Death and the Middle Ages

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake

Tom Golden LCSW

A man sensed that he was dying. He alerted the people closest to him that this was happening and proceeded into the place where he slept. He readied himself and lay down upon his back on his bed, spreading his arms in the shape of a cross. People started streaming into the room. His family, relatives, children, neighbors, even people he didn't know who lived nearby, crowded into the small space. These people had been alerted to the process by seeing the priest carrying the viaticum through the streets. As they saw this, they felt a responsibility to attend the ritual that would follow and dropped what they were doing in order to attend. As the people gathered in the room, the windows and doors were shut and candles were lit. The man who was dying started the ritual process and controlled the timing of the event. He proceeded to say good-bye to those around him, and offered his apologies for deeds he had done that he felt needed forgiveness. He offered his forgiveness to those present. He proceeded to speak the ritual words that he had learned from attending this same ritual many times before as an observer. After he had finished, he lay in waiting for death to come.

This story is a description of the way men died in the Middle Ages. The deathbed experience was an intimate endeavor that was a part of one's community. Men (and women) had a sizable fear of sudden and unexpected death because it would rob them of this experience of their final ritual. There was a sense of pride that men had in being able to anticipate the time of their death. This was made somewhat easier by the lack of "good" medical care. Most major illnesses were fatal, and thus when someone became severely ill it usually meant that they were dying. This made it somewhat easier to predict with some accuracy the time of approaching death.

This information comes from a book by Philippe Aries entitled Death in the Middle Ages. This book offers details about the attitudes of death and the way people dealt with it. He points out that the people of the Middle Ages were intimately connected with death. They tended to see it as a natural course and conclusion of their life on this earth. There was great importance placed on a man's knowing that he was about to die. Through outer signs or through intuitive inner knowing, the man became aware of his impending death and followed prescribed ritual and behavior.

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing page 98.

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027