003 The ars moriendi

I’ve just started my M.Litt dissertation.  My supervisor suggested the practice of writing something every day, something akin to a journal entry rather than a formal academic piece.

I have neither the time nor energy to write every day, but I will when I get the chance and I suppose why not put it out here for the 7 people who read this to see it, critique and hopefully give me some feedback to make it better. 

The basic idea for the thesis goes something like this:

How does modern medicine’s domination of how we die form problems for the Christian tradition of Ars Moriendi

Here’s what I wrote today:

There are various phrases that come up in any contemporary discussion of death. ‘Quality of life, ‘A good death’, ‘Dying with dignity’, will all crop up in any such discussion. While it is by no means clear what we mean when we invoke these phrases, all are trying to get across the fact that how we die is somehow important.

This is hardly new, and throughout history the death bed has been scene to some important last words and defining moments. Christianity, it appears was no different. In the late 15th century, there arose a form of what could only be called popular literature on death. This became known as the ars moriendi, or the art of dying well. This had particularly Christian origins in an anonymous tract rejoicing in the name of the tractatus artis bene moriendi. This was a brief devotional piece, reproduced extensively across virtually every European language, often with detailed images to help communicate the ideas to those who could not read.

This developed over time, particularly in the English Protestant tradition into significant moral and theological works. It changed over time from its origins as advice to avoid avarice or pride on the death bed into a deeply thought out theology of life. “one thing is very clear about the protestant ars moriendi: it is a literature that was very much alive to the human and spiritual needs of people for whom death was a harsh, often brutal fact of life.” [Atkinson, David William. The English Ars Moriendi, Peter Lang Pub Inc, 1992. p9]  If they can be summarised briefly then it would be thus: if one wants to die well, one must live well.

Christopher Vogt makes the argument that what these authors were doing is now what we might call virtue ethics. The repeated and practised habits of the Christian are what will enable one to die well. Vogt writes, “all of these authors saw a strong need for the development of patience as a lifelong preparation for dying well.” [Christopher Vogt in Lysaught, M Therese, and Jr Joseph J Kotva. On Moral Medicine, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012. p 1070]

Christians have long reflected on what it means to die, attempting to avoid the dual errors of fear, so that they are paralysed in life, or embracing it as “the next great adventure.” Instead the ars moriendi provides with a tradition of serious reflection upon death that we can truly incorporate into our lives.


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