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AfterlivesThe Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages$

Nancy Mandeville Caciola

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781501702617

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501702617.001.0001

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(p.346) Conclusion

Nancy Mandeville Caciola

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter argues that the medieval Christian church, seeking to promote its central teachings on the eternity of the soul and the certainty of future bodily resurrection, tolerated a broad range of collective representations of death and afterlife. During the period of active conversion, church leaders and lay communities collaborated in maintaining and reproducing any imaginative formation that suggested transcendence of mortality. Such traditions were ratified by the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, which constituted a foundational precedent for the Christian appropriation of motifs about ghosts and revenants. Thus, pagan collective representations of revenants became a theological argument for the resurrection; the atavistic pagan motif of the army of the dead was transmuted into a folk theology of purgatory; and folk traditions that associated the deceased with fertility and abundance were reformulated as commentaries on a retributive afterlife.

Keywords:   medieval Christian church, soul, bodily resurrection, death, afterlife, mortality, Dialogues, Gregory the Great, Christian appropriation

The jacket of this book features the image of a tarot card from the most complete surviving medieval deck. Dating from about 1451, this particular deck was made for Francesco Sforza and his wife Bianca, the illegitimate daughter of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti. Today the deck is held by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.1 The Viscontis were the ruling family of the city of Milan, and some cards in this commissioned deck reflect Bianca’s family history. Her ancestors and relatives, for example, appear among the characters of the trump cards.2 Aside from this pleasing mnemonic and memorializing function, however, the chief purpose of the deck was entertainment. In the fifteenth century tarot was used not for divination, but for a light amusement or parlor game called tarocco. While it is not entirely clear how tarocco was played at this time, we do know that there were multiple players and that each card was assigned a value that could trump other cards lower in the scale.3 In the Visconti deck’s rendering, Death is personified as a coyly grinning corpse holding a longbow in his left hand and an arrow pointed at the earth in his right. A shred of fabric wrapped around his head flutters in the air around him. Though emaciated, the figure’s (p.347) skin is intact everywhere except his abdomen, where the viewer may peer into his body cavity in order to inspect his spinal column. The corpse stands in a rather graceful contraposto pose on a grassy cliff that falls away at the lower edge of the card. At the far horizon looms a mountain range. A close ridge of three dark blue peaks curves slightly toward the viewer at the right of the card; behind them two more, paler peaks rise up. The sky is replaced with a stamped, geometric gold background that matches that of the other cards in the deck, just as the mountains match the background of the other trumps that are set outdoors. Two subtle golden flowers blossom from the earth at Death’s feet.

The fact that such an image should appear in a set of cards designed as a leisurely entertainment for the most powerful members of society is telling. In a random dealing of the deck, any player at a card party might suddenly be confronted with the figure of Death staring out from his or her hand. Tarocco brought into diversionary time, and into domestic space, an image more often seen in settings reserved for pious contemplation. Pages of the Office of the Dead in prayer books often featured macabre art of course; the triumph of Death and dance of death loomed over cemeteries and church naves; passion plays and performative spectacles had long dramatized Death’s indiscriminate nature. Now, Death even was infiltrating the realm of social leisure.

One theory about the iconography of the trump cards in the early tarot decks is that they were partly or wholly inspired by public performative dramas including the dance of death. Additional dramatic sources would have included passion plays and other pious theater.4 Certainly, many of the figures in the tarot trumps are related to the medieval danse macabre, including cards such as Death, the Emperor and Empress, the Pope, the Hermit, the Fool, the Lover(s), and the Bachelor or Magician. All these characters sometimes appear in the dance of death iconography, being led away by his or her own personified Death figure. Likewise, dramatic characters such as the allegorical virtues (Fortitude, Justice, Temperance), Fortune, and the Devil had a long prior history in the performance traditions of the public sphere. While we lack a direct chain of evidence linking the tarot trump cards with popular theater, a connection of some sort seems very likely.

