Longer Synopsis

2004. Death in Fifteenth-Century Castile: Ideologies of the Elites, Colección Tamesis, A 205 (Woodbridge: Tamesis).

Death in the Middle Ages is a topic which has attracted considerable academic attention. Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924) focussed heavily on the more extreme responses to death in this period. The macabre and its origins and intended purpose continue to provoke critical controversy. Where there has been an attempt to differentiate between the responses to death of the different estates, there has been a tendency to contrast an ‘elite’ and a ‘popular’ view. In the face of death the labradores (peasants), who made up the vast majority of the medieval population, are thought to have mixed superstitions and pagan practices with more Christian responses. Studies of death among the elites have examined the deaths and funerals of monarchs and saints. Saints and kings may be thought of as representative of the two estates which comprised the elite of medieval society: the oradores (ecclesiastics) and the defensores (warriors or nobility). Yet kings, by virtue of the theory that they were God’s viceroys within their realms, had a quasi-religious status which set them apart from other defensores. They are perhaps not, therefore, typical of the majority of defensores.

While non-Christian elements of the defensores’ funerals and responses to death have been noted, there has been little work undertaken to understand the rationale behind why the defensores acted in defiance of Christian theology. In this book I set out to do precisely that. I contrast systematically the ideas of the oradores and defensores by following the progress of members of each of these estates from their preparations for death, through their ‘good’ or ‘bad’ deaths, to their burials and otherworldly fates and on to the responses of the bereaved. I show that just as the oradores had a coherent ideology which governed their responses to death, so too did the defensores. But where the oradores attempted to behave in accordance with Christian theology, the defensores’ ideology prioritised the defence of individual honour, the pursuit of fama (reputation) and the display of earthly power. How differences in gender and social status conditioned the defensores’ responses to death are also analysed.

In limiting my study to fifteenth-century Castile I have given it a very precise focus which has enabled me to perceive differences in ideologies between the estates which clearly cannot be ascribed to either shifts occurring over time or place, as might have been the case had I been comparing texts from widely different locations or chronological periods. Nonetheless, I have used supporting texts from earlier and later periods and they demonstrate that the conflict between the orador and defensor ideologies did not originate in the fifteenth century, and nor did it end suddenly in 1500. I have also used a wide range of textual sources, including legal texts such as the Siete partidas and wills; historical works such as chronicles; religious works such as the Arte de bien morir; and literary works such as Cárcel de Amor and Celestina.