The Protocols of Dying Well

by M-Gillies

This engraving by an unidentified German engraver from the middle 1400s, depicts the temptation of lack of Faith which is part of Chapter 2 of Ars Moriendi.

During the onset of the Black Death in the 15th century, the ranks of the Catholic clergy had been hit particularly hard, taking generations to replace them in both quantity and quality. Because the protocols, rituals and consolations of a death bed were reserved for the services of an attending priest, a Latin text known as Ars Moriendi came about.

It was this text, which gave advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, as well as explaining how to “die well” as an individual entered the final stages of their life. Titled Ars Moriendi or The Art of Dying, the text acted as a guide to death and dying and between 1415-1450, spawned two versions, the long and the short.

Containing eleven woodcut instructive images, with the first ten woodcuts divided into five pairs that depicting an image of the devil presenting one of five temptations and the eleventh showing a dying man, presumably having successfully navigated the maze of temptation and accepted into heaven, the short version of the book is an abridgement of the second chapter of the long version.

Because there was no literary tradition on how to prepare for death, or what a good death meant, or even how to die well, the text was written by an anonymous Dominican friar, which is speculated to have been at the request of the Council of Constance.

In the original long version, titled Tractatus (or Speculum) Artis Bene Moriendi, the text consisted of six chapters:

Chapter 1: Explains that dying has a good side and serves to console the dying man that death is not something of which to be afraid.

Chapter 2: Outlines the five temptations that beset a dying man and how to avoid them, which are, lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice.

Chapter 3: Lists the seven questions to ask a dying man, along with consolation available to him through the redemptive powers of Christ’s love.

Chapter 4: Expresses the need to imitate Christ’s life.

Chapter 5: Addresses the friends and families, outlining the general rule of behavior at the deathbed.

Chapter 6: Includes appropriate prayers to be said for a dying man.

With Ars Moriendi, the text and pictures provided the services of a virtual priest, an idea that, 60 years earlier would have been an unthinkable intrusion on the powers of the church, it became significant for medieval Christians who wanted to ensure they had good deaths and providing them with a framework to follow as they were faced with death consistently.

To date, various facsimiles of Ars Moriendi can be found in circulation, with many being used for historical interest, rather than manuals of dying.

Read more:

What is the Ars Moriendi?

Ars Moriendi | Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

BibliOdyssesy | Ars Moriendi

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