The Culture of Death in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy
Academia.edu: Published Online (2010)
In his essay ‘Death and the Concept of Person,’ Maurice Bloch reminds us of a crucial insight by the pioneer of the anthropology of death, Robert Hertz: “in many cultures death is not something which is believed to occur in an instant nor is it seen, as with us, as the passage of a line without thickness. Rather death is visualized as part of a long transformative process.” Going a step further, Bloch accuses Hertz of allowing himself to be blinded by Western ideology in believing that the actual moment of the termination of the body’s vital functions necessarily retains a privileged status unlike any other single instant in the extended social process that may be called death. Avoiding a theoretical entanglement in the delicate issue of cultural relativism, the exploration of the meanings of death in the late medieval and early Renaissance period carried out in this essay will largely follow Bloch’s approach in seeing death as a process that both temporally and spatially extends beyond our contemporary understanding of the word, gradually blending into the context of the wider social world.
Nevertheless, an attempt will be made to show that it is precisely during this period that certain fundamental changes in the conception of and attitudes towards death took place, changes that can be seen as the starting points of a long process that would eventually lead to the medical and utterly despiritualized view of death prevalent in the contemporary Western world. I am deliberately avoiding the term ‘individualized,’ aiming to shift the discussion away from the long-standing stress on this somewhat misleading concept originating in humanistic philosophy and art history. As Bloch argues, the contrast between individualism and holism is ultimately too simplistic, as the crucial point is not whether a culture possesses the idea of individualism, but the way in which it is conceptualized: “what differentiates our system of thinking from such examples is therefore not the presence of individualism, but the possibility of the occurrence of the idea that we are nothing but individuals and that, as a result, when the combination of elements which creates the individual breaks up, the constituent elements then have no value in themselves.” Rather than conceiving of the changes occurring in this period along the axis individual/society, the essay will focus on the perceived formalization and systematization of the culture of death during this period.