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