16.06.26, Appleford, Learning to Die in London, 1380-1540

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Ian Forrest

The Medieval Review 16.06.26

Appleford, Amy. Learning to Die in London, 1380-1540. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. pp. 336. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4669-8 (hardback) 978-0-8122-9047-9 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Ian Forrest
Oxford University

It is something of a commonplace that the people of the later Middle Ages were obsessed with dying and death, a psychological effect of epidemic disease on the individual and collective psyche in the two hundred years after 1348. Historians dealing with this subject will tend to provide illustrative evidence from the ars moriendi or "art of dying" texts that circulated in increasing numbers in those two centuries. For the most part, however, this commonplace is a view held only in general terms, and the textual tradition of the ars moriendi is treated as a more-or-less unified whole, an emanation of some general late medieval mentalité. In this book Amy Appleford advances the study of this textual tradition considerably, both in its own terms and as a vehicle for posing broader questions about the culture of this period. Her basic, and striking, contention is that this tradition was highly dynamic and evolving over the period from about 1380 to about 1540, reflecting significantly different trends in piety, urban culture, and social relations (though this latter point is more suggested than fully demonstrated). There is no sensible way to speak of "late medieval religion" as if it were a single entity easily demarcated from sixteenth-century varieties of "reformed religion," whether Protestant or Catholic. There was flux and variety within the later medieval church, and this was more extensive than the condescending and still-powerful teleology that valorises a few "forerunners to the Reformation" as remarkably modern individuals standing out from the medieval crowd. Appleford provides a detailed and nuanced study--no stone is left unturned as she guides the reader through her chosen texts and manuscripts--that puts such lazy thinking to shame. She also invigorates the study of late medieval vernacular writing by rejecting the faux-qualitative debates of the "censorship" argument, by focussing her study on an unfashionable body of texts, and by giving attention (in places sustained attention) to the importance of social context and place. In this respect she practices an interdisciplinarity that takes history as seriously as it does literary concerns, and in which the literary critic's concern with voice and inflection brings greater subjectivity to the topic than one finds in much of the existing scholarship.

The study is arranged chronologically, with each chapter taking a salient example of the ars moriendi tradition as its subject, locating it in specific manuscripts and specific ownership contexts as well as in its intellectual lineages and family resemblances. Because she wants to write about texts in such an anchored way, there is a good deal of "history of the whole book" manuscript studies about her approach, but also a fussier attention to identifiable owners than would trouble many authors. Social context matters a great deal. Though this context shifts subtly throughout the book, and in ways that would bear being more fully explored in future research, the focus is squarely upon largely male urban elite readers, their households and networks. In her conclusion Appleford summarises her efforts at contextualization as being guided by links to "known individuals and communities," and this is for the most part successful, but several of the chapters also focus very strongly upon place: particular buildings and institutions, and the way they related to the public functions, reputation and social setting in which her readers lived their lives. That this is subject to rather little reflection in either the body of the discussion or the nicely open-ended conclusion suggests that the author may not be fully conscious of this particular analytical strategy. Perhaps she was, but I would love to learn more about how she conceptualizes the role of place and space in defining the experience of reading in general and specific texts as well. On the other hand, perhaps it was not an analytical strategy but a rhetorical device designed to work against the privileging of the text's own agency in literary histories. If so, I liked it, and found it an effective device, but again, perhaps more could be made of it.

The introduction positions the book as a study of a moment--death, its sacrament and rituals--that was peculiarly amenable to appropriation for the purposes of individual and collective self-fashioning. For Appleford the rites of the deathbed, as mediated through and guided by the texts under examination, were available for incorporation into civic politics and the formation of a series of expressions of urban elite identity. The reason she gives is that at this moment, while a priest was often assumed to be an appropriate presence, he was not always thought to be an entirely necessary one. This is certainly borne out by the exposition and analysis that follows, but I was also struck by the omissions here. First, how extensive were ideas about the possibility of a priest-free good death? It is hard to say when the evidence relates to minority elite culture. Second, this observation would also be true--and more socially widespread--in the case of baptism, of which parents had long been taught that they could administer the words themselves if the need was urgent, and marriage, which in canon law did not demand the presence of a priest. This is not a quibble that undermines any part of Appleford's argument, but it does point to the wider phenomenon of which she illuminates an important aspect, namely the way that lay initiative in religion could expand in areas where there was not an absolute clerical monopoly. For the urban elites under consideration here, the particular resonances of the ars moriendi tradition were consonant with models of governance on different scales (the self, the household, and the city).

