Anne Thayer

title.none: Gordon and Marshall, eds., The Place of the Dead (Anne Thayer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0111.008 01.11.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Thayer, Lancaster Theological Seminary,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Gordon, Bruce and Peter Marshall, eds. The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 324. ISBN: 0-512-64518-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.11.08

Gordon, Bruce and Peter Marshall, eds. The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 324. ISBN: 0-512-64518-2.

Reviewed by:

Anne Thayer
Lancaster Theological Seminary

The Place of the Dead is a very engaging book, composed of fourteen essays and a vigorous historiographical introduction, dedicated to the thesis that the placement of the dead in late medieval and early modern Europe was an important and illuminating societal task. As Gordon and Marshall write, "discourses about the dead" reveal "how these societies understood themselves, and how they articulated and negotiated religious, social and cultural developments and conflicts". (3) While local contexts shaped the details, overarching processes of commemoration and recollection, interplay between theology and custom, and pedagogical intention were at work. The editors acknowledge that the wide diversity of evolving understandings and practices preclude generalization, and yet the volume works as a whole because the reader can readily recognize ongoing themes and appreciate their variations.

Breadth of coverage is one of the strengths of this book. Three essays deal explicitly with the late medieval period, but nearly all the essays focused on early modern examples present their studies against the relevant late medieval background. This underscores the fundamental importance of religious change in the lives of individuals and societies in this time of reform. In the early modern period, Catholics, Anglicans, and several varieties of Protestants are studied. Geographically, this collection of essays concentrates on England and France, but also includes interesting studies of Scotland, Transylvania and Spain, demonstrating that important trends reached to the edges of Europe. There is only one essay concerning Germany, and no essay on early modern Italy. As Protestant and Catholic strongholds, more coverage here would have been welcome. The source base for these essays is remarkably broad--wills, parish registers, broadsheets, sermons, letters, canonization documents, chronicles, devotional treatises, prayer books, hospital records, architecture, inscriptions--all testifying to the embeddedness of the dead and their significance in local cultures. With a richness of detail, most of the essays are very clearly and persuasively written.

A related strength is the wide ranging historiographical introduction. Those interested in further pursuing the burgeoning field of the relations between the living and the dead in the late medieval and early modern periods will find a well-chosen bibliography in its text and footnotes. The introduction sets each of the essays in the context of contemporary scholarship and highlights shared concerns among the essays. Gordon and Marshall suggest that the late medieval and early modern periods were especially concerned with the past. The ongoing needs of church reform meant that across the confessional spectrum, Christians "self-consciously moulded the past in order to make sense of the present. Concern with the place of the dead bespeaks a fundamental need to relate past and present, whether in kinship or the continuity of the Church." (15) The volume as a whole confirms such a conjunction.

Plague and purgatory are often cited as keys to the study of death in the later Middle Ages, and the essays here confirm their heuristic value. Samuel Cohn compares ramifications of the plague in Tuscany and Flanders, concluding that in both regions individuals paid greater attention to the personalizing of their graves. Even so, despite the long-standing claims of Burkhardt and Huizinga, family ties remained strong in both areas. In his study of All Saints parish in Bristol, Clive Burgess draws strong purgatory-based connections between the commemoration of the dead, the fabric of parish life, and the tenor of piety and liturgy. Revenant spirits are the focus of Nancy Caciola's essay. Recognizing that many of her sources offer little more than glimpses into the interplay between systematic theologies and the experiences of local communities, she argues for the value of instances of temporary spirit possession in allowing the spirits of the dead to rest in the imagination of the community and in the reconstitution of the living community.

A major theme in the early modern essays is that of changing theology and practice. Bruce Gordon shows how Swiss Protestants sought to provide pastoral care in the face of death without purgatory, merging new theological convictions with ongoing sensibilities concerning death. Peter Marshall demonstrates that the Protestant tactics of satirizing the concreteness of purgatory led to the reevaluation of heaven and hell in more psychological and existential terms. With prayers for the dead no longer a licit bond between the living and the dead, Jacob Helt argues that English women willed their goods to other women as remembrances, seeking to preserve the network of relationships that had sustained them in life. Marshaling a good deal of enigmatic evidence, Will Coster seeks to address the ongoing questions of the rate of penetration of the Reformation in English society and the degree of affection of parents for infants by showing that between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries the interval between birth and baptism and the period of innocence associated with "chrisom" children grew longer.

Several essays concern the treatment of corpses as a window onto social relationships. Penny Roberts illuminates the role of funerals and cemeteries in the confessional separation and community formation of Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion. Andrew Spicer notes the degree to which Scottish church architecture adapted to new practices of burial, arguing that the wealthy and influential were able to promote family solidarity and fame despite new strictures. Following a corpse from death to burial to charnal house in Paris, Vanessa Harding argues that how long a corpse was seen in personal terms was a measure of the deceased's social and financial power.

Particularly interesting are a set of essays focused on "reading" deaths, that is, on the didactic or propagandistic messages that people were urged to take from the deaths of particular individuals. Larissa Taylor notes that the funeral sermon became in increasingly important genre in the early modern period. In France, she argues, Catholic preachers during the Wars of Religion increasingly exploited the funeral sermon as a vehicle to incite the living, especially the king, to take up the cause against heretics. Graeme Murdock demonstrates how the funeral sermons for Protestant rulers in Transylvania increasingly proclaimed the judgment of God against an incomplete Reformation as Ottoman forces threatened and then overran the principality. James Boyden offers a detailed account of the life and death of Don Rodrigo Calderon, a Spanish courtier whose corrupt life earned him death on the scaffold, but whose pious death became a penitential model. Royal authorities sought to present his death as political house-cleaning; Carmelites sought to present it as testimony to the power of Teresa of Avila to change the hearts of hardened sinners. In his essay on the "afterlives" of monstrous infants, Philip Soergel argues that Lutherans were particularly prone to using deformed (and usually stillborn) infants as visual portrayals of the deforming power of human sin.

This carefully edited volume will serve to whet the appetites of scholars new to the study of the dead. Most of its essays should be accessible to upper level undergraduates in history. To those more familiar with the topic, both graduate students and established scholars, these essays reveal the great richness of current scholarship in the field. The connections between the placement of the dead and many other historical issues confirm the value of this lens for focusing social and individual self-understanding. Gordon and Marshall conclude their introduction saying, "That most reflective and past- minded of activities, the remembrance and commemoration of the dead, is in every age a remarkably contemporary testimony." Their volume of essays makes this case well for the late medieval and early modern periods.