Death (personification) - Wikipedia

"Johnson says ''In the first stanza the azure flowers that blow, shew how resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found.'' It is certain that there is redundancy or some sort of weakness in the expression here. Those of Gray's apologists who admit redundancy, defend it by classical examples, some of which are not redundant at all. And how is Johnson answered by saying that ancient poets were sometimes guilty of redundancy? Again Gray is quoted in defence of himself. In the Progress of Poesy I. 1. , he has written ''the laughing flowers that round them blow.'' But this is not redundant; Gray says that the 'thousand rills' of which he has just spoken are engarlanded with flowers which 'draw life and fragrance' from them; the added words 'round them' here make all the difference, especially in such a context.
On the other hand if Gray meant, as Dr Bradshaw says, - 'so that we, as it were, see the flower in full blow' - if, that is, we are to understand that the flowers are represented vividly, and with truth to nature, Gray has expressed this feebly and inadequately."

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Death, Dying, and the Culture of the Macabre in the …


This lyric displays the key reason for thinking about death in the Middle Ages: the salvation of the soul. An individual who went through life without paying heed to his impending death would likewise not keep in mind the care of his soul. Death functioned not just as a terrifying adversary who would inevitably conquer you, but as an agent of God who potentially brought you to union with Christ. Those who took proper care of their souls would find the utmost reward at the end and enjoy the blisses Heaven offered. Those who remained careless and sinful would suffer pains in Purgatory, or, if they neglected to repent, would endure eternal suffering in Hell.


Judgment Day

Judgment Day represented not the end of time as the end of the relevance of time. Eternity was not so much far in the future, as constantly the present. The bodies of the dead were each resurrected, and would be judged by God according to their deeds in life, then consigned to bliss in Heaven or damnation in Hell. An illustration from the Grandes Heures de Rohan shows the resurrection of the dead, who are assisted in climbing out of their graves by angels. To the left, Eve greets Adam. God sits enthroned as Judge, a conflation of Christ the redeemer, with crown of thorns and bleeding side, and God the Father, the orb in his hand representing his dominion over created things. The fully clad man at the bottom right contrasts with the naked figures of the resurrected dead; his despairing expression and downward gaze are juxtaposed with the heavenward glances of the more hopeful figures. Harthan (p. 84), supposes that this figure could represent those people still alive at the time of the Last Judgment. The illustration is from Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 9471, fol. 154r, and is reproduced in Harthan, p. 83.


Paradise

Souls were dispersed to eternal bliss with God or eternal suffering in Hell at the Last Judgment. While the official designation of "saved" or "damned" was not given until Doomsday, medieval writings always depicted departed ones as "already there," as if, for the dead, eternity was always now. Dante, when he travels to Hell in the Inferno, sees departed contemporary Brunetto Latini being punished in Canto 15. Likewise, the anonymous narrator of the Middle English Pearl sees his infant daughter already among the 144,000 virgins in the New Jerusalem, despite John of Patmos' assertion that it would only be built after the Apocalypse. An illustration from the manuscript of Pearl, showing the dreamer bidding farewell to his Pearl Maiden. The river of mortality separates them. Even in the damaged illustration, it is possible to see through their outstretched hands the grief of separation by Death.

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This kind of a poem has the desired effect upon the dreamer: he wakes up in a cold sweat and gets himself to confession quickly before the fiends fetch him away hot-foot (quickly). What is important to note is that the effect that the dream has upon the dreamer is the effect that the poem should have had upon the audience; the Body and Soul debate material was not just there to entertain, but to put everyone in mind of making a good end.


The Three Living and the Three Dead

Three young kings go on a hunting expedition, revelling in the glories of youth and wealth. In the woods they come across three corpses in various stages of decomposition. Recoiling in horror, the kings are even more surprised when the corpses address them directly. The dead remind the kings of the transitoriness of earthly things and remind the kings that they will, despite their rich apparel and fine living, inevitably become rotted corpses as well. The dead function as a mirror image to the three fine men, and the message is inevitably the same: "What you are, so once were we; what we are, so shall you be" (Tristram, p. 162). The encounter encourages a change of heart in the hunters, who, perceiving themselves now hunted by death, resolve to focus more on their spiritual welfare. This transformation is clearly expressed by the words of the Second Living King from a French version of the poem: "I desire, / . . . to amend my life: / I have over-indulged my whims / And my heart is eager / To do, as much as my soul submits / To God the King of Pity" (Binsky, p. 136).

