URI history professor edits book about death in Medieval Europe

Posted on
Joëlle Rollo-Koster, of South Kingstown, a professor of medieval history at the University of Rhode Island. Photo by Michael Salerno.

KINGSTON, R.I., January 4, 2017—Back in the Middle Ages, popes were embalmed with spices and rubbed with a good white wine, wealthy people were often buried in more than one place, and cemeteries turned into brothels at night.

These tidbits come effortlessly from Joëlle Rollo-Koster, a University of Rhode Island history professor whose collection of essays, Death in Medieval Europe: Death Scripted and Death Choreographed, was just published by Routledge.

“Images of death abounded in the later Middle Ages, especially in the period after the Black Death in the mid-14th century,’’ says Rollo-Koster, a renowned medieval scholar. “It was part of life, ritualized and choreographed, unlike today, where it is hidden and closeted.”

The essays by Rollo-Koster and other scholars explore the cultural effects of death and how it influenced everyday life, from mourning practices to commemorations. URI chatted with her recently about her research.

In the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman has two caskets—one with his body, the other empty. What medieval practice are we seeing?

People who saw the movie may not realize that they witnessed somewhat of a traditional medieval funeral, with a double burial. We see Superman buried at home and also away in grand pomp. The real burial takes place at home, as we see a body being lowered into the ground. The grand funeral shows a hearse with an empty coffin. The movie is a reflection of what happened when princes and rulers were buried.

Death in Medieval Europe: Death Scripted and Death Choreographed

Late medieval institutions feared political transitions—they were dangerous and people tried to change the status quo—so when a leader died institutions created the illusion of continuity, as in “The king is dead, long live the king.” Leaders developed a double persona, physical in the king or pope, and institutional in the monarchy or papacy. Thus, the king died but the monarchy continued. The pope died but the papacy continued. Power was ritualized during funerals with symbolic empty coffins that represented the survival of the institution. The person was buried but the empty coffin was paraded as a symbol to show that you could mourn the dead man but the institution continued regardless.

Spices were used heavily during embalming in the Middle Ages. Tell us more.

Wealthy people were embalmed. I have studied how popes were embalmed. Chamberlains filled the mouth, ears and nose with cotton, oakum, myrrh, incense and aloe, if available. They rubbed the body with a “good white wine” heated with smelling herbs, or with a good Garnache wine. They stuffed the throat with herbs, spices and cotton and the nostrils with, and they rubbed the body vigorously with balsam. Sounds like a fine recipe!

The famous medieval surgeon Guy de Chauliac gives us the list of embalming spices. They included aloe, myrrh, acacia, nutmeg, the skin of pomegranates, cypress nuts, sandalwood, aloe wood, salt, cumin and alum dissolved in vinegar. They put quicksilver (mercury) in the nostrils, ears and mouth to prevent the brain from liquefying.

Medieval medicine put a lot of emphasis on miasma (bad air). Bad air caused disease, so the same way people fought the plague with pleasant smell—as in the nursery rhyme, “ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies”—they tried to prevent the body from stinking. It’s interesting to note that in French the word embaumer means smelling good and embalming. The French verb makes the link between smell, putrefaction, disease and death. A good medieval embalming allowed a corpse to be preserved (and thus viewed) for up to eight days. That was a feat!

Where were cemeteries in the Middle Ages?

Cemeteries were not hidden from view or enclosed within walls. They were part of the town. I have evidence for the city of Avignon in the 14th century showing that markets took place in cemeteries and that merchant’s stalls were put up.

Cemeteries were social spaces. People were known to drink and gamble there (medieval people loved playing dices), and most of all prostitutes plied their trades. Burial must not have been really deep because there is also evidence that in Avignon when the Rhône flooded, bodies were unearthed and seen floating. Most people were buried naked in a shroud, in the dirt, without a coffin. Only wealthy people had coffins.

Mass graves were dug during epidemics, like during the plague. People threw lime on the body to hasten decomposition. The church preached that resurrection was spiritual but most folks assumed that resurrection would be physical, thus they wanted to have as many bones left over so their bodies would be “recomposed” correctly. When the plague arrived and there was no more space for bodies most were “discarted” but ossuaries were built with at least a couple of leg bones and the skull, so everyone would have a chance at a full reconstitution for resurrection.

Why do we hide death in modern times?

There is tremendous discomfort with having serious discussion about death now. Look, for example, at the debate surrounding euthanasia. We see death in all the media, but even so we cannot conceptualize it as something “real.” It’s like a video game. I think that we are all too narcissistic, self-absorbed and busy to think about it.

But medieval people considered that real life was in the afterlife so death was something they longed for. The majority heard day and night that life “afterward” would be better than this one, so why fear it? Plus medieval death was public. And I do think that our modern aseptic and isolated deaths lack the comfort that death, at home, surrounded by friends and family provided. Medieval people actually had the concept of a “perfect death.” It was a long, slow decay. The agony was prolonged so people would do their acts of contrition, pray, confess, be absolved and, finally, pass knowing that all would be well afterward. Sudden and quick death meant that God was punishing you, so you had no time to prepare for a safe passage. Hence, most medieval ghosts and revenants had died too quickly without a chance to prepare for a “good” death.