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Denial or Acceptance? Medieval Attitudes Towards Death

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SUNY Geneseo

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  1. Aries' organization of the book into five sections
  2. Use of a variety of sources, from wills and clerical documents to tombstones.
  3. Banker's sources for this book
  4. Geary's organization of the book
  5. Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages.
  6. Conclusion

In recent times, the study of death ?both in modern times and throughout history?has begun to interest historians, who have gone about their research in a variety of ways. One work in this area of study is The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Aries, which has become a foundation work in the subject, puts forth the notion that people in past times had a lesser emotional involvement in death than the people of present times. A similar sentiment is echoed in Aries' Centuries of Childhood, this time in regards to parents' feelings toward their children, which adds further dimensions to Aries' hypothesis that peoples' attitudes towards life cycles such as birth and death were neither intensely emotional nor remarkable in past times. It is only in modernity that these sentiments have evolved into what they are regarded as today. Because of the importance of his work and thesis, later generations of medieval historians have addressed them in their research, often disputing Aries' thesis, methodology, and assumptions.

[...] Historians since the time of Aries have had to address his contribution toward the study of medieval death, whether they agree with his conclusions or not. Like Aries, Banker dealt with the social relationships ruled by death in medieval society. Geary and Schmitt, conversely, see the dead as a symbolic connection between the present and the past, or as tools used by the church for educational purposes therefore they are dealing more with a history of mentalities, rather than social relationships. [...]

[...] The occasion of an individual death in the family and neighborhood activated social mechanisms of great emotional intensity.?[15] Banker makes it clear that a lack of historical records about the laymen's attitudes toward death do not denote a lack of intense feelings toward it, and therefore Aries is wrong to assume so on the basis of lack of evidence. Throughout this work, the idea that death in the Middle Ages was a concern of society as a whole, and that a socialization of death took place during this time is prevalent. [...]

[...] This paper focuses mainly on the first two sections, Tame Death,? and Death of which deal with medieval attitudes towards death. The other sections recount the more modern history, from the 18th century on. There are several problems with Aries' approach. The book lacks a clear introduction, beginning with a preface about the sources and the massive amount of effort put into the research, and then launching into a discussion of the medieval literature that portrays the idea of the ?tame death? that he puts forth. [...]

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