WEB Hrastovlje Dance macabre. Photo: Zairon

Medieval Ghosts

Ghosts appeared in different forms under different circumstances. At first they were pale harbingers of dire warnings. Later, they turned into scary and macabre beings

In Lent, when he [Louis the Younger] had left off dealing with secular affairs and was spending his time in prayer, he saw in a dream on night his father, the Emperor Louis, in dire straits, who addressed him in Latin speech in the following way: “I implore you by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Triune Majesty that you will save me from these torments in which I am held, so that I can, at last, come to eternal life”. Horrified by this vision, he, therefore, sent letters to all the monasteries of his kingdom, asking urgently that they might intervene with the Lord through their Prayers for a Soul placed in torment. From this may be understood that although the said emperor had done many praiseworthy things pleasing to God, nevertheless he allowed many things against God’s law in his kingdom.”
(Annals of Fulda, AD 874.
Quoted from: The Annals of Fulda. Ninth-Century Histories, Volume II. Translated and annotated by Timothy Reuter. Manchester Medieval Sources series. Manchester University Press, 1992.

Dreaming the dead alive while sleeping is an experience granted to most people reminiscing their dear departed. Such was no less the case in the Middle Ages. However, the medieval dead did not just appear as dreamy substances. During the period from ca. 500 – 1500, ghosts changed their function and make-up.

Remembering the Dead in Late Antiquity

Depiction of Mambres Cotton MS Tiberius B V-1 f. 87v
Depiction of Mambres with book contemplating Hell’s torments: from a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 87v

In Antiquity, remembering the dead was an integrated part of the cult of the ancestors. Traditionally, commemorations were held on the third, ninth, and fortieth days as well as at the anniversary. Additional commemorations were organised during the Parentalia, the feast for the Dead beginning on the 13th of February. An essential part of these remembrances were the traditional sacrifices of food and drink served up at the funerary festivities.

After the adoption of Christianity, funerals tended to incorporate the celebration of Masses. Thus, Augustine noted that the proper celebration at the gravesite on the third day after the interment should include a Mass. At first, the inclusion of a Mass did not abolish the more traditional meals, nor the libations through the holes carved in the covering slabs of stone. Gradually, theologians and bishops, however, came to admonish the faithful to convert their funerary meals into pious donations to the poor. Funerary eating and drinking came to be discouraged practices. As Caesarius of Arles noted, the deceased craved no sustenance. Later, Merovingian legislation from the sixth century and later downright forbade the practice.

To compensate, the early Church worked to introduce more formal commemorations of martyrs. Thus, Gregory I in the letter quoted below recommended to develop the cult of the martyrs as a substitution. As part of this rethinking, the officially sanctioned Liturgy of the Dead was gradually formalised. In the 9th century, this process culminated in a set practice involving a system of masses said for dead persons on the third, the seventh, and the 30th day after the demise. This liturgy was accompanied by the practice of offering to the poor by making donations to the Church.

This system of commemoration involved a series of practical negotiations balancing the interests of the testators, the heirs, and the representatives of the Church or monastery. Gradually, the argument was voiced that by nourishing the poor, the dead received equal sustenance while passing through the cleansing fires of purgatory.

Famously, this idea was formalised in the story of a monk from Rouergue who came to hear of the complaints of the devils. Whenever prayers were offered up, these beings were thwarted in their torturous ways towards the dead in the purgatory, the monk claimed. Based on this story, Odilo, an abbot at Cluny, created the double celebration of All Saints and All Souls, thus formatting a communion between the living and the dead. Later the adventures of Rouergue came to be spread as part of the popular Golden Legend, furnishing the fundament for the popularity of this calendrical invention.

Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited, since, if these same temples are well built, it is needful that they should be transferred from the worship of idols to the service of the true God; that, when the people themselves see that these temples are not destroyed, they may put away error from their heart, and, knowing and adoring the true God, may have recourse with the more familiarity to the places they have been accustomed to.
And, since they are wont to kill many oxen in sacrifice to demons, they should have also some solemnity of this kind in a changed form, so that on the day of dedication, or on the anniversaries of the holy martyrs whose relics are deposited there, they may make for themselves tents of the branches of trees around these temples that have been changed into churches, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasts.
Nor let them any longer sacrifice animals to the devil, but slay animals to the praise of God for their own eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all for their fullness, so that, while some joys are reserved to them outwardly, they may be able the more easily to incline their minds to inward joys. For it is undoubtedly impossible to cut away everything at once from hard hearts since one who strives to ascend to the highest place must needs rise by steps or paces, and not by leaps.
Quoted from:
Gregory I to Mellitus, Abbot in France, AD 597. Letter XI, 76. Translated by James Barmby, From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.

