Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain

Article excerpt

From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain. By Carlos M. N. Eire. [Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1995. Pp. xiv, 571. $49.95.)

In all our lives there comes a time when thoughts of death and human mortality become particularly intense. Carlos Eire's book, From Madrid to Purgatory, records the multifaceted history of Spain's epochal fascination with death. It is Eire's concern, in this long and detailed study, to demonstrate not only the ways in which mortuary rituals were conceived and crafted in sixteenth-century Spain, but to suggest that the enormous amount of time, effort, and money devoted to these rituals revealed a compulsive emotional drive among Spaniards for spiritual security in an age of economic distress and political instability. Eire's reasons for labeling sixteenth-century Spanish death practices"obsessive" come hard and fast: the first third of the book presents evidence from several hundred wills in sixteenth-century Madrid which express a conscious and deliberate use of deathbed distributions of alms to enhance the spiritual status of testators' souls. Eire has calculated, moreover, from these wills, that the average number of post-mortem Masses requested by testators for their souls' benefit rose from ninety in the 1520's to 777 by the end of the century, an inflationary spiral that deserves to be called, as Eire has called it, a "numeric delirium in pious bequests. And if the sheer number and subtle gradations in types of mortuary devotions are not sufficient to demonstrate Spain's "obsession" with death, the final two sections of the book describing popular responses to the deaths of King Philip II in 1598 and of Teresa of Avila in 1582 decisively confirm the judgment. We learn in exhaustive detail about the gruesome way in which Spain's most powerful monarch met his death-about the gout and ulcers and boils and abscesses that drenched Philip I's sheets-and more importantly, about the enormous popularity of tracts and sermons that narrated these personal events. We learn as well about the wondrous stories that the Spanish people wove around the "sacred" death of Teresa of Avila-of nuns who saw resplendent lights across the sky, who heard the great saint's moans, and who smelt delicious odors from her flesh miles and miles away from her deathbed. …

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