Sunday, March 1, 2009

That Old Time Religion

Here we are, five days into Lent 2009, (February 25 - April 11), which seems like a good time for more meditatio mortis posts. A musical post, Media Vita, from the New Liturgical Movement blog is a good starting point. (It doesn't matter that you're not a Christian. Neither am I, but the people who created and played Tarot were.) This will lead to some of the precursors of Helinand's Verses on Death from the previous post.

During Lent some beautiful pieces of Dominican chant are sung in the office of Compline. One of these is the responsory 'Media Vita' (which is said to have moved St Thomas Aquinas to tears) and which may be translated as follows:
  • In the midst of life we are in death;
    of whom may we seek help but you, O Lord,
    who for our offences are justly displeased?
  • Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty,
    O holy and merciful Saviour,
    give us not over unto bitter death.
  • Cast us not away in the time of our old age;
    forsake us not, O Lord,
    when our strength fails us.
  • Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty,
    O holy and merciful Saviour,
    give us not over unto bitter death.

In the midst of life we are in death. This is weird, of course, unless you are a Christian.

Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal.
John 12:24-5

Contempt for this life and endless meditation on death (along with judgement and reward) were at the heart of the many macabre genres that became pervasive in liturgy, sermons, art, literature, and drama during the 14th century and remained prominent for 400 years. These can all be taken as meditations on John 12:25, although the sensibility, Stoic/Cynic disdain for worldly values, dates back 600 years before that Gospel. In the Middle Ages, as the previous post suggested, many of these themes were being repeated centuries before the Black Death made men so vividly mortal. Although Helinand's rich buffet of grim reflection was a precursor of the later fashion, it was itself a culmination of 11th and 12th-century sensibilities, and even earlier examples are not uncommon.

Among the numerous examples is Bede's Death Song (8th c.), with the passage: "As to the journey / Each must take, / No one is prudent / More than he should be / In considering / Ere he goes hence / What to his spirit, / Of good or of evil, / After the death-day / Doomed may be." A more succinct epitome would be hard to create. The popular sermon theme of the body's decay after death was turned into a literary genre, one of the earliest examples being the 10th-century Old English Address of the Lost Soul to the Body.

'Avid' is the name of the worm whose jaws are sharper than needles, in the grave he was the first of all to make it happen, there he drags off the tongue and bores through the teeth, and eats away the eyes in the head from on top, he clears a way to the good food for the others, for the worms' banquet, once the damned body has grown cold, that the man for so long used to cover and clothe. Then it is worms' meat, carrion in the ground. This can be a reminder to every man, to everyone of sense. [...]

Then the souls say good words, words of wisdom and triumph, they greet the body truthfully and pleasurably, like this: 'My dearest friend, although the worms are still attacking you avidly, your spirit has now come from my father's kingdom, dressed in splendour, wrapped in grace.....'

The 11th and 12th centuries saw famous writers of contemptu writers including St Peter Damian, Otloh of St. Emmeram, and Heinrich of Melk, including the great works by Bernard of Cluny (remember Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus, returned to fame by Eco in The Name of the Rose?) and Pope Innocent III (De contemptu mundi, sive de miseria conditionis humanæ libri III) at the beginning and end of the 12th century. Just as Helinand foreshadows the eventual blossoming of the macabre in the late 14th Century, these medieval works of contemptu mundi and memento mori establish a much greater tradition of Stoic-Christian meditations on the nasty post-lapsarian world and its inescapable end in each man's death.

Addendum re Media Vita

Blessed Notker Balbulus (the Stammerer, c.840-912), a monk of St. Gall, is the traditionally cited author of the memento mori verse, Antiphona de morte or Media vita in morte sumus. The History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073 (Philip Schaff, 1885) tells the legendary story of his musical contributions like this.

