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“What We Are, So You Shall Be”: Preparation for Death in the Late Middle Ages
Honours British Studies, Harlaxton College, Part I, Fall 2011
In the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead, three living men who have gone for a walk encounter three walking corpses who are essentially their doubles. “What you are, so once were we,” the dead say to the living; “what we are, so you shall be.” (Daniell 69) This story, which originated on the Continent and came to England at the beginning of the fourteenth century, is a common motif in painting and poetry for the rest of the Middle Ages. Though it does predate the Black Death, which reached England in 1348, it is representative of a phenomenon that peaked in the aftermath of the plague—a fascination with the inevitability and unpredictability of death, and a desire to prepare oneself for death during life. This fascination is illustrated in the emerging genre of the macabre, associated with the Dance of Death, and the cadaver effigies found in late
medieval cathedrals, which showed the decomposing corpse of their commissioner or patron, often with worms feeding on his body. The extent to which the plague can account for these representations of death is impossible to fully determine, but what is clear is that they stemmed from a fear of sudden death, which in itself stemmed from a fear of Hell and Purgatory. In order to ensure the eventual passage of their souls to heaven, everyone— rich and poor, clergy and layman—was expected to devote a significant portion of life to the contemplation of death, by viewing art and reading poetry, by visiting the sick and dying, and sometimes even by becoming deathly sick.