Chapter 1, "Spiritual governance and the lay household: The Visitation of the Sick," traces the influence of the pseudo-Augustinian De visitatione infirmorum and Anselm's Admonitio morienti upon the Middle English text The Visitation of the Sick. Version 'A' of this work directed its instructions to the priest who was to function as the representative of the dying person before God, but the version commonly known as 'E' included an innovation in being intended for the instruction of a lay male elite head of household who was imagined as having spiritual responsibility for his familia and his tenants. The head of household and not the priest was here the proxy for the dying person. This text circulated in manuscripts with clear urban, reformist, even Wycliffite sympathies, and it is easy to see how the textual displacement of the priest at the deathbed might appeal to a reader of that sort. Appleford connects this text to a laicization of the deathbed, with the priest's pastoral and liturgical role capable of being filled by an elite lay male. Nevertheless, this shift did not mean a substantial change in the practice or theology of dying: comfort and readiness were still privileged over an examination of faith. That is to say, any Wycliffite sympathies of the text did not extend to promoting a more intellectual piety, and the elite milieu of the reformist text drips with a paternalism that has merely found for itself a new mouthpiece.

The second chapter, "Dying Generations: The Dance of Death," begins the book's intense focus upon specific readers and settings. Evidentially, the discussion is based around a place (the churchyard of St Paul's in London) and an image (the Daunce of Poulys, commissioned by John Carpenter) that are no longer in existence, destroyed by the great fire in 1666. In conjuring the place and the image through Derek Keene's reconstruction of the old cathedral close and John Lydgate's poem The Dance of Death, which provided the base text for the mural painting, Appleford manages to paradoxically use their nonexistence to remind her reader of the importance of spatial and visual experience in ordering social and spiritual relationships. But this is still a story primarily about manuscripts and readers, with the leading characters being Richard Whittington, London's most famous mayor, and his executor, the clerk of the Common Council, John Carpenter. Through the networks, spaces, texts and images connected with these men, Appleford explores the role that the civic elite took upon themselves to govern well, in the spiritual as well as the material interests of all citizens (which meant economically--and legally--privileged elite males). Reflection upon death, she argues, was for them a spur to particularly acute feelings of civic responsibility, a sort of renaissance mode of humanistic Christianity. Whittington's deathbed, as depicted in the 1442 translation of the ordinances for his almshouse, followed Visitation E in being explicitly non-clerical, but in his mayoralty he felt spiritual responsibility not just for household but for city as well, as evinced in his multiple charitable foundations (almshouse, chantry, guildhall library). And for Whittington "city" meant wealth creation, patriarchy, and charitable support for those prepared to help themselves: any misgivings about wealth were channelled to enable the wealthy man to disdain, and cope with, his riches. The reformism of Whittington and Carpenter was not Wycliffite but avowedly anti-heretical, associated with learned London clerics such as Reginald Pecock, whose later trial for heresy nevertheless showed the dangers of sailing close to the wind. They wanted to embrace lay aspirations, but their projects turned in on themselves in paroxysms of angst over heresy.

Chapter 3, "Self-Care and Lay Asceticism: Learn to Die" extends this theme, examining the ways in which blatantly sectional interests could co-exist with a desire for the "common profit." Places are again used to ground the discussion--the London Charterhouse and St Bartholomew's hospital--but this feels more rhetorical than in the previous chapter, and texts, genre and manuscripts reign supreme. The interiority and egoism that combined with a rather abstract communal piety in Carthusian houses was paralleled in texts for the elite lay reader, for whom death meditation was promoted as a means to help oneself and to transcend both death itself and the collectivity of one's fellow Christians. Appleford calls this a "counter discourse" to the communitarian paradigm of Carpenter and Whittington, but there must have been elements of continuity or unconscious co-existence between the two attitudes to dying well. After all, there was plenty of egotism (if not provable egoism) in those men's activities. Readers of the Learn to Die section of Henry Suso's Horologium sapientiae, the Middle English Pety Job, the Twelve Profits of Tribulation, and elements of Hoccleve's Series, were encouraged to achieve a good death by an almost asocial rejection of other Christians, relying on their own mental preparations rather than any communal deathbed ritual.

