I’m sure many of you have heard that early modern peoples had a rather blasé approach to their own death, viewing it only as shuffling off this mortal coil and into heaven? Or the myth that the early modern English (especially) were not attached to their children?
With a high percentage of infant deaths, inclement weather exacerbating already poor nutrition, epidemic disease, and largely ineffective medical treatment, the people of early modern England were certainly aware of 1) their own mortality 2) the mortality of their family and friends.
This awareness did not mean, however, that the early modern English were desensitized to death. Indeed, like today, there were those who feared or dreaded death, planned for their own demise, mourned the death of loved ones, and memorialized them.
In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.- Ben Franklin
Religious belief permeated early modern England. It shaped how you thought, spoke, dealt with others, and even how you cooked (stir that pot for 10 pater nosters!). And, of course, it helped shape how you thought about death.
For many, death was a release from the sufferings of life and the beginning of a new, perfect, and suffering-free life in heaven. For those who lived a life dedicated to their faith, death did not have to feared and, in fact, could be a welcome reprieve.
As Ralph Josselin, a 17th century clergyman, wrote, death was "a separation of soul and body from each other that they may more closely enjoy the communion of Jesus Christ: a wicked mans death is a departing from God, a separating of soul and body from God for ever."
Similar religious arguments abounded. Nicholas Byfield’s 1619 work, for example, promised in its very title that it provided The Cure of the Feare of Death. Fearing death, he argued, was akin to an “ordinarie disease” and could be cured by recognizing that life on earth was frequently quite miserable and that to fear death was a distinctly unchristian behaviour. As he wrote “it is the love of some sin, and delight in it, that makes a man afraid to dye” and that “it is an easie thing to bee willing to dye, when our hearts are cleansed of the love of this world.”
Planning for One’s Demise
In a similar vein, Byfield suggested that setting one’s house in order was a key part of preparing to die, dying properly, and ridding oneself of the fear of death. He argued that it was “most preposterous course for men to leave the making of their Wils to their sicknesse.” Instead, it was something to be completed early and in great detail so to settle “worldly affaires, and according to their means, provide for their wife and children.”
I’ve stumbled across the wills of numerous surgical practitioners heading out to sea that help to underscore the necessity of will creation:
Here, John Harris’s will was written “considering the many dangers and uncertainty of this present life being outward bound on a voyage to sea” and left everything to his friend Stephen Capp.
Similarly, John Roberts’s will here states: “considering the perrills and dangers of the seas and other uncertaintyes of this transitory life Soe for avoiding controversies after my decease make publish and declare this my last will and testament.”
Accepting Death? Grief
Scholars such as Philippe Ariès and Lawrence Stone have commented that this heightened awareness of the inevitable – and often sudden or early – death meant colder interpersonal relations, even with family. Here we see that wasn’t necessarily true.
It is a very human inclination to ask “why me?” when something negative happens. In terms of health, Ralph Josselin’s answer to the question – according to Alan Macfarlane – was one “conditioned to submission and acceptance.” Despite this resigned attitude, Josselin still questioned the illnesses and deaths of his friends.
When his friend Mrs. Mary passed away, Josselin wrote that he was “perplexed in the dealings of the Lord so sadly with [them].” At one funeral sermon, Josselin noted that he “lost his ‘greife and trouble much in the pulpitt’” and upon the burial of his 10 day old daughter “kist her lips last, & carefully laid up that body, the soule being with Jesus.” Josselin’s acceptance of his child’s death and belief that she was in heaven was still accompanied by emotional outpouring and displays of grief.
Lady Ann Conway, likewise, was accepting of her illness that almost led to death, writing “it hath pleased God to raise me from that desperate sicknesse (which in all probability should have given a perfect release to all my sufferings).” In the same letter we see juxtaposed her acceptance of personal illness and her grief at the loss of her child. Perhaps needless to say, her outpouring of emotion at the latter was immense.
Elizabeth Robinson Montagu wrote similarly about the death of her child in 1744: “I am well enough as to health of body, but God knows, the sickness of the soul is far worse; however, as so many good friends interest themselves for me, I am glad I am not ill. I know it is my duty to be resigned and to submit; many, far more deserving than I am, have been as unfortunate [in losing a child].”
The parents above felt intense grief at the death of their children and were willing and able to express their emotion to family and family. Another common thread between them, interestingly, is the desire to not grieve too much.
Montagu, for example, noted that she was taking steps to come to terms with her loss with the help of family and friends. She hoped that the grief would fade with time, read as a distraction, and was supported by her sister. Perhaps, most important, she noted that her husband, “Poor Mr. Montagu shews me an example of patience and fortitude, and endeavours to comfort me, though undoubtedly he feels as much sorrow as I can do, for he loved his child as much as ever parent could do.”
Not mourning too much seems to have been a popular topic on which to write. Edward Bury, in his 1693 work Death Improv’d, and Immoderate Sorrow for Deceased Friends and Relations Reprov’d wrote that grief was natural, lawful, and one’s duty. Indeed, not grieving was “an Heathinish sin!” In the same way, grief that “disables us for our present Duty in our general or particular Calling” was also “doubtless” sin. One’s focus, he wrote, should be on the duty toward the living and the one’s own soul – there was little one could do for the dead.
Last, I’d like to turn to the valorization and celebration of the dead. Dying well was important. As Keith Thomas noted, “it was a source of happiness…to be able to leave behind ‘an honourable fame’ which would live in the memory of men when our bodies had turned to dust” and that “in the literary culture…it was commonplace to regard posthumous remembrance as the ultimate fulfillment of human life.”
Indeed, funerary elegies epitomize this sort of posthumous valorization as the deceased person is transformed into the epitome of virtue or a truly unattainable ideal.
The anonymous tale of Susanna Bickes, a 14 year old girl who died of the plague in 1664, epitomizes this sort of inclination. The author described Bickes’s last days, emphasizing her maturity in the face of death and, especially, her spiritual strength as evidenced by her many prayers and religious exhortations to those around her.
In another, dedicated to the memory of Thomas Heneage, the author laments Heneage’s passing and the impartiality of death.
Here lies interr’d under this fatall stone, A world of men epitomis’d in one.
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 Much of this stems from the work of Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, London: Jonathan Cape, 1962 &Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979.
 Alan Macfarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, N.Y.: WW. Norton & Company (1970), 222.
 Nicholas Byfield, The Cure of the Feare of Death, London: printed by G. Purslowe for R. Rounthwaite 1619.
 Macfarlane, 172.
 Ibid., 100.
 Edward Bury, Death Improv’d, London: Thomas Parkhurtst (1693), 7.
 Ibid., 9.
 Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2009), 236.
 See: Andrea Brady, “‘Without weld, gard, or embroidery,’: A Funeral Elegy for Cicely Ridgeway, Countess of Londonderry,” Huntington Library Quarterly 72,3 (2009), 373-395 ß is particularly interesting as Ridgeway’s rejection of some feminine ideals are extolled/commented upon; Lucinda Becker, “The Absent Body: Representations of Dying Early Modern Women in A Selection of Seventeenth-Century Diaries,” Women’s Writing, 8 (2001), p. 251-262.
 Anon. An Edifieing Wonder, London: 1666.