The story of the Three Living and the Three Dead is told in over sixty literary sources across Europe. The motif also survives in numerous manuscript illuminations, and, most interestingly, in over fifty wall-paintings from after the period of the Black Death. This would suggest that there is some attempt at the motif reaching a lay-audience, who would learn from the story the same lesson learned by the three kings. While the core of the story remains the same, the variations are numerous; the three kings become three representatives of different social classes or they represent the three ages of man: Youth, Middle Age, and Eld. Inevitably the images that survive demonstrate a mirror-effect, where the three dead directly oppose the three living, and to a certain extent mimic the living either in posture or attire. The only English version that survives is a poem by John Audelay, in which the three dead are the deceased fathers of the living, come to remind them of the harsh realities of death. See poem 54 in The Poems of John Audelay.

For further discussions, see Binsky, pp. 134-40 and Tristram, pp. 162-67. See also Matsuda, p. 74n144, for further references to the motif.


Deathbed Scenes

Dying the good death was the ideal situation for any Christian; a prolonged sickness, or advancing old age, would give an individual ample time to consider one's sins, confess to a priest, repent, perform penance, and achieve salvation. Numerous deathbed scenes in medieval writings recount a dying person's crucial last moments -- whether he would turn to God and repent or whether he would be caught up with more worldly concerns such as the distribution of his wealth. In an illustration from a British Library manuscript (London, British Library Additional 37049, fol. 38v, reproduced in Hogg, p. 54), a dying man is shown at the moment of death. To the right, Death strikes him a terrible blow, reminiscent of the wound on Christ's side inflicted by Longinus. The priest by his bedside has evidently heard his confession, as Christ announces from above that he will have mercy.

The Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, was a didactic treatise that gained popularity in the vernacular in the fifteenth century. In a woodcut from a German Ars Moriendi (reproduced in Bayard, p. 51) shows the dead man, his widow beside him, surrounded by saints who pray for his soul. Above, the image of Christ on the Cross looms over the scene. Below him are fiends to tempt him. One of the angels has received his tiny, naked soul. This common depiction of the soul emphasizes the fragility of the human moral condition, as the soul appears helpless before the angels and demons that fight for it.




Middle English Lyrics

Lyrics such as these detail the medieval fixation upon the physical reality of bodily decay after death; however, what is important to note is that both poems emphasize the relative unimportance of the World when one is dead. Here, the world can be understood as those material things that distract one from the spiritual goal of attaining salvation. Both poets point out that the physical distractions of the world remain irrelevant when our very last physical possession -- our body -- is in the process of decaying. [Both poems and glosses adapted from Luria and Hoffman, ed. Middle English Lyrics.]

Luria and Hoffman, #232:

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The popular lines at the beginning of this booklet keenly illustrate several of the key concepts present in a discussion of death-culture in the late Middle Ages. At its essence, the culture of the macabre represented a kind of dialogue between those mortals who would all, someday, face death, and that inevitable, undefeatable force that took their life. Medieval culture fixated on those physical aspects of death that strike modern people as viscerally disturbing: images of physical deterioration, paralysis, burial, and decay are all things that we sanitize and cloister away behind the walls of hospitals, hushed and dimly lit funeral homes, and the silence of graveyards. While our culture, in its increasing secularism, and in its sanitization and silencing of death, is radically different from that of the European Middle Ages, the survival of such images as those depicted in the Appalachian song demonstrates the continuity, albeit uncomfortable, between the macabre culture of the late Middle Ages and our own.




Introduction

The Black Death refers to the period in Europe from approximately 1347 to 1353, when bubonic plague ravaged the European population and initiated a long-term period of cultural trauma from which, one could argue, we have not yet completely recovered. Every nightmare of apocalyptic pandemics, from bird flu to AIDS to Ebola, registers, on some level, with the horrifying possibility of returning to a world where each and every member of one's family falls victim to a merciless, fast-acting, insidious, and physically horrifying sickness. Bubonic plague is a disease that, in its modern form, still kills 15% of patients treated with antibiotics. In the pre-antibiotic era of fourteenth-century Europe, the mortality rate from plague was between 50% and 90% of those people who contracted the disease. In crowded areas where black rats and their fleas were common, or in small rural hamlets where these hosts lived alongside the human population, the mortality was staggering, and archaeologists have in recent decades uncovered the remains of small villages that essentially disappeared during the period of the Black Death.

