Learning to Die in London 1380-1540, 1380-1540
Learning to Die in London is the first book-length study of the late-medieval English ars moriendi, focusing on a body of writings in circulation between the 1380s, a generation after the Black Death, and the 1530s, the first decade of the English Reformation. The book argues that a schooled awareness of mortality was a vital aspect of London civic culture: critical both to the individual’s experience of interiority and the management of families and households and to the practices of cultural memory, institution-building, and government. At a time when an increasingly laicized religiosity coexisted with an ambitious program of urban renewal and cultural enrichment, and sometimes with violent political change, having an educated attitude to death was understood as essential to good living. Taking aim at the view, as Jan Huizinga asserted nearly a century ago, that medieval culture was pathologically morbid, the book demonstrates that the death discourse of the period was fundamentally practical and generative, tied to issues of right governance of the self and others in the political and religious spheres.
During the late fourteenth century, the household deathbed became a crucial site of laicization, a place where a model of Christian community was imagined that was increasingly independent of sacramental apparatus and clerical oversight. In chapter 1, Appleford reads two early versions of the earliest English ars moriendi, The Visitation of the Sick, and argues that this text supported the extension of the lay male householder’s spiritual governance of dependents to the moment of their death. Chapter 2 shows how London’s Common Clerk, John Carpenter (d. 1442), drew on orthodox death discourse both to commemorate the former mayor, Richard Whittington (d. 1423), and to perpetuate an image of the city as a mortality community. Carpenter’s other notable project was the Daunce of Poulys, the lost set of wall-panels erected in the cloister around the Pardon churchyard at St Paul’s during the 1340s with accompanying text by Lydgate; these panels offered an image of community that emphasized diversity, temporality, and social hierarchy even in the face of death, celebrating and defending civic society’s interests in the precinct of London’s cathedral. Chapter 3 turns from household and civic government to self-government, focusing on the death works that became integral to the laicized forms of asceticism practiced by privileged fifteenth-century Londoners, reading Middle English versions of the “learn to die” chapter from Henry Suso’s Horologium sapientiae (and texts that circulated with them), and Hoccleve’s Series. Rather than read the Series as Hoccleve’s attempt to be reaccepted into the community from which he had been exiled by illness, Appleford argues that the program of interior asceticism and conversion the Series lays out rests on a public continuation of his break with society. Chapter 4 considers the English translation of the Tractatus de arte bene moriendi, which circulated in the London merchant and urban gentry community of the late fifteenth century, and argues that it was connected to the Observant Reform movement, originating in the environs of Vienna at the time of the heresy trials of Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague. Chapter 5 examines the English death culture of the 1530s, the first decade of the English Reformation, discussing ars moriendi by Richard Whitford, Desiderius Erasmus, and Thomas Lupset. In these texts, learning to die is presented for the first time as taking place not only in the domestic space of the household but also in public view: as a contemporary spectacle to be prepared for that is scripted by a human author (the state executioner), not a divine one.