Death and the afterlife

  • Article written by: Alixe Bovey
  • Published: 30 Apr 2015
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.

Carthusian miscellany

Page from a 15th century manuscript with text and illustration of a cadaver, which contains a colourful effigy of a richly dressed woman, juxtaposed with her decomposing corpse below, crawling with worms and toads

Drawing of a grave from a Carthusian miscellany of poems, chronicles, and treatises (Add MS 37049, f. 32v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

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.

Mortuary roll of Lucy of Hedingham

Unfurled manuscript scroll with three illustrations scenes: at the top, the Crucifixion alongside the seated Virgin and Child; in the middle, two angels carrying Lucy’s soul up to Heaven; at the bottom, Lucy’s funeral, with her body lying in a bier, surrounded by priests, clerics, and nuns

An illustration of Lucy de Vere's soul being carried to Heaven by angels, from a 13th-century mortuary roll (Egerton MS 2849/1, f. 1r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

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.

French 15th-century Book of Hours

Page from a Book of Hours manuscript showing a scene in Hell with demons torturing and eating humans, surrounded by richly decorated floral and gold borders and creatures in the margins

An illustration of the torments of Hell, from a 15th-century Book of Hours (Add MS 29433, f. 89r)

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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.

St Omer Psalter

Page from the St Omer psalter containing a historiated initial D depicting the last judgment, with Jesus, saints and angels sitting above naked humans in tombs. The page also contains by nine small roundels telling the story of the Passion of Christ

An historiated initial D, containing a representation of the Last Judgement, from the St Omer Psalter (Yates Thompson MS 14, f. 120r)

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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.

Dunois Hours

Page from the Dunois Hours manuscript, depicting a priest administering the last rites to a person in bed. The illustrations are surrounded by richly decorated floral borders

Representation of a priest administering the last rights, from the Dunois Hours (Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 211r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Hours of the Umfray Family

Page from the Hours of the Umfray Family manuscript, depicting priest and monks attending a burial as the corpse is lowered into the ground. The page is richly decorated with floral borders and initials

An illustration of a burial scene, from the Hours of the Umfray Family (Sloane MS 4648, f. 163r)

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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.

16th-century Book of Hours

Page from a Book of Hours manuscript, depicting death personified as a skeletal figure who holds a king by his throat and places a sword at his head. The illustration is surrounded by richly decorated borders and some text

An illustration of an encounter with Death, from a 16th-century Book of Hours (Harley MS 2936, f. 84r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

De Lisle Psalter

Page from the De Lisle Psalter, containing text, decorated initials and illustrations of three richly dressed aristocratic figures meeting three corpses

An illustration of the three living and the three dead princes, from the De Lisle Psalter (Arundel MS 83, f. 127r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

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.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.