Chapter 4, "Wounded Texts and Worried Readers: The Book of the Craft of Dying," takes us on into the later fifteenth century, a time when manuscripts and printed books pointed to a further shift away from communitarian and catechetical pastoral works, going even beyond the self-help of Learn to Die, and arriving in a death culture that was more "ambitious" and "perfectionist," more influenced by eremitic death-preparation practices. But how popular and widespread was this? Appleford suggests that the eremitic piety of an urban lay elite and their relations in certain religious houses was more "serious" than that of the majority, but I see no reason for doubting the seriousness of people who felt compelled by less extreme forms of religious practice. Whoever, this does nothing to blunt her discussion of the texts and their particular reading contexts. She begins by pointing out how particular the English experience of this trend was. In contrast to Germany, where "perfectionist" ideals affected majority piety by stimulating doctrines of adequate intention (in lieu of perfect achievement), in England these ideals were presented as exclusive and not for everyone. The inequalities of belief, one might say, in which the majority were told to simply believe what the church determined, did not trouble this self-regarding readership. The main text discussed here is the Book of the Craft of Dying, which was derived from Jean Gerson's De scientia mortis, translated c. 1430 and popular among London lay elites and religious alike (marking it out from the largely lay audience of The Visitation of the Sick), and also influenced by his Opusculum tripartitum which included a description of the deathbed as a site of pastoral care. It constructed the Christian community of the city as a variant of the monastery, in which neighbours replace the brother monks whose duty it is to rush to the bedside of a dying person. This was less isolationist than some works, requiring the reader's involvement with a "specialist death community," in effect this ascetic elite coming together to support one another's quest for perfection. The deathbed was, however, not the place for family, whose presence could be distracting. The Book of the Craft includes a section aimed at the attendants at the deathbed, exhorting them to comfort the dying person, while all are reminded that death demands specific preparation: life's devotions will not suffice and one cannot just go through the motions. For all that it was read by religious, the Book of the Craft translates prayers usually said by a priest in Latin into English with the expectation that everyone present was to recite. But unlike The Visitation of the Sick is assumes the presence of a priest. It is possible, though not an avenue explored by Appleford, that the clericalism of this network was in part a reaction against the troubling association of earlier lay fashions with heresy. The Book of the Craft was part of a wave of translations or English derivations of Gerson's work, as well as being one component of a trend for the imitation of French devotional culture in elite circles. Appleford's attempt to link the concerns of this work to one specific family and its circumstances is her least successful bit of contextualization. John Manningham's will is interesting, but there are lots of interesting wills. The suggestion that this trend prepared the way for the reception of Erasmian humanism and Lutheranism is highly persuasive.

Chapter 5, "The Exercise of Death in Henrician England: Martin Luther's Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben," looks at the development of patterns in death piety in the Reformation decades of the 1530s and 1540s. Appleford argues that Luther, rather than responding to the late medieval cultivation of fear in preparation for death, instead responded to his own fear, alighting upon a "simplified deathbed experience" consisting of praise informed by faith. This provides a contrast to English death texts of the 1530s, which do not enforce Luther's rejection of the idea that fear could be a virtue. Late-medieval traditions had a stronger influence upon early-Reformation texts. The other major particularity of this time and place was occasioned by the bloodiness of Henry VIII's reign. Fear of death shifted from being general and something that could be prepared for in an ordered life, to something that might arrive suddenly, leaving no time for preparation. Themes of preparing a deathbed give way to preparing for public death as a performance. Again this only makes sense in an elite milieu. Richard Whitford's Daily Exercise and Experience of Death Erasmus's Preparation to Death, and Thomas Lupset's A Treatise of Dying Well could not imagine the desired harmony of a deathbed where "even Cristen" (fellow Christians) mediated for the dying person a rapprochement with unified temporal and eternal powers. If there is a lesson here for studies of lay belief over the long term, it is that there was no single "medieval Catholic" attitude to dying, and no simple replacement of Catholic with Lutheran ideas.

One overall aim of Appleford's interesting and learned book is to use the ars moriendi texts to explore the 'possibilities for ethical behaviour' amongst late medieval Londoners. Death discourse is persuasively positioned as a bridge between some subjects usually treated separately, such as communal (ritual) and personal (affective) devotion, religious reformism and interest in "classical" models of civic life and aesthetics, and between the persistent categories of medieval and early modern. Elite forms of status differentiation and sociability are revealed as being quite as important as a precondition for reformation as the doctrinal trends towards self-help, anxiety, and lay initiative.

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