Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750

Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750

Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750

Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750

Synopsis

Both the interest and importance of the social history of death have been increasingly recognized during the last thirty years. Here, Houlbrooke examines the impact of religious change on the English "way of death" between 1480 and 1750. He discusses relatively neglected aspects of the subject, such as the death-bed, will-making, and last rites. He also studies the wide variety of commemorative media and practices, and is the first to describe the development of the English funeral sermon between the late Middle Ages and the 18th century. Houlbrooke shows how the need of the living to remember the dead remained important throughout the later medieval and early modern periods, even though its justification and means of expression were altered.

Excerpt

Death has become a fashionable subject for investigation in the last thirty years. However, the perception that the twentieth-century Western world 'deals with' it less well than previous generations and other cultures has continued to influence the way in which the topic is approached. Geoffrey Gorer expressed this idea particularly cogently in his article The Pornography of Death (1955) and his book Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain (1965). It bulks large in the work of Phillippe Ariès, the only writer to attempt to create a long- term historical framework for the evolution of Western attitudes to death. Ariès argued that the last thousand years have seen a gradual change from the acceptance of death as a natural part of life to its separation from the rest of everyday experience and exclusion (so far as possible) from people's minds. Ariès's explanation for this development embraces changes in religious belief and its ultimate decline, material culture, the development of medicine, increasing life expectancy, and (perhaps above all) the rise of 'individualism'. This last he sees both in an increasing preoccupation with self and in a heightened awareness of the uniqueness (and therefore irreplaceability) of loved ones. the rise of individualism is also seen as the main cause of change in Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England (1984) by Clare Gittings , who generously acknowledges her debt to Ariès.

This study approaches the history of attitudes and behaviour in face of death by way of the history of religious change, and in particular the Protestant Reformation. Christianity offered the most comprehensive and coherent body of available guidance as to what to believe and do about death during the later Middle Ages and early modern times. It provided rites both for the dying and for survivors, explained death, pain, and bereavement in terms of God's purpose for mankind, predicted with absolute certainty a life after death, and set out very clearly the chief duties of the individual both towards the dead and in preparing for his or her own death. Changes in religious doctrine and practice during the Reformation transformed officially approved conceptions of the nature of the next life as well as the relationship, between this world and the hereafter. the upheavals of the Protestant . . .

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