Book Review

Learning to Die in London, 1380–1540 by Amy Appleford

Matt Firth (reviewer) – Parergon 33 (No. 1, 2016)

In a book that is as much a product of a fascination with representations of death and dying as it is an exploration of contemporary cultural attitudes these representations display, Amy Appleford traces the evolution of mortality in London during a ‘long’ fifteenth century. Defining the period as bracketed by the Black Death and the Reformation, Appleford explores significant social changes that were not geographically or conceptually limited to London. Nonetheless, as she carefully establishes, in this period, ‘death became a focus of special intensity’ (p. 2) and, by limiting her study to London, Appleford provides the reader with a serviceable structure. From the legacy of the city’s burgeoning literary culture, she has selected texts for five case studies that allow her to move the discussion along chronologically.

The book’s first chapters are interdependent and look to lay mortuary rites and cultures in their social contexts. Chapter 1 explores the devolution of spiritual authority upon lay householders and the role of the laity as domestic deathbed attendants. The second chapter takes this discussion into wider civic consideration. While still focusing upon the presence of the laity at the deathbed, Appleford looks rather to the person in the bed as opposed to those next to it. Among her sources are such formal documents as wills and ordinances that demonstrate – as well as any ‘death text’ – the contemporary emphasis placed upon the civic benefits of a good death and that for fifteenth-century Londoners piety was tied to civic philanthropy.

The next three chapters have a more personal focus. Chapter 3 turns to matters of personal asceticism with its inherent emphasis on sin, suffering, and tribulation and the need for individuals to meditate on their approaching death and understand the doctrine of death. In this way, the penitent may be saved from torment in the next world. Chapter 4 builds on the idea of entering into death for the penitent. The chapter draws together disparate arguments to conclude that the rejection of the world and the settlement of
worldly debts were a core tenet of London death cultures.

Appleford’s final chapter offers her conclusion. Her discussion of Henrician England draws the reader to conclude that the rituals of death in Reformation London simply reflect the evolution of mortuary cultures from the time of the Black Death.

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