Notker, surnamed the Older, or Balbulus (“the little Stammerer, “from a slight lisp in his speech), was born about 850 of a noble family in Switzerland, educated in the convent of St. Gall, founded by Irish missionaries, and lived there as an humble monk. He died about 912, and was canonized in 1512.... He is famous as the reputed author of the Sequences (Sequentiae), a class of hymns in rythmical prose, hence also called Proses (Prosae). They arose from the custom of prolonging the last syllable in singing the Allelu-ia of the Gradual, between the Epistle and the Gospel, while the deacon was ascending from the altar to the rood-loft (organ-loft), that he might thence sing the Gospel. This prolongation was called jubilatio or jubilus, or laudes, on account of its jubilant tone, and sometimes sequentia (Greek ajkolouqiva), because it followed the reading of the Epistle or the Alleluia. Mystical interpreters made this unmeaning prolongation of a mere sound the echo of the jubilant music of heaven. A further development was to set words to these notes in rythmical prose for chanting. The name sequence was then applied to the text and in a wider sense also to regular metrical and rhymed hymns. The book in which Sequences were collected was called Sequentiale.... The best of all his compositions, which is said to have been inspired by the sight of the builders of a bridge over an abyss in the Martinstobe, is a meditation on death (Antiphona de morte):
Media vita in morte sumus:
Quem quaerimus adiutorem nisi te, Domine,
Qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris?
Sancte Deus, sancte fortis,
Sancte et misericors Salvator:
Amarae morti ne tradas nos.

Apparently none of the most salient particulars of that account are historically substantiated: it is unlikely that he invented the form; there is no support for the story about the bridge builders; he probably isn't even responsible for this particular little number. But what the hell—this is a Tarot blog, so charming fiction is always appreciated, even if only to be debunked. The point is that the verse is old, older than most of the usually cited memento mori and contemptu mundi verses, and its standard use endured well into the 20th century. Along the way it was expanded and translated into various vernaculars, routinely used in funeral rituals, and used not only by Catholics but also Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, etc. In short, it has been widely known for most of the last 1,000 years.


  1. Nice lenten posts Michael.

    I don't believe the thinking "in the midst of life we are in death" is weird or the preserve of Christians, though.

    The axiom "Philosophia est meditatio mortis" is quoted by writers from Isidore to Hugh of St. Victor to Benevenuto da Imola (1380) as coming from Plato's Phaedo (81a), which in a sense it does, but there my translation is a little less succinct: "... if [the soul] departs pure, dragging with it nothing of the body, because it never willingly associated with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself into itself alone, since this has always been its constant study - but this means nothing else than that it pursued philosophy rightly and really practiced being in a state of death: or is not this the practice of death?"

    According to my notes, Cassiodore (Institutionum l. II, iii, 5) got closer with "Is not philosophy the practice of death?" (I'll have to go get the Latin).

    D.N. Parkes and N.J. Thrift, in "Times, Spaces and Places: A Chrono-Geographic Perspective" (1980) say: "Philosophy is the contemplation of death. This grim nugget of Western thought..."

    I like that, a "grim nugget".

  2. Are we to suppose that there is no afterlife, that the soul vanishes upon the death of the body? Socrates says no:

    "The truth rather is that the soul which is pure at departing draws after her no bodily taint, having never voluntarily had connection with the body, which she is ever avoiding, herself gathered into herself (for such abstraction has been the study of her life). And what does this mean but that she has been a true disciple of philosophy and has practised how to die easily? And is not philosophy the practice of death?"

    Yi-Fu Tuan, reviewing "Times, Spaces, and Places", wrote: "Philosophy is the contemplation of death. This grim nugget of Western thought translates a common folk wisdom, namely, that we have only one life to live and that we should try to live it well." But there are two different ideas here, both proceeding from the memento mori.

    Socrates (and the later Christians) drew the conclusion that our transient world is dreck, to be ignored as much as possible -- contemptu mundi -- in preparation for the perfect and eternal world to come after death of the body. The "common folk wisdom" that we should try to live well -- carpe diem -- usually means a more Epicurean focus on this world.

    Both proclaim sic transit gloria mundi, but the Epicureans emphasize the glories of this world while the Socratic and Christian believers in another world emphasize the transience of this one.