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Death, Religion, and the Family in England,
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Ralph Houlbrooke

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780198208761

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208761.001.0001

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Preparation for Death

Preparation for Death

(p.57) 3 Preparation for Death
Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480–1750

Ralph Houlbrooke

Oxford University Press

This chapter discusses the preparation for death as the most important business of earthly existence — a view shared by most preachers and writers of Christian advice literature between the Middle Ages and the early 18th century. In medieval times, the message was reinforced by large numbers of paintings of the Last Judgement over chancel arches. The motif of the dance of death, into which men and women of every age and degree were drawn by skeletal partners, first appeared in England in the pardon churchyard of St Paul's in London in the 1440s. In woodcuts and engravings its portrayal continued long after the Reformation. The skull and the animated skeleton as a personification of death, sometimes armed with a spear, were very popular motifs in every conceivable medium: paintings, engravings, sculptures, and woodcut broadside pictures. The 15th century saw the introduction of the ‘cadaver tomb’ and the portrayal of corpses and skeletons on memorial brasses. All such monuments were designed to remind passers-by of the fate they would soon share. Some of those who commissioned cadaver tombs did so for their own edification as well as to show their equanimity in face of the body's dissolution.

Keywords:   death, preparation for death, mortality, dance of death, cadaver tomb

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