Guiding Ghosts

Cantiga de Santa Maria, CSM No 72.
Cantiga de Santa Maria, CSM No 72. The Song tells about a man, who was drinking and gambling in a tavern. When he lost at dice, he started cursing God and he mocked the Virgin’s body. When he cursed the Virgin’s womb, God struck him dead. The gambler’s father heard the news. He encountered a ghost who told him that his son had died in mortal sin; not because he had cursed Christ, but because he had insulted the Virgin. The ghost told the father that he would find his son’s body slit from top to bottom with his heart split in two. The father found his son exactly as described. And had him buried.

Travelling in a reverse movement from the hereafter to the world of the living, ghosts would now bring tidings of the next world – outlining the geography, the pitfalls, and the horrors encountered; and not least giving fair warning to the living. Rumour had it that passing through the wastelands of purgatory bordering on hell could turn out to be a particularly gruesome experience. No wonder, popular response was to find shortcuts through to the attractive state of heavenly bliss. Enter the medieval ghosts.

At first, ghosts played the role of petitioners asking for sustenance and help. Later, they appeared as tourist guides. As such, they increasingly cropped up in tales, poems, sermons, and paintings from the turn of the first millennium and until the Reformation, when the new churches curtailed the celebration and the ghosts turned into diabolical beings and monsters. However, ghosts were also political harbingers and helpmates intervening in political and social affairs involving their kin and kindred.

In a medieval sense, the afterlife offered three options – Hell, Purgatory or Paradise. In a formal sense, the Church held the absolute keys to these places, symbolically illustrated by the heraldic sign of the papacy, the Keys of St. Peter’s. The more liturgically established this function as a gate-keeper became, the more people seemed to need these other-worldly guides. We might say that the peculiar character of the medieval ghost was a reflection of how the official Liturgy of the Dead culminated in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Another aspect concerned the fates of people who had died in liminal situations. Perhaps somebody drowned, and their body was never found, or people died in accidents missing out on the last unction. In these cases, the rites des passages of the dead might be frightfully perilous, while the Church offered little or no comfort. Such wandering souls were hardly recognised by the Church but lived on the fringes of the popular imagination. In this world, sharing meals with the dead continued as part of the folk calendars in both the autumn and spring, with Christmas an especially important period. Much of these more “popular” commemorations took a decidedly “un-Christian” form such as setting the table for the departed, lightening a fire or heating the bath (Finland). In a popular context, ghosts appeared where anxieties of place and morality might be experienced.

Typically such popular ghosts made their appearances at distinct liminal times during the medieval calendars on days set aside for such encounters – at All Souls at the first days of winter, during Christmas the great yearly divider, and at Candle Mass, in the midst of darkness.

The Invention of the Macabre

Some time at the end of the 13th century, however, ghosts gradually turned into more macabre manifestations. No longer just pale, sorrowful and friendly apparitions, they turned into tangible and often horrific creatures encountering the living to remind them of the manifest horrors of their death.

One of these more evocative stories about encounters between the living and the dead is encapsulated in the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead. Originating in the 13th Century in France and England, it tells the story of three young noblemen who went out hunting. Suddenly they came upon three lively corpses, in varying stages of decay. While the young men voice their dismay and worry, the three corpses admonish them to dwell on the transience of life and their future fate; memento mori, they say. This story was often used to visually frame the prayers for the dying and the dead, such as they were included in any late medieval prayer-book, or Office for the Dead.

Out of this motive finally grew the specific theme of the “Dance Macrabre”. Such Dances were depicted in different media as the motive spread across Europe in the course of the fifteenth century. Known from major pieces of artwork in France, England, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, Spain, Italy and Istria these dances were compelling representations of violent dancing led by Death. Such dances aimed to confront viewers with the prospect of death and decay, not even popes or kings might avoid.




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