The tarocco deck shows us mortality as a subject of ubiquitous engagement and meditation. Indeed, for Bianca Sforza the whole deck was rife with symbolisms related to death, since many images on the cards represent (p.348) her specific ancestors. The Popess card, for instance, represents a famous relative of Bianca’s from the previous century, the heresiarch Maifreda de Pirovano. Maifreda was dedicated to the memory of a pious dead woman named Guglielma, whom she identified as the female Holy Spirit; she taught that she herself would become the first female pontiff after Guglielma’s resurrection and second coming.5 The Lovers card may represent the marriage of Bianca’s father Filippo Maria Visconti to Maria of Savoy, and other cards appear to relate to the family’s history as well.6 Thus the experience of playing with this deck of cards seems to have been intended as a combination of fun, nostalgia, and melancholy. The images suggest the relentless march of the dance of death of Bianca’s own family line, and thereby suggest her own place in the chain of generations and mortality. Her family was an exalted one, yet Death takes each of them in turn. Indeed, even the figure of Death as portrayed on the card seems almost to bear the Visconti symbol: the lateral segmentation of his bow makes it superficially resemble a snake, recalling the Visconti family symbol of a biscione or serpent.7 It is likewise significant, however, that Death was not the highest card in the hierarchy of assigned values in the deck. Rather, it was close to the middle; other cards such as the Star, the Moon, and the Sun were ranked higher, suggesting that human death is but a small part of the vast cosmic stage. The highest two cards in the trump sequence of the tarot deck are Angel (today known as Judgment) and The World. These two represent resurrection and the postapocalyptic renewal of the earth at the end of times. The trump cards thus not only tell the story of the Visconti family, they tell the human story of transcendence of death and attainment of eternal life.

Contemporary tarot readers who employ the cards for divination (a distinctively modern usage of the deck) usually interpret the Death card in positive terms despite its funereal theme. The card signifies an ending, but it also suggests a period of fertility and creativity that is enabled by this termination: death makes room for new life. In this, the modern tarot meaning unintentionally echoes medieval sensibilities surrounding death. Older scholarly traditions sometimes portrayed late medieval culture as paralyzed by its dismal obsession with the macabre,8 yet this outlook misses the regenerative (p.349) qualities associated with mortality in the period. Medieval musings about death, I have found, almost always offer a broad reflection on the perdurance of life. Like the delicate golden flowers springing up beneath Death’s feet in the Visconti-Sforza card, mortality constantly gestures toward vitality in the medieval imagination. In this spirit, I offer this history of medieval death and afterlife as more than a macabre exercise. My goal, rather, has been to provide a vista upon the distinctive life and society of the Middle Ages, and in particular to pry open a space for considering the complex cultural admixtures and discursive norms of the period. Traditions about death and the ancestors are exceptionally long-lived; they thus provide an excellent theme for tracking cultural inheritances through evolving social circumstances.

Afterlives is about the persistence of memory and the inevitability of loss. Collective representations of the dead, as Robert Hertz noted over a century ago,9 provide an excellent purview onto cultural definitions of life. The dead provide a perfectly blank scrim or canvas upon which the living may project their deepest ideals, fears, and longings. From this perspective we might see the Death card as evocative of a set of lasting tensions perceptible throughout our medieval sources: between death and life; between the Christian church and imaginative motifs with pagan genealogies; and between surviving cultures and displaced ones. Yet ultimately these dichotomies become spurious. I have argued that the cultural and religious history of medieval Europe was one of creative synthesis and bilateral adaptation, rather than complete displacement and annihilation. The medieval Christian church, in seeking to promote its central teachings on the eternity of the soul and the certainty of future bodily resurrection, tolerated a broad range of collective representations of death and afterlife. During the period of active conversion, church leaders and lay communities collaborated in maintaining and reproducing any imaginative formation that suggested transcendence of mortality. Such traditions were ratified by the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, which constituted a foundational precedent for the Christian appropriation of motifs about ghosts and revenants. Thus pagan collective representations of revenants became a theological argument for the resurrection; the atavistic pagan motif of the army of the dead was transmuted into a folk theology of purgatory; folk traditions that associated the deceased with fertility and abundance were reformulated as commentaries on a retributive afterlife. Likewise, the ancient role of seer and psychopomp was recuperated by clerics in order (p.350) to offer insights into the world beyond the grave, and classical notions of ghostly possession persisted side by side with the more “modern” teachings of demonic possession. Missionaries, religious chroniclers, and clerics reinterpreted indigenous pagan traditions according to their own priorities, of course, and it is chiefly these reformulated versions, not the original ones, that we encounter in the written record. Yet the traces of their pagan past may readily be discerned.

