‘There the Cords of Life Broke’: Attitudes Towards Death, Dying, and the Deceased in Early Modern England

Death is the inevitable end of life. Indeed, our conception of ‘life’ is dependent on our notion of death. This fact has remained unchanged for the entirety of human existence and has been understood by humans for as long as they’ve existed. However, the immutable nature of death does not mean that attitudes towards it have not changed. On the contrary, the evolution of culture, religion, and technology have greatly altered our understanding and perception of death.

Thomas Hill’s The Doleful Dance and Sad Song of Death

In this article, I intend to look back at what we know of attitudes towards death in early modern England through depictions of it in popular culture. Death cannot be eluded and the concept of inevitability was a well-known and prominent aspect to this discussion in early modern England. In Act 1, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gertrude tells Hamlet ‘Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die.’ It is this truism, which both makes death something greatly feared yet illogical to fear. An aspect of death’s universality is that it cares not for rank, wealth, or class. This was a popular theme as well in early modern England. Thomas Hill’s famous 17th-century ballad ‘The Doleful Dance and Sad Song of Death’ describes death as ‘a dance that every one must do’ including ‘the beggar and the King, and every man in his degree.’ Early modern artists often incorporated this idea into their work and it was by no means restricted to England. Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562), for example, depicts a war-like scene in which crowds of people are massacred by an army of skeletons. It features a dying King reaching out for his gold (a sign of illogical human vanity in the face of death) as well as dead and dying people of all social orders, from a soldier to a cardinal. Hans Holbein, the renowned artist of various royal portraits during the reign of Henry VIII, also dabbled in such works prior to arriving in England. In a series of memento mori woodcuts, grouped together as his Dance of Death, Holbein depicts Death (represented as a skeleton in typical early modern — and medieval — style) coming for such figures as a King, the Pope, a judge, a monk, a nun, a nobleman, a soldier, a doctor, and more. Consequently, it points out that death comes for all, regardless of status, and that it trumps even the mightiest of armies and does not care for human constructs like justice. Thus, what became important for medieval and early modern societies, including England, was not if or when a person died but rather how this person died.

The Murder of Thomas Becket

In their article ‘The Final Moment before Death in Early Modern England’, Richard Wunderli and Gerald Broce observe that one belief, which was shared by Protestants and Catholics in early modern England, was the notion that a dying person’s final mindset could determine their salvation. In order to provide evidence of such a belief in popular culture, they cite the moment from Hamlet when the titular character decides not to kill King Claudius in revenge for his father’s death at the new King’s hand. Hamlet considers the possibility but then dismisses it, stating that ‘Now I might do it pat, now he is praying. And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven.’ In an ironic twist, the audience — but not Hamlet — discovers that Claudius, by his own admission, was unable to pray properly to God and therefore Hamlet could have safely dispatched of him at once. What is important, however, is that for all the crimes carried out by Claudius (including fratricide, carrying ‘the primal eldest curse’), if he were to die praying he would acquire salvation. This was a longstanding and widely held English belief. A well-known example was the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, which was made more rank by its happening in Canterbury Cathedral while he was praying and regardless of the veracity of such details. His death became a symbol of the ultimate devotion to God, for which he was made a Saint. This was also the reason behind confessions carried out before execution, designed to make godly the mindset of the condemned.

We can learn about such confessions from ballads, which claimed to transcribe them. One such ballad (written anonymously) from 1727 claims to detail the confession of William Stevenson, who was executed in August of that year for the murder of Mary Fawden. In his dying words, Stevenson admits that ‘my poor sinful soul is filthy and foul’ and asks God to ‘take some pity’ on him. Another (fictional) example of this process can be found in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi when in Act 5, Scene 4 Bosola stabs who he believes to be either Ferdinand or the Cardinal (both the evil patriarchs of the play) and exclaims ‘I’ll not give thee so much leisure as to pray.’ By robbing the dying of their ability to pray, Bosola can ensure that they don’t get the chance to go to heaven. In this case, and in a cruel dramatic irony which is typical of Webster’s work, Bosola actually slays Antonio, who is a good man. The idea of the “final moment” gave individuals the power to determine their own salvation (a notion that was not supported by the Church at the time) and thus it could both be used by sinners to achieve salvation or by others to deny them of it. Of course, the dying moments were not the end for attitudes towards death, even if they marked the end of a person’s life.

Early modern English attitudes towards death were as much, if not more, concerned about what happened after death rather than what preceded it. It is also at this point that the differences between class and gender become most visible. In terms of class, we can compare the death of Hamlet, who dies a heroic and princely death, with the death of those in service. In The Duchess of Malfi, themes about the injustice of service are crucial to the plot. At one point near the end of the play, Bosola kills a servant so that he ‘shall not unbarricade the door/To let in rescue.’ Where the deaths of servants are not entirely devoid of description, they are often undignified. Polonius’ death in Hamlet is another example. Hamlet describes his body as ‘At supper […] Not where he eats, but where he is eaten [by worms].’ Conversely, women are often described as beautiful after death, not uncommonly with sexual undertones. The Duchess’s corpse in The Duchess of Malfi is so beautiful that it shocks Ferdinand (who orchestrated her murder) and makes his ‘eyes dazzle.’ Similarly, Valerie Traub contends that Ophelia’s body, following her suicide in Act 4 of Hamlet, is ‘an eroticized yet chaste corpse’. As a consequence, the role of gender, as well as class, in attitudes towards death — particularly in early modern English theatre — is emphasised most following the moment of death itself.

What is clear is that early modern attitudes towards death both in England and Europe were primarily concerned with three main aspects: its inevitability, its role in deciding the fate of those for whom the bell tolls and its effects, namely attitudes towards the dead. Although technological advancements, such as scientific discoveries, led to a greater understanding of death and a more developed religion supposedly changed perspectives on death, the underlying (and religiously unifying) view of death as an inevitable and important stage of a person’s life, which was important in deciding their afterlife, remained strong throughout the period and to some degree remains strong today. However, the decline of widespread religious belief and increase in quality and longevity of life has allowed us to try and shun the looming presence of our own mortality which for early modern English men and women simply couldn’t be ignored.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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