John Bossy
Christianity in the West

In defining the doctrine in a steadily more explicit form, as it did in the Councils of Lyon (1274), Florence (1439) and Trent, the Church seems to have been as much following as determining the simple deductions of lay instinct and speculation. Dante's Divine Comedy, which had after 1320 put purgatory indelibly on the map of Western consciousness, was a monument to both its learned and its instinctual sources. This did not mean that the average person now had a clear view of the kind of place, or rather state, that purgatory was. The idea, not recognised by Dante but favoured by the Church on quasi-scriptural grounds, that the agent of purgation was fire and purgatory a sort of cave from which, in the end, souls would fly up to heaven does not seem to have impinged much on the general consciousness until the fifteenth century. Thereafter, encouraged by the indulgence preachers, it made a great deal of headway.

Meanwhile the common-sense view was that the souls of the dead would naturally be more or less where their bodies were, in the churchyard, and suffering rather from cold and wet than from excessive heat. The conviction transpires from the discussions of the subject which occurred in Montaillou, from a vast corpus of folk-tales, and indeed from a certain amount of respectable liturgical practice. The falling back on purgatory as the immediate destination of the dead made it possible to envisage death as a passage into a collectivity whose location was the churchyard, and which therefore possessed its own proper segment of the common territory, as the living possessed theirs. The medieval churchyard, as Aries bas explained, was a social institution of distinctive character. The early Christians, conforming to the pattern still expressed in the liturgy, had buried their dead ad sanctos, close to the tombs of the martyrs and outside inhabited places. With regional exceptions, like Ireland, the medieval burial-place was commonly in the middle of the dwelling-places of the living, in a churchyard which was also a centre of social activity, a place for festivity and trade. Consecrated, a holy place, it was an area of inviolability, a sanctuary or Friedhof which would be polluted by the shedding of blood or seed and require reconsecration. In passing into the community of the dead one was passing into a region of compulsory peace, and it was in this way that the detachment of the dying from their relationships among the living could be understood and to a degree accepted. The churchyard was a collective place: individual burial-places were not marked or remembered, snd when the flah had rotted the bones were, commonly, like Yorick's, dug up and added to the anonymous mass in the charnel-house.

During the fifteenth century, representations of the community of the dead as a model for the community of the living achieved a memorable form in the danse macabre, Totentanz or dance of the dead (not 'dance of death' until the theme was taken up by sixteenth-century artists who did not quite see the point). Painted on the cloister wall of a number of celebrated churchyards, notably of the Cimetiere des Innocents in Paris, it portrayed a circle where the dead alternate, holding hands, with the living, and lead them in a dance around the graves. The skeletal dead, an undifferentiated community of equals, dance keenly, the living reluctantly: weighed down by robes, possessions and thoughts about status, they have to be dragged in by the dead, polite but firm. The grave in the fifteenth century was not a private but a public place and embracing, of a sort, compulsory.

The dead as a model for the living, and death as a passage into collective existence, impinged on the life of communities at at least two moments. When John Donne advised his Jacobean hearers not to ask for whom the bell tolled, since it tolled for them, he was invoking a complex of formal practice and customary behaviour which affirmed that when an individual died the normal distinctions within a community were suspended at the tolling of the bell the neighbourhood was encouraged to drop what it was doing and follow the priest to the bedside, or at least to say a prayer for the soul of the dying; indulgences were granted for attendance at death-bed and funeral procession. By the fifteenth century it was very likely that the business of carrying the body to church, of seeing to its burial, even of watching by the body in the house, would be in the hands of a parish fraternity dedicated, like lifeboat-men, to that charitable purpose. The general responsiveness to these invitations to collective piety is evident from a variety of customs exemplifying what has been called the 'truce of death.' Since the confession and, if relevant, will of the dying had to include a granting of forgiveness to offenders and a seeking for forgiveness for offences, it was possible for those at enmity with the dying to appear at death-bed and burial rites; the stereotype of the death-bed reconciliation is something more than a cliche. There was also the rule, widely observed later, that the nuntius mortis, the person who would go round to give formal notice of the death, must not be related to, or even friends with, the dead person. Such obligatory togetherness has ended, in modern times, with the funeral feast after burial. It existed also in the general feast of All Souls, which was one of the great festivals of traditional Christianity, drawing its strength from an increasing concern in the church and among the pious about the release from purgatory of those who had no or insufficient living 'friends' to pray or have masses said for them.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.