In the thirteenth century things began to shift. Medical theorists were expanding their reach into natural philosophy, and their definitions of death aligned with an Augustinian understanding of death as an instantaneous event. As medicine became an increasingly influential way of understanding the death of the human body, it came to be utilized by juridical and administrative bureaucracies. Thus physicians’ views of death were adopted by institutions of considerable power, and this form of knowledge came to be disseminated to a broader population through vernacular translations (e.g., lists of the mortal signs and literary references to them) as well as the behavioral modelings of coroners and doctors. The privileging of medical knowledge did much to shift the definition of death toward a more definitive pole, as a decisive and irremediable break with this world.

At the same time university-trained intellectuals, no longer needful of ghosts and revenants to teach about the afterlife to potential converts from paganism, also turned toward a more Augustinian vein of interpretation. Such thinkers rejected tales of the returned dead. This was not a universal shift: some clerics still found ghost stories useful for new teachings, most notably the doctrine of purgatory, which was only pronounced as doctrine at the late date of 1274. Yet despite various outliers, it is possible to detect a slow tidal shift about matters of mortality that began in the thirteenth century. More and more learned leaders began to argue against the belief that the dead might return to this world, interpreting such figures as, rather, demons in disguise. In some cases we can trace the dissemination of these new interpretations back down the social scale: the successful diabolization of Hellequin in vernacular French songs, for example; or the arguments of clerics with crowds of Florentine laity about the nature of possessing spirits; or debates over the reasons for certain cadavers’ continued activity. Yet these three examples also show that the demonizing initiatives of intellectuals penetrated down the social scale with varying levels of success. In the first example cited above, that of Hellequin, a diabolic reframing was accomplished, whereas in the case of possession, most Italians resisted the suggestion that possessing spirits could not be ghosts. Similarly, socially stratified debates over the source of undead corpses’ vitality ended in a stalemate.

(p.351) Another theme of this book has been the significance of regional specificity. Ways of imagining the dead (which are essentially, of course, ways of imagining the future self) differed significantly in the septentrional and meridional spheres. Whereas the north focused upon the conditions under which a cadaver might potentially remain animate, the south abstracted the dead, conceiving of them as invisible and immaterial presences. These differences point, in turn, to the different cultures and forms of paganism that were indigenous to each area; when combined with Christianity, each produced its own alchemical admixture, resulting in a regionalized culture of mortality and afterlife. Medieval society was, thus, both unified and diverse, and much of the content that was variable may be traced to pagan antecedents. Local paganisms provided the template of a lasting medieval regionalism.

