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The Three Living and the Three Dead

On the leveling effect of death.

The popular image of the Grim Reaper, a black-cloaked skeleton wielding a scythe, has medieval provenance, although his name dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century. In western Europe of the high middle ages, cycles of plagues and pestilence brought ordinary people into close and frequent encounters with death. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the artistry of the period should have contrived to dwell upon what seems to modern eyes a ghoulish spectacle. Nor were these ghastly depictions confined to the visual arts: medieval literature, too, is replete with mortifying depictions of death, in mystery plays, chronicles, and romances. The purpose of these images was not, as in modern horror, to satiate a desire for gratuitous grotesquery, but rather to address an inescapable existential reality in a way that might edify the moral and political character of the audience.

A popular medieval motif was that of “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” for which there are numerous visual and literary examples. One of the most famous and visually memorable is found in the De Lisle Psalter. Three fair princes are out for a walk; on the way, they encounter three animate corpses in progressively more advanced stages of decomposition. Horror-stricken, the youths recoil: “I am afraid,” says one; “Lo what I see,” says another; their last noble friend replies, “Methinks these devils be.” But the deathly trio interject one after another, “Such shall you be,” then “I was well fair,” and finally “For God’s love, beware.” The third, a naked skeleton, then drives the point home by explaining that he was once the head of a great and royal house, “but now I am so hideous and bare / that even the worms disdain me.” The tale is a memento mori. But there is a political implication as well: the nobility of the participants is a reminder of the leveling effect of death. In the grave, all are equal.

The Levellers—so-called because they wanted to level the distance between noble and commoner—belong to England of the seventeenth century, but in important ways they were anticipated by the medieval peasants of the fourteenth century. In his Chronicles, Jean Froissart records a speech by John Ball, a priest who was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which begins with his declamation that, “The state of England cannot be right until everything is held communally, and until there is no distinction between noble and serf, and we are all as one.” Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana records an open-air sermon by Ball which began with the famous lines, “When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman?” In Ricardian England, such arguments were dangerous. Ball was arrested, tried, and sentenced to a traitors’ death, but his argument echoed down the centuries, returning like the Three Dead to threaten the aristocracy from beyond the grave. It still does.

John Ball’s political exhortations seem to rebuke modern historical fiction which portrays the medieval Church as worldly and venal. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with countless other cultural artifacts from the medieval period, show that the sentiment is by no means a new one. But history and people are more complicated than stereotypes and generalizations allow. Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, designed a tomb for himself in the style that came to be known as a “transi” (from the Latin for gone off). Such tombs presented not one but two effigies: on the top, the deceased in all of the splendor and pomp afforded to him in life; but on the bottom, the deceased as he is in death—a mean corpse laid bare for all to see. The inscription on Archbishop Chichele’s tomb reads, “I was pauper born, then to primate raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave, whoever you may be who will pass by, you who will be like me after you die.” In this inscription, the voices of the Three Dead echo on the lips of the Primate of All England. Nor are these worldly sentiments; like other medieval depictions of death, they demonstrate an enviable frankness about the reality of human mortality.

In a world where death was visited on communities with horrifying swiftness, with the plague sometimes more than halving the population of villages or even obliterating them entirely, there was little room for squeamishness about mankind’s mortal end. Immediate action was needed: not only in the field of medicine, in which every effort was being made, but also with regard to the salvation of souls. Tombs such as that of Archbishop Chichele and stories such as “The Three Living and the Three Dead” reminded people of the inevitability of death for a reason: that they might be confessed of their sins and thereafter conduct themselves accordingly so as to gain Heaven and avoid Hell.

Archbishop Chichele established several academic institutions, including All Souls Oxford, where his gift came with the provision that the students would pray for his soul after his death, as they still do. The inscription upon his tomb, in Canterbury Cathedral, implores viewers to meditate upon their deaths precisely in the place where they can obtain Christ’s salvific grace. If there is something a trifle ostentatious about its humility, then there is also something appropriately episcopal in its function as a tool to guide souls back into union with their Creator. The Archbishop and the medieval attitude towards death still have something to teach us. As we approach the Feast of All Souls, let us meditate upon our own end and conduct ourselves accordingly, even as we pray for those who have gone before—in the hope that, like Archbishop Chichele, we will leave behind those who will pray for us in turn.