It’s perhaps not surprising that stories and art depicting cadavers should captivate people’s imagination. A resurrected body is at the very centre of Christianity. Paul Binski pins the thriving of Christianity on the story of Christ raising Lazarus, which changed a fundamental idea about death: that it was final.
When the faithful were presented with memento mori such as danse macabre and the legend of the ‘Three Living and the Three Dead’, the Church intended these as cautionary tales to inspire fear in the laity for the fate of their souls. But what the laity surely saw, at least in part, were expressions of their own fear of death, expressions that both chastened and comforted through the naming of the thing they feared.
In the 2012 debate between Rowan Williams, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Professor Richard Dawkins – it was called the Nature of Human Beings and the Question of Their Ultimate Origins – which of course was a debate on whether there is a God, Professor Dawkins said, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘I don’t understand why you persist in turning to some non-existent god for answers to life’s questions when they can be answered by science.’ To which Rowan Williams replied, ‘I turn to science to answer some questions and to various other sources to answer others, and if I choose to turn to religion to answer some of my questions, that’s my right’. What he might have said was that he turns to religion to answer certain questions because science can’t.
Another place people turn for such answers is art. People turn to religion and art for answers to the same questions – or at least, since answers are thin on the ground, to hear those questions explored. It’s only natural that they would inspire and be inspired by each other, and seek to fill vacuums the other leaves behind.
We are far away from the Middle Ages in years, but not in feeling. Whether we realize it or not, much of the way we as modern humans view basic things like death, the afterlife, and our ideas about ‘God’ were formed in the Middle Ages. Much of our mental furniture is the same, if not the way we reference it. Most people haven’t read Boethius, but they‘ve seen Wheel of Fortune.
There’s a strange kind of comfort in the shared worries between medieval readers and storytellers and us. I find it oddly moving that they were struggling with the same questions and fears we struggle with today. And with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the modern fears we share with medieval people gained a huge shared boogeyman: plague. So the stories reaching across time from them to us is somehow comforting. Maybe it’s because neither they nor we have found any answers – that there are no answers, really – but in that common searching is the shared humanity that makes life a little less lonely and provides us with a greater understanding of medieval cadaver literature and art, and other medieval stories and history as well.
When we read that Harold Godwinson learned William of Normandy was flying the Papal banner and he lost all heart for what would end up being remembered as the Battle of Hastings, we’re moved. Surely all believers have felt forsaken by their god at one time or another, and non-believers have probably felt forsaken by the world.
When Chaucer’s Pandarus reminds Troilus of his own unrequited love and says, ‘So ful of sorwe am I…that certainly namore harde grace may sitte on me, for why there is no space’, that’s funny to us, and, if we’ve felt what he feels, it’s also sad.
And when we read the part where Grendel stalks into the palace and tears men limb from limb, our blood runs cold. Beowulf hasn’t endured simply because of what it teaches about warrior society and kinship. It’s endured because it’s about a monster come to kill us while we sleep. It touches with a needle the tender place inside that’s still afraid of the dark. We may not know these stories, but their sentiments are in our DNA. You might say they are written on our hearts.
This guest post was written by Christian Livermore who gained her PhD in medieval English literature and creative writing from the University of St Andrews.