The Ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") are two related Latin texts dating from about 1415 and 1450 which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to "die well" according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. It was written within the historical context of the effects of the macabre horrors of the Black Death 60 years earlier and consequent social upheavals of the 15th century. It was very popular, translated into most West European languages, and was the first in a western literary tradition of guides to death and dying. About 50,000 copies were printed in the incunabula period before 1501.
There was originally a "long version" and a later "short version" containing eleven woodcut pictures as instructive images which could be easily explained and memorized.
The authors of the two texts are unknown, but assumed to be Dominican churchmen, as they echo Jean de Gerson's publication, the Opusculum Tripartitu, containing a section named De arte Moriendi. Gerson may have been influenced by earlier references in 'compendia of faith' dating back to the thirteenth century, but the content was uniquely his own.
The original "long version", called Tractatus (or Speculum) artis bene moriendi, was composed in 1415 by an anonymous Dominican friar, probably at the request of the Council of Constance (1414-1418, Germany). This was widely read and translated into most West European languages, and was very popular in England, where a tradition of consolatory death literature survived until the 17th century. Works in the English tradition include The Way of Dying Well and The Sick Mannes Salve. In 1650, Holy Living and Holy Dying became the "artistic climax" of the tradition that had begun with Ars moriendi.
Ars Moriendi ()was also among the first books printed with movable type and was widely circulated in nearly 100 editions before 1500, in particular in Germany. The long version survives in about 300 manuscript versions, only one illustrated.
Ars moriendi consists of six chapters:
The "short version", whose appearance shortly precedes the introduction in the 1460s of block books (books printed from carved blocks of wood, both text and images on the same block), first dates to around 1450, from the Netherlands. It is mostly an adaptation of the second chapter of the "long version", and contains eleven woodcut pictures. The first ten woodcuts are divided into 5 pairs, with each set showing a picture of the devil presenting one of the 5 temptations, and the second picture showing the proper remedy for that temptation. The last woodcut shows the dying man, presumably having successfully navigated the maze of temptations, being accepted into heaven, and the devils going back to hell in confusion.
The "short version" was as popular as the "long version", but there was no English translation, perhaps because educated English people at the time were expected to understand several European languages. There are six extant manuscripts of the short version, most not illustrated, and over twenty extant blockbook illustrated editions, using 13 different sets of blocks.
As well as the eleven different sets of blockbook woodcuts, there is a set by Master E. S. in engraving. The lengthy controversy over their respective dating and priority is now resolved by the discovery by Fritz Saxl of an earlier illuminated manuscript, of well before 1450, from whose tradition all the images in the printed versions clearly derive. Studies of the watermarks of the blockbooks by Allen Stevenson at the British Museum in the 1960s confirmed that none of them predated the 1460s, so Master E. S.' engravings are the earliest printed versions, dating from around 1450. The images remain largely the same in all media for the rest of the century.
Allegorically the images depicted the contest between angels and demons over the fate of the dying man. In his dying agony his soul emerges from his mouth to be received by one of a band of angels. Common themes portrayed by illustrators include skeletons, the Last Judgement, corpses, and the forces of good and evil battling over souls.
The popularity of the Ars moriendi texts developed into a broader tradition of writing on the good death. Jeremy Taylor's books Holy Living and Holy Dying, published in 1650 and 1651, exemplify that tradition. It developed in both Protestant and Catholic veins and continued in various forms through the nineteenth century.
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