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CFP: Preparing for Death in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (14-15 March 2013)

About the Conference

Venue: Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Fabianinkatu 24, Helsinki
Date: 14-15 March 2013

In medieval and early modern Europe society, the Grim Reaper, death, was a recurrent guest. Leaving emotional aspects aside, the omnipresence of death required people to prepare for the possibility of dying. The religious worldview revolved around thought of salvation based on individual merit - sins and good deeds. Souls were destined either to heaven or hell, depending on how the individual had behaved during life.

When a person feared that death was close, he or she turned his thoughts to arranging his soul for afterlife. Confession of one's sins, contrition and making amends were part of the penitential process. In addition to the confession of sins, praying for the dying and extreme unction belonged to the religious deathbed rituals in medieval and early modern Europe. Sudden death was perceived as a threat because the soul could not be prepared for afterlife. Priests had their own handbooks advising them how to approach a person on his sickbed and how to console him and his family. In the Middle Ages, there developed a whole genre of literature, the ars moriendi, instructing people about the proper way of dying.

Apart from the soul, property issues were also a major concern for the dying. How were the wealth and family resources to be distributed after death? Was something to be invested in good deeds: donations ad pios usus, alms, masses, etc.? Law and custom provided a plethora of ways for transferring property to the surviving relatives and the next generation (e.g., statutory inheritance, wills and testaments, marriage contracts, primogeniture, entails and fideicommissa). The strategies of heirship varied in time and place. Preparing for death could also mean worrying about the memory and postmortem reputation of the dying. This could be done for example by preparing or commissioning works of art, effigies, memorials or literary works.

The conference 'Preparing for Death in Medieval and Early Modern Europe' will investigate and explore the various ways and strategies medieval and early modern people used in attempting to prepare themselves and others - body, soul, property and memory - for the inevitable and omnipresent death. Although the timeframe is historical in order to achieve certain consistency, the conference aims at interdisciplinarity.

Programme (pdf)


Keynote Speakers

  • Professor Richard H. Helmholz (Chicago Law School) gives a plenary lecture: 'The Law of the Church and Obstacles to Preparing for Death in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
  • Docent Otfried Czaika (Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm) gives a plenary lecture: 'Dying Unprepared: Sudden Death in Early Modern Swedish Funeral Sermons.'