Medieval Europe experienced death very differently than we do today. Here are a few surprising death-related facts from the Middle Ages.
Living in Cemeteries: Cemeteries were a very different place during the Middle Ages. A cemetery was a site of social activity and where local elections, trials, sermons and theater plays were all held. They were highly sought after locations for businesses as cemeteries are exempt from taxation since they are church-owned.
Cruentation: Bleeding Corpses as Legal Evidence: A widely popular belief was that a dead carcass would unexpectedly bleed if in the presence of its murderer. Thought to contain a “spark of life” within them, cruentation had legal validity up until the seventeenth century.
Ossuaries: Also known as charnel houses, ossuaries are an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of bones as a means to free up space within a cemetery. These bones were also used as a religious message. People were meant to observe the bones and meditate about their own mortal state.
Revenants and Their Theological Problems: The idea that the dead could emerge from their grave and interact with the living was a widespread belief in the Middle Ages. This created a significant theological problem: was this from some divine miracle or a demonic act?
The Fear of Sudden Death: Most honest and honorable people feared a swift death because they felt that was only for murderers and suicides, or other such sinners. People during this period believed that if you died suddenly, your spirit would wander the living world eternally and prevent your soul from entering the afterlife.
Danse Macabre: The “Dance of Death” portrays members of society being carried away by dancing figures of the dead. This is meant to represent that no matter your social status we all end up in the same unavoidable place: the grave.
Next week’s blog will explore multi-level tombs, the cult of relics and more.