Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture
By Nancy Caciola
Past & Present, No. 152 (1996)
Introduction: When a human being dies…the body that gave comfort to many people while it was alive, provokes horror in the same people after death. Hence the saying:
Human flesh is viler than a sheep’s skin.
When a sheep dies,it remains are still worth something
The skin is stretched and written on, both sides.
When a human being dies, both flesh and bones die.
As this fourteenth-century preacher placed nib to parchment, he was moved to reflect upon the durability of the words he put down, as contrasted with the destruction of his body to come. His melancholy thoughts were realized, for although he manuscript still exists, the author’s name, along with details of his bodily existence, are lost. This particular writer’s musing on the eternity of death is deceptive, however, for the finality of his tone contrasts sharply with the fluid conceptions od death and afterlife that are expressed in other medieval texts. Indeed,, the last line in particular – “when a human being dies, both flesh and bones die” – actually contradicts a significant body of evidence about medieval attitudes towards life, death and afterlife. This article is about the body of evidence.
In the following pages I explore the ongoing construction, dissolution and reconstruction of the life/death boundary in European culture roughly between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. I shall argue that definitions of death and of life may be grouped into two broad models that competed with one another, even as they overlapped within various cultural milieux: a spiritual model of life and afterlife, characteristic of the theological and learned medical traditions and a material model prevalent among lay sectors of society that were less concerned with the theological issues of spirit and soul. In so arguing, I hope to throw light upon the diversity of cultural traditions within the Middle Ages.