Understanding the macabre spirit of death-culture in late medieval Europe requires a familiarization with the terror and panic of epidemic disease, and, more generally, with the fear of catastrophe and sudden death. It is only recently, in the age of mass-media, where photographs, motion pictures, and, more recently, the internet have exposed us to the devastation wrought by such natural disasters as the south Asian tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, and to such unnatural disasters as the Holocaust of World War II, that a large portion of the world population has become exposed to horrific images akin to those presented by the Black Death. On a cultural or psychological level, then, we can experience second-hand, through images, what most of the population of the medieval world experienced first-hand: wide-scale death, physical decay, and the subsequent crumbling of societal infrastructure.

However, what remains irrecoverable for us in the comparatively safe modern world is the sense of sudden, wide-scale demographic change experienced by the medieval world. Historians and epidemiologists have long debated about the total percentage of the medieval population slain by the arrow of the pestilence (as it was known in the fourteenth century); conservative estimates range from 10 - 20%. The most recent estimate is by Ole J. Benedictow, who in his magisterial The Black Death 1346-53: The Complete History estimates the total population loss at 65% in both Asia and Europe. Most average estimates state that about one-third of the population died from the disease in the years spanning the Black Death.

This sense of widespread epidemic catastrophe is terrifyingly evoked in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting The Triumph of Death. Bruegel figures death as a legion of skeletons, attacking the underbelly of society in an overwhelming wave. From peasant to jester to executioner to king, no one is spared.


The Disease

Three seemingly harmless members of the natural world -- the black rat, the rat flea, and a common bacteria that lives in the flea's intestine -- are the host, vector, and agent of one of the most prolific killers of humankind -- bubonic plague. The bacterium Yersinia pestis and the vector by which it spreads, xenopsylla cheopis, the oriental rat flea, were discovered (respectively) in 1894 and 1898, solving the millennia-old question as to what caused the catastrophic disease. Yersinia pestis can be discerned by its elongated safety-pin appearance when examined from blood cultures from plague patients. The rat flea commonly carries the bacteria in its gut and frequently infects rodent populations, which are its common hosts. Plague can be transmitted to humans that live in close contact with rodents, as the fleas bite humans as well. The common black rat, rattus rattus, was the host to the oriental rat flea, and the primary means of plague transmission during the Black Death.

The plague's signature symptom was the bubo, a large, painful, red swelling usually located in the neck, armpit, or groin, the result of a swollen and infected lymph node. Beginning about the size of an egg, the bubo could swell to the size of an apple before death. In addition to the bubo, victims of the plague suffered from high fever, chills, exhaustion, occasional pneumonic symptoms, and eventual septicemia, shock, and death. In the Preface to his Decameron, Boccaccio describes the dark spots (nowadays recognized as indicative of septicemia) that would gradually spread over the person's skin as a sure sign of death. In a woodcut from Nuremberg (reproduced in Platt, p. 2, plate 1), the physician performs a common "remedy" for plague: lancing a bubo. The suffering patient has additional buboes on his head and thigh. Unfortunately, while lancing the painful swellings was believed to provide relief from pain, it more frequently led to excessive blood loss, shock, and death. In another image ([Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek MS Db 93, fol. 458r, reproduced in Siraisi, figure 12, p. 75.]) a physician (in a furred cap and gown) teaches his students at a plague patient's bedside, pointing out the signature bubo on the left side of the groin. The student in the lower left hand corner holds a flask with the patient's urine.


The Spread of the Pestilence

Bubonic plague is generally believed to have arrived in Europe through trade routes that connected the Mongol empire with Europe through Genoese trading posts. The plague arose in central Asia, quite possibly from an overpopulation of ground rodents called marmots burrowing in the Mongolian Plateau. Rodents, and their deadly fleas, could have easily stowed away on trading caravans headed west, to Europe, east, further into China, and south, into India. All of these areas were devastated by the plague. According to Kelly, the crucial hub in the transmission of plague into Europe was the Genoese mercantile network, which included outposts at Caffa on the Black Sea and Constantinople (see Chapter 1 of The Great Mortality). Of particular importance in the history of the bubonic plague was the arrival, in October of 1347, of twelve Genoese merchant vessels in the port of Messina in Sicily:

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