Death and Dying in the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Death and Dying in the Middle Ages. Ed. by Edelgard E. Dubrick and Barbara I. Gusick. (Studies in the Humanities: Literature, Politics, Society, 45) New York, Bern, and Frankfurt a.M.: Lang. 1999. xi +515 pp. 44 [pounds sterling].

This is an ambitious and fascinating book that brings together essays on death and dying in the Middle Ages. It comprises a series of essays ranging from the practicalities of death (the role of doctors; the Beguines; the ritual importance of the Altar of the Holy Cross) to the theological debates of the age (The Four Last Things; St Thomas Aquinas; the tortuous journey of the soul to heaven; the role of saints and the issue of resurrection) to the literature and art produced by the era's fascination with the symbolism attached to death and dying.

Inevitably, with a book of this breadth, some of the essays appear to have been too severely curtailed by the space allowed, such as Ilse E. Friesen's contribution, `Saints as Helpers in Dying', and Peter M. De Wilde's discussion in `Between Life and Death: the Journey in the Otherworld'. However, the comprehensive bibliography ensures that the reader can pursue each theme beyond this volume, whilst its extensive index helps to make connections within the work itself. Other essays are perfectly placed within the volume and work well as stand-alone pieces, for example Yves Ferroul's essay, `The Doctor and Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance', and Barbara I. Gusick's contribution, `Death and Resurrection in the Towneley Lazarus'. In several instances essays heavily reliant upon visual materials, including Roger S. Wieck's examination of `The Death Desired: Books of Hours and the Medieval Funeral', and Kornelia Imesch's `The Altar of the Holy Cross and the Ideal of Adam's Progeny', add depth to the work and help to support its stated aim, that of `opening new vistas into one of the major preoccupations of medieval mankind'.

The introduction to the book forms a chapter in itself and is perhaps over long for its purpose. …