- Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola
Nancy Mandeville Caciola, Shami Ghosh, Medieval Christianity, Medieval religion, European Paganism, after life, afterlife, ressurection, undead, ghosts, spirits, living corpses, revenants, death, thanatology, Paganism, death in the Middle Ages
As the one fact of life about which there is certainty, death has always played a major role in cultural and religious traditions around the world; this is perhaps especially true of the Christian Middle Ages. Christianity is a religion fundamentally based on death: Christ was born as a human being in order to cleanse humanity of sin through his death, and thus also free humanity of mortality (itself arising from sin) by providing the possibility of the soul's resurrection in heaven. There remained, however, the possibility of a life after death: in hell, and as the medieval centuries wore on, in other forms and places. In an age of low life expectancy, regular outbreaks of epidemics, and even at the best of times, high levels of infant, child, and maternal mortality, death was a constant presence in everyday life, and so too were the dead.
In a manner similar to Thomas Laqueur in his recent magnum opus, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (2015), Nancy Mandeville Caciola begins her book with the proposition that "the dead are quite intimately revelatory of the living," since "the social constructs that are built upon the fact of mortality are the chief instruments of culture" (6). Unlike most of the now vast body of scholarship (chiefly in French and German) that has examined memorial cultures, burial and other rites, testamentary practices, and hortatory and artistic artifacts like the ars moriendi and Dance of Death traditions, Caciola is concerned principally with the dead themselves as they were conceived of as presences in the society of the living, and as they were imagined to inhabit a community of the dead. While this perspective has, it is true, received less attention than it might have, her statement that the importance of the dead has received insufficient weight in medievalist scholarship is a bit odd (5): English-language scholarship has not been much enthused with the subject, it is true, but certainly the scholarly traditions in France and Germany in particular—and it is clear from her footnotes [End Page 297] that Caciola is well aware of this research—have engaged in great depth with death and the dead over the past four decades. This book is nonetheless a welcome and fresh perspective on one aspect of morbidity in medieval culture, particularly for its focus not just on the dead themselves, but also because of its effort to draw out from this perspective a trajectory of the evolution of medieval culture from diverse ancient inheritances, Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and pagan "Germanic."
The first part of this book begins with a survey of conceptualizations of death and the afterlife in late antiquity, and then moves on to a fascinating discussion of the medical perspectives on death and how it was diagnosed through the Middle Ages. It is revealed inter alia that while there had been some debate in the theology of late antiquity as to whether death was an instantaneous event or whether there was some kind of intermediate state (with the latter view often holding sway), by the later Middle Ages, with the increasing influence of a more scientific and widely diffused medical tradition, the view of death as a single event that could be—and had to be—properly diagnosed on the basis of physiological signs began to dominate.
Part II of this book has three chapters on revenants in various forms, with close readings of a range of sources, including the German Thietmar of Merseburg's Latin chronicle from the early eleventh century, Walter Map's courtly narratives and Orderic Vitalis's histories from Anglo-Norman England, and Icelandic sagas from the thirteenth century. Caciola demonstrates effectively that revenants were a common phenomenon, and indeed were often portrayed as having...