Sunday, January 27, 2013

Medieval Meditations on Death

by G. Jack Urso
The poem posted on Aeolus 13 Umbra in December 2012, Medieval Death Poem, was inspired after researching literature produced during the European Black Death/Bubonic Plague. While doing so, I encountered a number of poems that dealt with the psychological trauma and cultural upheaval caused by the plague. Though melodramatic by today’s standards, these verses still have a powerful impact. 

The Ten Ages of Man

                                                 10 Times of the Day

The Life of Man Runs Out 10 Stops on our way

                                                 10 Spokes That Turn Ay

Death and the Miser
Artist: Hieronymus Bosch 
Woeful wretch you are to the sight,

of all the creatures least in might.

All this world you turn to play:

The more you play, the more you may.

Wealth makes man at others gape,

for to the rich, men bow and scrap.

Now you have found the thing you sought:

Beware, for it continues not.

Strong you were, now fails your might;

You’re heavy now, who once were light.

All your life you sorrowed and cared,

For soon comes Death, and none is spared.

Wisdom you have in tongue and mind:

How you have lived, you soon shall find.

This world’s goods shall now forsake you,

For Death shall come, and he will take you.

Men and women all end so:

Easy they come, and easy go.

For life you have no need to care

when worms have got you for their fare. 
                                                                   (Medieval English Verse 66)

The following verse fragments follow the same rhyming pattern as The Ten Ages of Man:

The lantern bearer lights the way

For those who no more seize the day

Blind eyes peer out from every head

That crowds the carriage of the dead


Nor crown nor coin can halt time’s flight

Or stay the armies of the night

Kings and villein, lad and lass

All answer to the hour glass
                                                      (The Enchanted World: Ghosts 8, 24)

Much of 21st century Western society is built around the prolonging of life and the avoidance of death. To the Medieval European, with a life expectancy on average of 30 years, death was a force of nature that swallowed the rich and poor alike. Money couldn’t delay it, prayers couldn’t assuage it, and the Church was powerless. Indeed, the Black Death/Bubonic Plague, along with the Crusades, is considered one of the causal factors leading to the Renaissance.  

Works Cited

Medieval English Verse. Trans. Brian Stone. London: Penguin
              Group. 1964. Print.

The Enchanted World: Ghosts. Chicago: Time-Warner Books, Inc.
              1984. Print.

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  1. Thanks for this. Still meaningful.

  2. This came from the Time-Life series "The Enchanted World," specifically the volume called "Ghosts."

    1. Yes, that was already noted above, specifically page 24. Glad to know others have read that wonderful collection!