Conversely, however, it is important to note that some ideas with pagan genealogies became universal in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the best example is the notion of “good” versus “bad” deaths, a conceptual binary that is found in every region of medieval Europe and that was widely accepted by all cultural strata. In northern Europe to die badly, through violence and while still youthful, was to risk returning as an aggressive revenant. In the Mediterranean the bad death likewise opened a portal for postmortem return, though in a disembodied form for haunting or possessing. Yet Christian theologians endorsed this idea as well, in a line of pedigreed descent going back to Isidore of Seville in the seventh century. For teachers of Christian doctrine, to die badly was to risk departing with a higher burden of unexpurgated sin, which might imperil one’s salvation. There thus was a vast cultural consensus surrounding this set of symbolic equivalences. Another notion that likewise garnered a broad endorsement was the presumption that the dead remained particularly attached to the location of their own remains. We see this in the revenant congregations of the north, which persisted as tomb dwellers rising up from their graves to worship in their local parish church, and in the communities of the dead haunting their own burial churchyards in southern France, who were regularly encountered by the armariés. Indeed, even the Catholic saints were particularly attentive to the location of their earthly relics, keeping watch on them from the world beyond, and images of the general resurrection fostered a deep sense of individual connectedness to burial place for the average believer.

The notion that death was only truly, finally complete after the dissolution of the flesh is yet another symbolic association that echoed throughout medieval society. We see it expressed both in northern revenant beliefs and in southern ghost beliefs: the dead would not rest until after the disappearance of their flesh. And of course, the gloriously incorruptible relics of the saints, (p.352) those very special dead, function within the very same symbolic economy. A final example of a pagan motif that became universal is the suggestion that mountains formed catchments for the dead. In northern Europe, as we have seen, whole societies of the dead lived underground in mountains; yet we also find such tales in Italy, particularly in connection with Mount Etna. Christian thinkers, of course, associated the mountainous realms of the dead with either hell or purgatory; thus mountains were visualized as correctional facilities for the collective dead in the Christian imagination, rather than as joyous postmortem societies, as pagans tended to view them. In sum, surely Christians from across Europe in the Middle Ages, of whatever social standing, had much in common with one another; yet the distinctiveness of local mentalities and of social stratifications should neither be minimized nor ignored. The tensions between the universal and the regional, the elite and the popular, are part of the multiplicity that makes the medieval period compelling.

This book begins with questions but it cannot end with answers. The problem of knowing death remains: we continue to struggle how to imagine the annihilation of the self. Many of the most successful film and television franchises of the past decade have featured the undead: ghosts, zombies, vampires. These entertainments plumb the nature of life and love, history and power, through plotlines featuring the animate dead returned among the living. In medical terms, modern human societies still struggle to define the border between vitality and mortality. We worry about the difference between brain death and body death, and we debate the use of medical machines that reach inside the human body in order to artificially sustain the vital signs of heartbeat and respiration.10 We still revere certain bodies as symbolically charged and become attached to our ancestors’ burial places.11 We continue to use corpses for medicine as well, both in physicians’ training and for organ harvesting, transplanting parts of the deceased into the bodies of the living in order to sustain them.12 In an era when Bodyworlds—an ethically controversial exhibit of preserved, flayed corpses in active poses—is among the most popular attractions in the world, surely the fascination with the animate corpse cannot be said to be purely medieval. In sum, we have our modern relics and our contemporary revenants as we, too, try to imagine mortality.


(1.) Helen Farley, A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism (London, 2009), 38.

(2.) Ibid., 55–58.

(3.) Ibid., 35–37.

(4.) Paul Huson, Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage (Rochester, VT, 2004), 32–39.

(5.) Barbara Newman, “The Heretic Saint: Guglielma of Bohemia, Milan, and Brunate,” Church History 74, no. 1 (2005): 1–38.

(7.) I am indebted to Leigh Ann Craig for directing me toward this connection.

(8.) Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York, 2013); Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion, and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth Century (Princeton, NJ, 1979).

(9.) Robert Hertz, “Contribution à une étude sur la répresentation collective de la mort,” Année Sociologique 10 (1907): 48–137. See also Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, trans. Rodney Needham and Claudia Needham (Glencoe, IL, 1960).

(10.) Dick Teresi, The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers—How Medicine Is Blurring the Line between Life and Death (New York, 2012).

(11.) Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change (New York, 1999).

(12.) Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (New York, 2003).