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What is the Ars Moriendi?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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The Ars Moriendi or “Art of Dying” was a 15th century book which was essentially a manual for death and dying. It collected the Western Christian beliefs about death into one volume, initially published in Latin and later translated into many European languages. The first edition of the Ars Moriendi, known as the long version, was released in 1415; in 1450, a shorter version with woodcut illustrations was released, as a sort of quick reference.

While the concept of a manual for death and dying might seem odd to some modern people, the Ars Moriendi was in fact very important and greatly appreciated by medieval Christians. The publication of this book arose in response to the Black Death, which swept Europe, and didn't spare clergy. Traditionally, the priest had the duty of instructing the dying, but as priests came to be in short supply, Christians struggled to have a good death, and the Ars Moriendi was a stand-in for a priest in regions where priests could not cope with all of the dying.

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The long version of the Ars Moriendi included a brief contemplation of death itself, suggesting that death was not necessarily a bad thing, or even something to be feared. It also listed the temptations which faced the dying, and how to avoid them, along with providing instructions for appropriate behavior among friends and family of the dying. The book also had a section of prayers for the dead, along with reflections on Christ and redemption, and a series of questions to ask people on their deathbeds; these questions were designed to prompt further reflection.

For medieval Christians, death was a very important event, and they wanted to make sure that they had good deaths, ensuring a speedy trip to heaven. The Ars Mordiendi provided a framework to follow, offering suggestions, hope, and contemplation to people struggling with the fear of the unknown. The book also provided an honest look of the fact of death, something which people in the Middle Ages confronted constantly thanks to the Black Plague and other epidemics.

Various facsimile copies of the Ars Moriendi can be found in circulation today, many as historical objects of interest, rather than as manuals to be taken seriously by the modern dying. However, some people have suggested that a modern form of the Ars Moriendi could potentially be very helpful, especially in societies where the etiquette and rules surrounding death, dying, and mourning have become cloudy.

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