- Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature by Kenneth Rooney
The porous boundaries in the Middle Ages between the dead and the living, and the role of the medieval imagination in configuring the dead in a multiplicity of ways, are the subject of Kenneth Rooney's study. He probes aspects of medieval beliefs and attitudes that remain an alterity for us, despite our increased exposure to violence and death through today's media. Medieval people were confronted regularly by the reality of physical decay, and their perceptions of the more gruesome aspects of mortality appear in both texts and art. This focus on what is thought to happen to the dead body, the literary perspective from which Rooney explores his subject, and the wide range of texts discussed, complement both scholarship with a religious or historical base and literary studies with a narrower focus. Hence his work could serve students and scholars from any discipline with an interest in attitudes to death in the Middle Ages. [End Page 306]
Rooney's central thesis is that notions of the macabre began in homiletic rhetoric, and emerged visually in pictorial art, with an ultimate flowering in transi tombs and images of the Danse Macabre and The Legend of the Three Living and Three Dead. This iconography then fed back into literary representations. He starts with a long discussion of the cultural context of macabre thinking and the preoccupation with the decaying corpse, the transi. Subsequent chapters move from representations of the inert corpse to those of the revenant, the animated dead body, and the disembodied ghost. Later chapters continue with the analysis of texts that illuminate the imagined experience of being dead, and works in which the personified figure of Death appears.
There are many aspects of this book that deserve appreciation. The book is a vast compendium of information about attitudes to, and beliefs about, death in the Middle Ages and later. Rooney is an excellent storyteller, and takes us through many texts in a beguiling and easy-to-read style, frequently with a gentle humour. A literary historian who has his readers bursting to read the texts he discusses has achieved something that one would hope would render any defects in his work negligible.
However, I found it hard to ignore the book's problems. First, the structure: Rooney repeatedly defines his purpose as dealing with the macabre. But unable to resist the much broader context, he spends many pages digressing. He strains to fit his examples into his argument; for example, is a mention of worms sufficient to define a text as macabre? He strains even harder to identify necrophilia in his texts. I frequently wanted to argue. He has trouble containing his material in the designated chapters, since many of his examples fit under multiple headings. This difficulty seems inevitable given the enormously diverse and inconsistent nature of his material. The scope of his study stretches way beyond its promise of dealing with death in Middle English literature, to include Boccaccio, French texts, many pages on non-English images, multiple discussions of early modern examples, and many other barely relevant digressions into background information or non-macabre examples. Interesting collections of epigraphs before each chapter are presumably intended to show that these attitudes persisted up to the nineteenth century (even Tennyson is quoted); but they do serve to cloud the stated medieval focus of the book. A simple modification of subtitle and more accurate definitions of scope would help the reader's expectations.
Beyond these structural anomalies, Rooney's style presents problems. Apart from his engaging narrative style, the complexity of his discussion is compounded by his penchant for unusual words and secondary or obsolete meanings: condign, intercalate, invention (for 'discovery'), interruption (for 'eruption'), and many more. For example, what is a reader to make of [End Page 307] alliterative verse's 'tendency to fashion objects in hecatombs of synonyms' (my italics, p. 246)?