‘And Death Will Have His Day’: Guest Post by Gillian Polack, Co-Author of The Middle Ages Unlocked

I have been invited by Amberley Publishing to participate in a blog tour for "The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300" by Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania, and today I am delighted and honoured to welcome one of the authors to our Lesser Land. Dr Gillian Polack is going to share her thoughts on how medieval people always kept in mind that "death would have his day" and tried to prepare themselves for his coming. The subject matter of her post is even more relevant in the context of what happened today in medieval history. 19 October marks the death anniversary of the two medieval figures I have taken a lively interest in, namely Henry the Young King's youngest brother, John, king of England (d. 1216) and, moving East, Queen Ryksa Elżbieta of Bohemia (d. 1335), the mother-in-law of Henryk I of Jawor to whom we owe the world's only surviving Lancelot of the Lake wall paintings. Let us find out how they may have prepared themselves to meet their Maker.

"A good death was important to people. This entailed being prepared for death, preferably after a long life. It wasn’t good to die young, violently, or without confessing and receiving absolution for one’s sins. Pain was often considered an essential part of Christian death because it was thought to be the deserved punishment for sins. Having foreknowledge of one’s time of death enabled a person to take the actions necessary for a good death.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church had fixed ideal rites for the death of a person. These rites began with confession and penance. Since a dying person was usually not able to do the prescribed penance, someone else was required to do it instead, unless the sick person recovered and then had to do it in person. The sick one was then washed, dressed in clean clothes and brought into church if possible. For the actual death, the person should ideally rest upon straw and ashes. Priests brought the cross, spoke the peace rite and sprinkled blessed water and blessed ashes on the dying. They then spoke a set of prayers, followed by anointment with blessed oil (Extreme Unction). Finally, everybody present recited the Credo and the Lord’s Prayer, followed by communion for the sick (the viaticum). Of course, the ideal rites were not always what really happened. During the High Middle Ages, the cleric performing the Extreme Unction usually demanded the items necessary for the rite as donation: the linen cloth used as bedding, the necessary candles, and so on. Later, the priest might demand money or the best garment or best animal for his services, a practice that must have made Extreme Unction a rite that was disliked or even hated by the public. While Extreme Unction was always administered by a priest, the viaticum was quite frequently given to the dying by a family member in the house. This was allowed because of the common wish of Christians to die with the viaticum host still on the tongue.” Extract from The Middle Ages Unlocked.

In The Middle Ages Unlocked we give a sense of the ideal death, the perfect end to a proper Christian life. This was the dream. Death was terribly important to Christians in the Middle Ages, because it led to Heaven. It also led to less savoury places: it was to be desired and to be feared. An ideal departure, a perfect ending to a good life, helped poeple handle this. William Marshall was famous for having achieved it: many people did not. Some of them died in war, in accident, through illness and there was no time to find a priest, or the priest couldn’t come, or the priest wasn’t speaking to someone in the family because of an argument about chickens. Everyday life intervened in death far more often than war did, or plague, and it was everyday life that coloured most peoples‘ deaths.

We only know about the death of William Marshal because he was famous. We know about the young man who died on the sports‘ field through stabbing himself with his belt knife (which he should not have been wearing) when he tripped and fell. We know about him because he’s written up in a report because his death needed to be investigated. We know about the murders of Jews who dared to give Richard I a coronation present (the cheek!) because it was such a terrible thing and was reported in chronicles. We don’t know about the old man who died unshriven because the priest was angry about his chickens. This is documented only in my imagination.

                           An abbot's grave at Fountains Abbey. Photo courtesy of Dr Gillian Polack

Most deaths in the Middle Ages have either not been documented or the documents have gone missing or been destroyed. Time devours historical documents and between us and the Middle Ages is much time. Most Christian deaths in the Middle Ages may have been perfect deaths, but we really don’t know. We can make intelligent guesses, but we don’t know. We don’t even know exactly how many people lived in a given place, much less how they died.

We know that not everyone wanted a good Christian death. Jews, in particular, did not want good Christian deaths. Jewish beliefs and practices were different to Christian. We talk about this in The Middle Ages Unlocked. It’s important. It’s not just that people had different expectations of death, it’s that they had different expectations of life. There was more than one religion in England during much of the Middle Ages, which means that there was more than one way of thinking about things and doing things.

Jews and Christians talked to each other. We have a great deal of evidence for this. We don’t know what English Jews thought of the Christian perfect death, for time (and destruction) has eaten most of our evidence for this. Like the imaginary chickens of the imaginary priest with the imaginary bad temper, however, it’s wonderful to imagine. 


Dr Gillian Polack is a novelist, editor and medieval historian as well as a lecturer. She has been published in both the academic world and the world of historical fiction. Her most recent novels include Langue[dot]doc 1305 and The Time of the Ghosts (both Satalyte Publishing). Find her webpage at www.gillianpolack.com and her tweets under @GillianPolack.

Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archeologist and teacher as well as published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at http://www.pallia.net and her blog at togs-from-bogs.blogspot.com. She also tweets under @katrinkania.


  1. Great post. I really want this book. :)

  2. Another book for my list. *sigh* Can anyone give me the money to rent a larger flat? :-)

    1. Exactly my thoughts, Gabriele :-) I share my house with my books, only then with my family :-)


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