chapter  1
26 Pages

DEATH IN THE MIDDLE AGES

The key to medieval religion is the fate of the individual’s soul after death. Death was defined as the moment when the immortal soul left the mortal body and joined with an incorruptible, sexless, immortal body, often depicted in art as a small naked person. The soul itself could never die and its ‘life’ was ‘independent of the body’. During the soul’s time on earth it was bonded to the mortal body. The soul was unaffected by any bodily illness or abnormality, and even if the disease led to death the ‘soul suffers no harm’ (Hitchcock 1921:116, 110). The body, however, could be at the mercy of the soul. Corruption of the soul could result in physical disease: leprosy was thought to be an indication of sexual sin (see Appendix 1) and the fifteenth-century priest John Mirk quoted St Augustine-‘corruption of sin maketh mankind to turn into corruption of carrion’ (Erbe 1905:225). If the soul deviated into sin there was also a real danger that it would suffer the torments of Hell for eternity. The Church therefore had to correct sins by confession, repentance and penance-the latter achieved by using the three most effective ways: devout praying, alms-giving and mass-singing (Erbe 1905:269). In the worst cases of heresy or witchcraft burning was used to help save the individual (fire was a cleansing agent for souls) and stop the infection spreading to other souls. Medieval people could help their souls in a large number of ways: from spiritual prayers to the physical actions of pilgrimage or alms-giving.