Thursday, October 28, 2010

Going Medieval on Halloween

By Cokie Anderson

Skeleton did not receive the "Death Be Not Proud" memo

It began just after the Fourth of July. Okay, Labor Day, but it seemed earlier. Orange and black bedecking every store, plastic jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, witches, and spiders everywhere you look, and candy. Bags and bags of expensive, delicious, bad-for-you candy that you were urged to “stock up on” (i.e., eat yourself) in time for America’s second favorite holiday, Halloween. Ghosties, ghoulies, and long-legged beasties are on the prowl. The goblin’s going to get you if you don’t watch out. All of these are traditional images of death, decay, and the eternal punishment that awaits the wicked. However, the only decay most modern celebrants are concerned about is tooth decay from the aforementioned candy. What’s scarier than a ghost? Your 10-year-old daughter dressed as Lady Gaga, that’s what.

Exercise all you want-- someday you'll die and look like this anyway

In ages past, people were also obsessed with images of skeletons and death, but not in a party kind of way. Unless a funeral is your idea of a party. (If you’re Irish or from the South, as I am, that may be so. Y’all just play along here, okay?)

In Medieval times, death was a daily companion. Women had a shorter average lifespan in those years because so many died in childbirth or from postpartum infections. Strep throat was often fatal. That cold could turn into pneumonia. And many, many children died every year from diseases for which vaccines now exist. Add to that the constant wars, the famine that resulted from a bad harvest, the plagues that wiped out a huge percentage of the population, and it must have seemed like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were on a permanent rampage.

"Nice service. I wonder if there'll be cake after."

Consequently, the Medieval Christian was urged to constantly contemplate their own mortality, and to consider what awaited them after death. The Book of Hours was the primary vehicle for personal devotion in those days--at least for those who could afford them. These prayer books contained set prayers, psalms, and readings to be observed throughout the day (the “Offices”), as well as psalms, special prayers to the Virgin Mary and the saints, and always The Office of the Dead, prayers to be said for the souls of the departed. It could be used at any time, but was especially to be observed on All Souls’ Day (November 2).

In the beautiful illuminated books of hours created in the Medieval era, most offices were accompanied by a small painting, called a miniature, on a religious subject. Most of these were scenes from the life of the Virgin, and were set in biblical times (though matters of costume might reflect recent fashions).

"Harry, would you be careful? We don't want to drop him in front of the mourners. Bad for business."

The miniature for the Office of the Dead was often a scene all too familiar to Medieval audiences: a funeral or burial. From a modern vantage point, they are interesting in that they represent depictions of ordinary life in Medieval times. Sometimes, it’s a nice, dignified funeral--a clutch of clergy, candles, a nice crowd of hired mourners (de rigueur at your better class of funeral), and the coffin draped in a discreet pall. Other scenes were more brutally frank: a couple of gravediggers wrestling a shrouded body into its final resting place.

Covering all the bases

If the artist were really ambitious, we might see a combination of favorite Office of the Dead themes: the funeral, the burial, the prancing skeleton, and Job, the faithful man afflicted by God, lying on his dung heap covered with boils. Now, you kids go to your room, look at that, and think about what you’ve done!

More subtle, yet I should think more effective for their intended purpose, are those miniatures that show someone eating, drinking, and making merry, but forgetting they will die, as in the interpretation of the parable of the rich man (Dives) and the beggar Lazarus, below.

Live it up today, burn tomorrow

Dives is shown opulently attired, enjoying a feast in his richly appointed home in the company of a beautiful woman. All the riches and pleasures of this world are his. The beggar Lazarus, covered in sores, pleads at the door for a few crumbs for the table, only to be shooed away by a horrified servant. Below, however, we see the eternal suffering that waits for Dives after death: he is chained, naked, writhing in flames, and further tormented by the vision he sees above him--Lazarus in heaven, accompanied by Abraham. The patriarch informs Dives that he had his rewards on earth, where Lazarus suffered greatly; now, Lazarus will have his reward in heaven, while Dives suffers. Forever. Bwahahahahaha!!!!

And let that be a lesson to those who would be stingy with the Halloween candy.


All images of Medieval illuminated manuscripts from Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.


  1. Could you please tell me what the shelfmarks are for the first two examples you posted? The one of the skull looking straight out, and the one with the corpse kneeling and looking into a mirror. Thanks!

  2. Cokie reports: "The first leaf is a singleton that was removed from a book of hours long before it came into our hands. The second is from a complete Dutch book of hours, but it wasn't in a library and doesn't have any kind of 'shelfmark' as I understand the word."


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