A Manuscript for Living and Dying Well

Date: 10 July 2018
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: UVA Special Collections
Lecturer: Amy V. Ogden - Associate Professor of French, University of Virginia

How can the beliefs, goals, and methods of palliative care teach us to read medieval texts differently, and how can reading medieval texts enrich palliative care? Unlike much of modern medicine, which seeks to cure disease, the palliative care movement and medieval literature both embrace—rather than deny—the inevitability of death. Consequently, they share a certain stigma: grappling with how to die can easily be seen as defeatist and morbid. Palliative care, however, explicitly aims to empower people to take control of their mortality: thinking creatively about what can be done in the face of death is a very effective way to reduce the terror of our own annihilation and thus live a more satisfying life in the time we have. As the palliative approach increasingly calls attention to the dangers of not acknowledging our mortality, such as treatments that only prolong suffering, perhaps we are ready to see medieval religious literature, with its emphasis on dying, as a useful source of expertise, even for the modern non-religious: in the medieval world, where death often came earlier and where pain medication was limited, people’s ability to overcome suffering required robust psychological tools—tools preserved for us in medieval texts.

As a case study, a manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Canonici Miscellaneous 74) provides a collection of exemplary stories and advice texts about living and dying well.  Assembled from prior manuscripts around 1200 C.E., this group of Old French saints’ lives and sermons reflects a conscious effort to bring together models of heroic deaths (confessor saints’ peaceful passings as well as martyrs’ violent executions) with discussions of how to balance worldly pleasures with virtue to enjoy this life as well as come to a good end. The manuscript’s emphases on community, balance, and meditation on love and death, all harmonize with prominent ideas of the palliative care movement.