At the beginning of the 15th century, we find Europe in one of the least stable periods in its history. England and France were in the midst of their Hundred Years’ War; many local conflicts were also simmering, bringing along death, poverty and famine; and the trail of the Black Death, which ravaged the continent 50 years prior, was still visible in places. These volatile circumstances represented a background for the emergence of Ars Moriendi – a collection of Church writings that were supposed to serve as practical guides for the achievement of “good death.”
The origin of Ars Moriendi, or “the art of dying”, can be traced back to the year 1414 and The Council of Constance. On the occasion, a short essay was presented that would constitute a basis for a longer discourse titled Tractatus artis bene moriendi, probably commissioned by the Council itself. The authorship of the latter is ascribed to an anonymous Dominican friar, and it was the network of monasteries belonging to this order that secured the spread of the new book throughout Europe.
There are actually two versions of Ars Moriendi that are regarded as sources for all the subsequent works in this genre – one is the above-mentioned discourse, and the other is adapted and illustrated version of its second chapter. Such division exists because the discourse as a whole describes prayers and actions that both the dying and those in attendance should practice, whereas the second chapter is solely dedicated to five temptations besetting a dying person, overcoming of which was considered particularly important for the salvation of the soul and its reunification with God. These five temptations are lack of faith, despair, impatience, pride and avarice, and aside from describing their detrimental effect, the book also offers remedies, or ways to fight them. Lack of faith is thus fought with assertion of faith, despair with hope for forgiveness, impatience with kindness and patience, and so on. These battles are unequivocally depicted with various foul creatures surrounding the deathbed in an attempt to lure the soul of the dying man and angels and saints trying to protect him and steer him in the right direction. The final illustration shows the predictable outcome: an angel receives the soul after it has left the body, while the devils fume in the background, having lost yet another battle. A good death has been attained.
An English translation of the original discourse appeared around 1450. About the same time, the second, abridged and illustrated version was first printed as a block book in Netherlands. One of the oldest and scarcest editions of this second version, printed by Weissenburger in 1510, was auctioned and sold at Sotheby’s in 1953.
As has been demonstrated by numerous examples, the concept of Ars Moriendi was well received by both Roman Catholic and Protestant writers, growing into a tradition that endured until the mid-18th century. The most notable works that considered this topic are Preparation for Death by a Dutch Renaissance humanist and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam, published in 1538; The Art of Dying Well by a prominent Jesuit author Robert Bellarmine, published in 1619; and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying by an English cleric Jeremy Taylor. However, in line with the shift of perception as regards the value of the person’s earthly life, there is a visible tendency in these and many other works to observe the art of dying within a broader frame of the “art of living.” Adherence to core Christian values through life thus gradually gains more importance for the attainment of good death than the performance of rituals and prayers on one’s deathbed.