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Ars moriendi

Category: Books sutras and myths

The dying or ill person sees the arrival of his Spirit helpers
and the demons or spirit beings of his sickness are thrown off
and leave him.  The Healer with his twin horns can also be seen

The Ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") are two related Latin texts dating from about 1415 and 1450 which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to "die well" according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages.

The text is as a consequence heavily biased towards the Christian beliefs prevalent at the time and in fact, bears no relation whatsoever to the near death or even dying and death experiences now being recorded by researchers.

Given that we are more interested in the spiritual, and the actual as opposed to the perverse and frightening moral teachings of medieval times, we would not normally have included this at all, but some of its woodcut drawings do have interest.  Thus we have rejected the texts, but have included the images. 

The images appear to be symbolic and predate the text.  They provide a far more accurate and realistic view of what happens on both death and during serious illness.  Some of the images we have explained on this page, we also have some observations to add weight to this hypothesis.

The Background to its production

surrounded by the spirit beings of viruses, bacteria, fungal
infections, toxins and the demons of fear and terror, the
person's spirit helpers wait behind the veil  to be
summoned.  To the left two 'kings' pray for help to come
and another holds a pennant - symbolically like a prayer flag

The Ars Moriendi was written at a truly horrendous time in our history. 

The Black Death had devastated Europe in the previous century, and its recurrences along with other diseases continued to cut life short.

Wars and violence added to the death toll. The Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between France and England was the era's largest conflict, but its violence and political instability mirrored many local conflicts.

These were not good times to be living. 

Hurt, hate, fear, anger and terror, along with disease and illness were rife.

The Art of Dying – Drs Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick

The Plague, or Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It probably started in Asia and by the late 1340s it had killed an estimated 75 million people worldwide, with an estimated 20 million deaths in Europe alone – between one-third and two-thirds of the population.

One of the results of this decimation was a lack of priests to administer comfort and the last rites to the dying. And a consequence of this was the publication of the two related texts, the Ars Moriendi, in about 1415 and 1450. ....

It was very popular, was translated into most Western European languages, and was the first in a Western literary tradition of guides to death and dying. It included advice to friends and family on the general rules of behaviour at the deathbed and reassurance that death was nothing to be afraid of.

The person is beginning to feel better.  His family are delighted, almost
unable to believe what they are seeing.  The demon or spirit being of
the virus, bacteria, parasite, fungus or toxins that have made him ill
is being made to drink the medicine the healer has given them to
help the patient and the pathogen is fading fast, knocking over tables
in the way a poltergeist tends to do when annoyed .

And it is this latter aspect on which we will concentrate “that death was nothing to be afraid of”.

The versions

There was originally a "long version" and then a later "short version" containing eleven woodcut pictures as instructive images which could be easily explained and memorized.

Long version

The original "long version", called Tractatus (or Speculum) artis bene moriendi, was composed in 1415 by an anonymous Dominican friar, probably at the request of the Council of Constance (1414–1418, Germany).  Ars Moriendi was among the first books printed with movable type and was widely circulated in nearly 100 editions before 1500, in particular in Germany. The long version survives in about 300 manuscript versions, only one illustrated.

Short version

The dying man is surrounded by Spirit helpers, they show him the ladder
of ascension, and carry an arrow and a flail.  The man on the right has
an apron.  From this I hope you can see that this is not a set of images
that have anything to do with the text.  This is symbolism at its best -
the palm leaves, the blood, the halos, the long hair, the tower, the wheel
every small detail, the pointing finger and crown, for example,
would have been recognisable to a spiritual person.  Only the fanatically
religious would have bothered with the text.  This woodcut is full of images
of hope, both for the dying and non dying.  Even the demon looks happy.

The "short version", whose appearance shortly precedes the introduction in the 1460s of block books (books printed from carved blocks of wood, both text and images on the same block), first dates to around 1450, from the Netherlands. It is mostly an adaptation of the second chapter of the "long version", and contains eleven woodcut pictures. The first ten woodcuts are divided into 5 pairs.  They purport to support the text, but they don't.  Was this a subversive move by the alchemists, for example? The text and images simply do not support one another.

The "short version" was as popular as the "long version", but there was no English translation.  Wikipedia hypothesises that it was ‘because educated English people at the time were expected to understand several European languages’. It might also be because no one would have believed it.  The images, however, are another thing.

