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Death and Burial in Medieval Europe
Transcript of Death and Burial in Medieval Europe
Trends in Anglo-Saxon Burial (400-700)
There are about 1,200 Anglo-Saxon style cemeteries in England.
The depths of graves greatly varied, and there were wooden coffins as well as stone. People were buried clothed.
Some corpses were buried prone instead of supine, meaning they were face down. The significance of this is still not known.
Decapitated bodies were common, and some corpses were even thought to have been buried alive.
Small shrines were found near graves, showing pagan rituals and spiritual significance.
Burial urns were handmade pottery and often had the swastika, the symbol of the pagan god Thunor.
Grave goods and weapons were often buried with bodies, and the most common items were tweezers, razors, and shears.
Early Christian Influence (700-800)
In the 8th century, Christian traditions shifted the common Anglo-Saxon burial. Cremation was becoming virtually absent, and an east-west instead of west-east orientation of body was mandated. Little to no grave goods were buried with bodies in Christian graves.
The second coming of Christ was thought to literally resurrect the bodies of believers. Prevention of grave robbers from hunting for buried items was important.
Western Britain mainly held these traditions, while southern and eastern Britain still had pagan influence.
Gender, age, and ethnicity determined the way different people were buried, and religious influence did not create uniform results. Hundreds of wills written in this period were found.
Burial shrouds were commonly used for all.
Late Saxon to Early Medieval Burials (800-1200)
Scandinavian settlers and Vikings arrived in England, bringing more pagan influence back, but they were soon converted to Christianity. By the 9th century, most graves were in churchyards and linked closely to the religion. Charcoal burials (under or over the body) were briefly used.
During the far-reaching Norman Conquest of the 11th century, led by William the Conqueror, many burial sites were covered over or simply destroyed, and many bodies were buried alongside Saxon bodies. The language of England was changing and land was forcefully taken from Saxons.
Purgatory became a more popular concept than Judgement Day, and in response, Christians prayed and gave to charity more to avoid this frightening end after death.
The average life expectancy during this time was about 35, but this takes into account the fact that fully 1/3 of people died in their infancy.
Before Medieval Times
Death was viewed as a collective human experience, an inevitability, and a hopeful admission to heaven.
Ancient burial practices were similar to Anglo-Saxon practices.
During the early Anglo-Saxon period in Europe, from the 5th to the 8th century, the pagan religion of Germanic tribes heavily influenced burial in East Britain. The most common practice was inhumation (corpses placed directly in the ground), but cremation (burning corpses into ash and keeping them in urns) was also done. The dead were mainly buried lying face up, with their head to the west and feet to the east, although many variations on position exist, and multiple people were sometimes buried in the same grave.
Medieval Burial (13th to 16th c)
Solemn Christian funeral masses in England during this period laid the framework for contemporary Western rituals. Bodies were buried in tied cloth shrouds, sometimes embalmed by removal of organs and mummification, sometimes placed in coffins or chests, and buried a standard six feet underground. Masses were said over the body to help the person's soul reach heaven. The poor were integral to the process, as they lit the candles to mourn. They were fed and given ceremonial clothing, and even paid a small amount. Ceremonies could last a week. The Church opposed Pagan rituals like dancing in the graveyard, but it was still popular.
There was a strong divide between the burial of noblemen and of peasants. Peasants were never buried in a proper coffin, and noblemen were never buried in only a shroud. The rich were often buried with adornments like jewelery or weaponry.
Religion permeated everyday life, and thus, so did the consideration of death. Death was a sacred event and even the poorest people had mourners. There were only a few mass graves, until the Black Plague.
The Black Plague (14th century)
This mysterious, deadly affliction rose in Europe by 1346 and destroyed millions of lives. In England in particular, about 20% of the population was estimated killed. Over ten thousand people in London alone were claimed. After the initial flareup in the 14th century, the plague recurred up until the Renaissance.
The most common symptoms were buboes, gangrene, fever, and vomiting blood. After a week of initial infection is when most died. Death was unexpected and disturbingly frequent.
Instead of the careful burials and rites of before, messy mass graves had to be introduced because of the sheer number of bodies. "Plague bearers" were people who announced their arrival with a bell to collect the bodies of plague victims. Some internment pits were huge, with thousands of bodies stacked on one another underground.
The balance between the sacred and the ordinary was tested.
The Burial of Elites In Medieval England
Unmarked graves increasingly gave way to graves with epitaphs. Saints typically had detailed headstones detailing their devotion to God and contributions to society. They were buried with elaborate clothing, jewelery, and other material items. Kings and other nobility were often treated similarly. Some were buried directly under churches.
Recently, the remains of King Richard III, a medieval ruler in England, were found and are being reburied according to his wishes.
In other European countries, entire cities were devoted to human remains, called necropolises. These had their root in ancient civilizations and contained all manner of social classes.
How did we discover any of this?
Archeology is the most important science to learn about death and burial in history. Interestingly, medieval sites were not explored heavily until the 1990s, because ancient burial practices were more appealing in the field. Since then, we have learned a lot about not only the causes of death, but also the personalities, customs, and events that the modes of burial and items included show us. From the locations alone, new hypotheses about what religions were popular where and how much they had to do with each burial situation constantly crop up.
Archeologists often debate about the meanings and significances of different practices and alleged rituals (think Motel of the Mysteries).