'Oh Death!': Death, Dying, and the Culture of the Macabre in the Late Middle Ages Prepared by Emily Rebekah Huber



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'Oh Death!': Death, Dying, and the Culture of the Macabre in the Late Middle Ages

Prepared by
Emily Rebekah Huber





"Oh death!
Won't you spare me over till another year?
Well, what is this that I can't see,
With ice cold hands taking hold of me?"
"Well, I am death, none can excel,
I'll open the door to heaven or hell.
I'll fix your feet till you can't walk.
I'll lock your jaw till you can't talk.
I'll close your eyes so you can't see.
This very hour come and go with me.
In death I come to take the soul,
Leave the body and leave it cold
To drop the flesh off of the frame.
The earth and worms both have a claim."
"Oh death,
Oh death!
Won't you spare me over till another year?"
--Appalachian Folksong


[The image above is a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut from 1493 entitled "The Orchestra of the Dead." The scene is a fine example of the wild carnivalesque atmosphere emphasized in the popular motif of the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death. Binsky points out that the Danse may have been an ironic commentary on the Church's prohibition against dancing in graveyards.]

Preface

The popular lines at the beginning of this booklet keenly illustrate several of the key concepts present in a discussion of death-culture in the late Middle Ages. At its essence, the culture of the macabre represented a kind of dialogue between those mortals who would all, someday, face death, and that inevitable, undefeatable force that took their life. Medieval culture fixated on those physical aspects of death that strike modern people as viscerally disturbing: images of physical deterioration, paralysis, burial, and decay are all things that we sanitize and cloister away behind the walls of hospitals, hushed and dimly lit funeral homes, and the silence of graveyards. While our culture, in its increasing secularism, and in its sanitization and silencing of death, is radically different from that of the European Middle Ages, the survival of such images as those depicted in the Appalachian song demonstrates the continuity, albeit uncomfortable, between the macabre culture of the late Middle Ages and our own.




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