A Vast Gulf of Minor Mistakes

I am very much enjoying Phillipe Aries The Hour of our Death, a magnificent and thorough study of the history of how western civilization dealt with death from its founding in the Middle Ages until now.  The book has many virtues, perhaps chief among them is how illumines the vast gulf he points out between the medieval and modern world in how they dealt with death.  I look forward to commenting more on Aries’ wisdom another time.

For now, however, two minor gaffes on Aries’ part can’t get out of my head.  So with apologies to Aries. . .

He begins talking about death in the Song of Roland, a good place to start as 1) the story comes from the early middle ages, 2) it has the hallmarks of fully developed civilization (unlike the histories of Nottker and Einhard), and 3) it has a lot of death.  He makes excellent points about how the rituals that (spoiler alert) Roland, Turpin, and Oliver perform before their deaths have the effect of “taming” death and reducing its sting.  So far so good.  But then he asserts that, “thoughts of reunion on the other side of death,” or even the vitality of the afterlife, had no part in their consciousness because they do not mention it.  Aries quotes from Roland’s wistfulness at losing the land’s he conquered in death as evidence that early medieval man did not think much of the next life in death.  We might respond that the argument from silence does not convince very much, or perhaps, that it is good evidence for how Roland felt, but perhaps not necessarily the whole of the middle ages.  We could also debate the extent to which literary evidence should count as historical evidence.

In a fascinating segment Aries discusses how over time the place of burial mattered more and more.  Eventually, burial within the church itself came even to supersede burial within church lands, or the church graveyard.  He cites one example,

In the 17th century the parochial mass was said at the altar of the blessed sacrament.  “Beneath this altar lies the body of Claude d’ Aubray, knight.  Having had on this earth a wholehearted and singular devotion to to the precious body of our Savior, he desired that on his death he be laid to rest and buried next to the Blessed Sacrament, that he might obtain mercy through the prayers of the faithful who prostrate themselves before the very holy and venerable sacrament and be born again with them in glory.”

Granted, such burials did not come without a fee.  But it is here that Aries, I think, misinterprets the purpose.  He views the special burial as a kind of exchange — the deceased do ‘x’ so that they get ‘y,’ and thus descends into a legalistic understanding of spiritual concerns.  Though throughout the book Aries offers implicit criticism in how the modern world deals with death and admires much of how the early modern world handled things.  He seems to have particular admiration for the early medieval world.  But, alas, he cannot escape his own modern, scientific outlook and assumes the same about the past.

We might say in response that, yes, such burials brought a certain cost, but funerals today cost as well, and likely cost more.  Regardless, proper burial requires work and workers need paid.

But we can go a bit further.  Aries assumes that such burials were seen as beneficial to the dead in the way that buying milk with a few dollar bills benefits the consumer.  But our relationship with God, let alone our relationships with people, do not work this way.  We don’t buy flowers for our wives to earn their favor, but for other, less concrete reasons.  Parishioners do not cross themselves, for example, for God, but for themselves.  Ritual acts proceed primarily from devotion, not duty.  So too, burial within the church or within church lands has nothing to do with any kind of “exchange” for salvation, but as a way for the dead to plant their flag in the “City of God,” represented by the church.  Thinking differently about death requires us to change our perspective on many other issues.

Others in earlier centuries share in Aries’ misunderstanding.  He writes,

Erasmus finds [belief] in the virtues of the last rites superstitious for the same reason [as other 17th century writers]: because they seemed to designed a dissolute life to be saved ‘in extremis.’

Heaven forbid that someone be saved in their last moments after a dissolute life!  That would upset the whole notion of righteousness as a kind of exchange.  This legalistic understanding is not limited to our modern times.

Aries’ book illumines much, and even his modern understandings reveal the vast gulf between the modern and early modern worlds.