The Gazette is starting a new feature that will showcase blogs run by the Æthelmearc populace. If you know someone who has a blog that should be featured, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although not technically a blog, you can find articles of interest and links to resources on the subject of death in medieval times here.
The Gazette interviewed THL Beatrice on her interesting choice of research topics.
What’s your SCA background?
I am a member of the Barony of the Rhydderich Hael. I discovered the SCA in the spring of 2003 through discussions with a friend. After a brief attempt at fencing, which I gave up due to health concerns, I began to explore other interests including the bardic arts, thrown weapons, and pure research. In the past 12 years, I have held many official roles including Baronial Chronicler, Baronial Bardic Champion, and autocrat. At present, I am the Pennsic Independent Web Editor as well as Æthelmearc’s Event Coordinator. Through my pursuit of the bardic arts, I became apprenticed to Master Cerian Cantwer of the Midrealm in June 2009. Although I still enjoy singing and the bardic arts, I realized that my true love in the SCA is research and in particular, research on death, the dead, attitudes about the dead and death, capital punishment, as well as medieval crowners (coroners). Master Cerian, recognizing my strong passion for this rather unusual subject, has continued to support me, for which I am eternally grateful.
From an SCA perspective: Death was an extremely important topic in period, despite the fact that it’s a subject most people do not spend much time contemplating today. Regardless of your persona, the topic of death would likely have had a profound impact on you in period. For those living in Europe during the Middle Ages, death was as much a part of everyday life then as technology is now, not only because the mortality rate was so high, but also because they believed their very souls depended on it. As Christianity evolved in Europe, not only was it important to make provisions for one’s own afterlife, but it was also necessary to assist one’s fellow friends and family members in doing the same. As a result, people’s attitudes about life were significantly shaped by their beliefs about death. These attitudes and beliefs are what I discuss further in my class “Everybody Dies.” Perhaps, however, it is best summed up by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur: “Death cannot be eliminated from the historian’s field of attention if history is not to lose its historical quality.”
From my personal perspective: I’ve had an interest in death and the dead most of my life. As a child, my school bus stop was next to a cemetery, which I found fascinating. As I grew up, I was continually fascinated by other seemingly macabre interests. By the time I was in my twenties, I had earned a Master of Forensic Sciences degree in general forensics from National University.
What is the most common misperception about death in the Middle Ages?
Probably the most common misconception that we have about death in the middle ages is that it wasn’t terribly important, beyond the obvious fact that certainly people died in period, often at a young age. While many people understand the fact that mortality rates were particularly high, very few people recognize how or why death literally played a part in the everyday lives of the people and just how critical a topic it was for them. Furthermore, even those who may have recognized death’s ubiquity are often still under the common misconception that the reason for its prevalence involves some form of morbid fascination with the macabre. However, it really was less of a morbid fascination but rather a desperate attempt to prepare for the afterlife.
What is the most unusual fact you have uncovered in your research?
I’ve uncovered a number of unusual facts, but perhaps the most interesting one so far involves the “catacomb saints”. The catacomb saints are skeletons which were originally discovered in 1578 that were supposedly of early Christian martyrs. To honor them, they were adorned with numerous precious gemstones and often dressed in fine clothes. However, it turns out that not only were these bones not necessarily those of actual Christian martyrs, they might not have even been Christians and instead might have been Jews or pagans.
I’m actually doing additional research on the catacomb saints at the moment and hoping to be able to provide a class about them in the future.
Has research become easier with internet resources?
Research in this field has become easier in some ways with available internet resources in that it’s much easier to obtain articles written by people all over the world as well as electronic documentation of physical evidence. In addition, I often receive interesting articles sent by friends and family electronically. Unfortunately, of course, it doesn’t help much in terms of getting to see some of the physical evidence in person (e.g. bones, wills, grave sites).