In 1651, Jeremy Taylor published The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. It was published by the Church of England and was thus an Anglican book. Taylor rejected a large part of the Ars Moriendi. For example, he ridiculed deathbed repentance and stated that the protocols of dying in the Ars Moriendi were "not enough to pass us into paradise," but if "done foolishly, [they are] enough to send us to hell".  But he did not deny the need to have some guidelines to help the dying make sense of what was happening.

So the text can be rejected, but let us explore the images some more. 

The images

Our patient is surrounded by ordinary people.  The demons are also
being  somewhat familiar with him, implying an emotional demon.
This may be an admonition to stop wanting things the whole time, in
other words stop driving yourself so hard to get things, possessions,
you are making yourself ill by doing so.  There is an implication that
wine might be a problem, and women - see how the demon holds her
hand.  Hand gestures are important here

There are a number of different versions of the woodcut or engraved images, but although they are clearly by different people - Master E. S. , Weigel and ‘Schneider Ausgabe XII’, for example, they all look very similar. The question was then asked, why?  They didn’t need to be. This puzzle was resolved by the discovery by Fritz Saxl of an earlier illuminated manuscript, of well before 1450, from whose tradition all the images in the printed versions clearly derive. Studies of the watermarks of the blockbooks by Allen Stevenson at the British Museum in the 1960s confirmed that none of them predated the 1460s.

The interesting question then arises, was the text added later to try to fit the images from this earlier illuminated manuscript?  In other words, was a Christian interpretation placed on images that were perhaps showing other deeper and more spiritual truths.  And we believe they may have been, which is why we have Ars Moriendi on the site.  Let us explore this hypothesis:

The presence of ‘demons’

Is this an image of a man dying or an allegory of healing?  The man has
demons and they appear to be emotional demons.  He is being told by the
angel to purify himself with rain [see left].  At the moment he is tied to the cross
[this is not an image of Jesus].  In effect, he is too fond of the physical.  The horse
is a symbol of out of body experiences and visions and the image is saying,
put away these childish things, you have exhausted their potential, the key to
heaven awaits if you progress spiritually.  The cock on the bedhead in this case
symbolises dawn - the end of the spiritual path.  So the overall message is - if you
manage to expunge your demons, the key to heaven awaits in this life, and
this is key, he may be emotionally sick, but he is not dying.

When people are given inappropriate medication and when they have truly horrendous viral, fungal or bacterial infections, they can -  in an hallucinatory state well before death – see images of these. These days some of the nasty pharmaceuticals given to people produce hallucinations of insects – we have a large number of examples of these on the site. 

We have never been quite sure whether the Composer produces an actual image of the ‘enemy’, one we might recognise from an electron microscope, or simply an archetypal image.  At one time when healers were allowed to practise and were not persecuted as witches, these images were used in diagnosis. 

Our immune systems can be compromised by negative emotion – fear, anger, hate, hurt, trauma and so on and illness can, as a consequence, ensue.  In other words negative emotion can cause illness and one of the ways in which it may make its presence felt is via ‘demons’, archetypal images representing the negative emotion felt.

 Is he dying?  or is the image showing that he has succeeded in
routing his demons and as a consequence he receives a dove as
a sign of real progress on the spiritual path.  Dying in life and dying
at the end of life are much the same spiritually .....

Quite a number of the pictures show ‘demons’ and demons of different sorts – viral demons, fungal demons, bacterial demons and possibly emotional demons.  The images in this case look more like a healer’s handbook than a prescription for what to do when a person is dying.  Know your enemy.

The death bed scenes

The dying consistently see Spirit helpers.  These Spirit helpers may be dead relatives and friends,  or more rarely these days archetypal images of religious figures.   It is possible that in the past religious figures might have been seen more often, as the purpose of the Spirit helpers is to comfort the dying person and help them pass on.  They can come singly or in great crowds.  Those around the bed of the dying rarely see them, although children often do.  The living are rarely open enough these days to join in, but again in olden days they might well have been.

The death bed scenes might thus be better interpreted as examples of the sorts of visitors to expect and how to welcome them and encourage them. 

On death

We have examples on this site of people hearing music and seeing the soul leave from various orifices, - mouth, head, forehead and so on. 

There are images that show on the Ars Moriendi, the Higher spirit emerging  from the mouth and being received by a band of angels.