Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation

Article excerpt

Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. By Paul Binski. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1996. Pp. 224. $39.95.)

This "essay" on art, religion, society, the body and ritual" resembles, in many ways,T. S. R. Boase's Death in the Middle Ages (New York, 1972). Both address general readers and students; the quality and diversity of their illustrations is comparable; and each has eleven fine color plates. What differentiates them is textual. For the most part, Boase let his photographs of memorials to the dead and depictions of the afterlife, funerals, the dance of death, and the ars moriendi, speak for themselves. He confined his analysis to an occasional indication of historical trends, and ended with a dismissive remark about the medieval "debasement of things spiritual to anthropomorphic crudities." Paul Binski has more to say, and his remarks are a good measure of the change in approach and tone that recent scholarship has brought to the interpretation of this fascinating material.

Binski presents the Christian belief in the salvific power of Christ's death as the foundation of a Western European "medieval death culture" whose central feature was the doctrine of resurrection, and many of whose peculiarities, from the cult of relics to the doctrine of purgatory and the art of the macabre, had to do "with the spiritual significance and representation of the body" He does not elucidate how this came to be, but he explores it in rich detail, at least for the later Middle Ages. For example, Binski explains the history of late medieval memorials in terms of a "politics of space [and] the body" that led the wealthy and powerful to compete for recognition after death in increasingly crowded churches through ever more elaborate tombs and commemorative structures. …

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