

In Classical Antiquity, weeping was seen as a way of trying to resurrect the dead. It was not like that in the Middle Ages. Individuals strongly believed in the concept of eternal life.

The cries of the individual were intended to grasp God’s attention so that the sins of the deceased would be forgiven. The louder the cry, the more likely God was to hear their prayers.

People showed their pain through crying and screaming, so what? Today is no different right? Wrong! In the Middle Ages mourners slapped each other and themselves, they scratched their faces until they bled, all while they wept and mourned. The men pulled out hair from their heads and beards. The mourners also sometimes showed disregard for hygiene at this time. There are reports of mourners eating on the floor from clay dishes. It was as if all dignity was disregarded, only the pain was real! It is not very clear how self-flagellation arises, but it is believed to be linked to an attempt to prolong memory. A sacrifice from this world to another.

Their wails were intense, and the louder they were, the more they highlighted the mourner's pain. But were all the people who mourned close or known relatives of the deceased? No! Why did they grieve someone they didn't know? Simple, for something that moves the world, money! These people were ‘professional mourners’, hired to do just that, to cry. Families of the deceased paid to add their crying to the funeral procession, in an attempt to increase the intensity of the outcry.

Source: Terracotta funerary plaque ca. 520–510 B.C.

The Catholic Church has always condemned these mourning practices but had not been able to erase them as quickly as it would have wished. The Church claimed that these practices called into question the assurance of Salvation. Yet they advised that weeping should be more subdued and replaced by prayers for the soul of the deceased because if the deceased had Salvation there was no need for despair because one day they would meet once again in Heaven!


Clothing as a form of Grief!

Clothing also reflected a time of mourning, just like today. But while today, practically only colour is important, this was not the case in the Middle Ages!

During medieval mourning, it was customary for poor, low-quality fabrics to be worn. When a monarch or a nobleman lost a loved one, he/she threw off their clothes made from luxurious fabric (clothes were often ornamented with jewels) and went down to the poorest fabric. It was like leaving your social position, your power, and influence and becoming poor and insignificant. The fabric would match your mood, poor! Penance!

It was customary for each person in your household to also have a hood of this type of fabric to cover their head in times of mourning. The poorest who did not have a mourning costume sometimes wore their clothes inside out.


The appearance of the colour Black!

Over time these practices became to disappear and a new trend appears – the colour BLACK! Yes, mourning before the XV century was not done with black, but something similar to white and/or yellowish, as the rough fabrics were not dyed and naturally had that colour.

Grief ceases to have these manifestations of physical pain and begins to be something more discreet and more of the soul. In the event of mourning the death of a close person, black was the color to use for some time. If it were someone more distant, dark blue could also be used.

Black also begins to emerge in this century as ornamentation of funeral spaces, funerary coffins, and tassels. It is here that black begins to become something indicative of mourning and can be seen in the modern day. Black appears as a more calm and elegant form of mourning. From the XV century onwards, the medieval practices of self-flagellation and "hysteria" began to be abandoned, and a more sober position was assumed, through clothing, for the duration of the same.


Royal mourning scenario!

In Portugal, one of the best-portrayed cases of mourning appears in one of the Royal Chronicles. Incredibly it is a case of a prince and not of a King. We speak of the case of Prince Afonso in 1491. Afonso died quite young, at the age of 16, due to a horse fall, he was the only heir to the throne, King João II and Queen Leonor were destroyed by the loss of their only son but also by the possible end of succession.

The royal couple cut their hair as a way of abandoning their joy, as long hair was a sign of joy and sensuality. At the funeral, the chronicles say, the kings mourned their son a lot, forgetting the Church's rules, they just gave themselves over to their pain. King João II lived with great weight, that of the loss of his beloved son plus the harsh responsibility of the Kingdom, he lived divided.

It is known that the mourning for the royal family should be discreet because they could not show their people despair. They were leaders above all! But the Chronicles say that one day King João II went out to Church, and when he realized the lack of the Prince who always accompanied him, he was unable to avoid a great weeping in front of everyone. He decided to temporarily hand over administrative duties to men he trusted and left for the retreat. As regards to the Queen, she was transported on a mule to her retreat and only attended the most important ceremonies, she became more and more attached to religious life.

And this way we end our brief trip to Medieval Mourning!


Written by Reinus.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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