Death and the afterlife: how dying affected the living

Images of the afterlife dominate illuminated manuscripts, paintings, sculptures and literature in the Middle Ages. Dr Alixe Bovey examines how ideas of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory impacted on everday life.

Drawing of a grave, from a Carthusian miscellany of poems, chronicles and treatises

A grave

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Death was at the centre of life in the Middle Ages in a way that might seem shocking to us today. With high rates of infant mortality, disease, famine, the constant presence of war, and the inability of medicine to deal with common injuries, death was a brutal part of most people's everyday experience. As a result, attitudes towards life were very much shaped by beliefs about death: indeed, according to Christian tradition, the very purpose of life was to prepare for the afterlife by avoiding sin, performing good works, taking part in the sacraments, and keeping to the teachings of the church. Time was measured out in saint's days, which commemorated the days on which the holiest men and women had died. Easter, the holiest feast day in the Christian calendar, celebrated the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The landscape was dominated by parish churches - the centre of the medieval community - and the churchyard was the principal burial site.

Miniature of Lucy de Vere's soul being carried to heaven by angels, from the mortuary roll of Lucy de Vere

A soul being carried to heaven by angels

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The afterlife

The Church taught that the fate of a person's soul was determined not only by his or her behaviour in life, but also by the manner of his or her death. Medieval Christians hoped for a 'good death', ideally at home in bed, surrounded by friends and family, and with a priest in attendance to administer the Last Rites, the final forgiveness of sin. Sudden death - the 'bad death' - was greatly feared, as dying unprepared, without confessing one's sin and receiving the last rites, would increase the probability of a long stay in Purgatory or, worse, Hell.

Illustration of 'A Scene in Hell', from a Book of Hours

A Scene in Hell

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Hell was the destiny for those guilty of mortal sins, while eternal life in Paradise was the reward for the good. The idea of Purgatory, a place where the souls of moderately bad sinners would go for a period of purification before being allowed into heaven, was accepted as a doctrine of the Catholic Church in the 1200s, and this idea came to shape much of the religious culture of the later Middle Ages. The living were encouraged to offer up prayers for the dead to lessen their time in Purgatory. This image of angels at the top of this page shows the death and funeral of Lucy de Vere, the first prioress of the Benedictine nunnery of Hedingam in Essex. When she died, around 1225, her successor sent the roll - over 19 feet long - to other religious houses, asking them to pray for her soul. As it passed around East Anglia and back and forth across southern England, each of them added an inscription asking for reciprocal prayers.

It was believed that at the end of time, angels would rouse the dead from their graves to be judged by God; at this point, Purgatory would be closed forever and the souls confined there would be transferred to Heaven or Hell for eternity. The Last Judgement was often depicted in manuscripts, with God seated on a rainbow as the dead clamber out of their graves for face judgement.

Historiated initial of the Last Judgement, from the 'St Omer Psalter'

The last judgement

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Terrifying images of life and death

The Office of the Dead, a series of prayers to be said in anticipation of death, at a funeral, or in remembrance of the dead, was a standard part of the Book of Hours, a type of prayer book often owned by wealthy lay men and women. Some books mark the beginning of the Office of the Dead with an image showing a funeral or burial; others begin with horrifying images of the living being attacked by Death: such images must have offered a powerful incentive to their owners to pray.

Miniature of a priest administering the last rites, from 'The Dunois Hours'

Priest administering the last rites

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Miniature of a burial, from the 'Hours of the Umfray Family'

A Funeral

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Terrifying encounters between the living and the dead became more popular from the early 1300s. One common symbol, found in manuscripts, paintings and sculpture, was the story of three living princes who encounter three dead princes, shown as worm-eaten cadavers, who warn the living that they will soon be just as ghastly as the dead. Artists seem to have taken particular care to depict the dead as gruesomely as possible to create a startling contrast to the elegant living princes.

Miniature of an encounter with death, from a Book of Hours

An encounter with death

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The three living and the three dead princes, from the 'De Lisle Psalter'

The three living and the three dead

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It is possible to detect an element of black humour in some aspects of medieval death culture. For example, one 15th century poem recounts a debate between a corpse and the worms who are eating her; the dead woman shouts for her knights to defend her but the worms remind her that she is beyond help.

Here, humour is used to underline the fundamentally serious message of the poem: that bodily death is inevitable, and that those who hope for eternal life should focus on spiritual matters.

  • Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years; she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

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