In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Death and Dying in England

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Death as Part of the Human Life Cycle
  • Archaeology
  • Documentary Sources
  • Wills
  • Monuments and Brasses
  • Hierarchies and Society
  • European Medieval Studies and Cultural Significance

Medieval Studies Death and Dying in England
Chris Daniell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0149


The study of medieval death and burial as an academic subject is relatively recent and has expanded greatly in the last three decades. In the 1960s the archaeological treatment of later medieval burials and associated bodies was almost nonexistent. While antiquarian scholars were usually interested in the local (whether individual monuments or churches), scholars such as Aries (Aries 1974 and Aries 1981, both cited under European Medieval Studies and Cultural Significance) who opened up the historical study to new approaches. Aries 1981 examined how death was perceived for over a thousand years from Roman times to the late 20th century. The majority of the study is about France, with elements from other European countries. There are four sections, with the early medieval being covered by The Tame Death (where death is a period of sleep, with the death ritual being central) and The Death of the Self (latter half of the Middle Ages) where individual memory and status come to the fore. While the work can be criticized, for example, for having considerable overlap between the sections, the book sparked heightened awareness of the subject. Since then, the historical study of death and burial has quickened, with numerous books, chapters, and articles covering a wide range of subjects. In parallel with the historical growth of scholarship there has been a growing realization within the archaeological community that there is a great deal to be learned from burials. In particular the scientific revolution has meant that isotope analysis and DNA analysis can be undertaken to reveal patterns of migration or family groupings within the archaeological record. The archaeological evidence of cemeteries and burials is given elsewhere in the Oxford Bibliographies article Medieval Archaeology in Britain, Twelfth to Fifteenth Centuries, The study of death and burial has now become a part of mainstream academic study in both medieval history and archaeology.

Introductory Works

A number of important and groundbreaking works and collections of essays and journals have set the pace for the study of death and burial. Aries 1974 and Aries 1981 (both cited under European Medieval Studies and Cultural Significance) were groundbreaking in their wide-ranging treatment and assessment of both French sources (Aries 1981) and his analysis of monuments and inscriptions (Aries 1974). Boase 1972 takes an English perspective and assesses art and monuments. Jupp and Gittings 1999 includes chronological studies that analyze the history of death and burial from prehistoric times to the late 20th century, and these studies form a framework for further study. Important cross-disciplinary collections include Bassett 1992, which contains a wide range of chapters analyzing the urban response to death and dying between 100 and 1600. A collection edited by Whaley first published in 1981 was reissued in 2012 (Whaley 2012) and covers an even wider timeframe, from Ancient Greece to the 20th century. Irish written sources have not received the attention due to them, and Fry 1999 attempts to rectify this by comparing this with material remains. There has been considerable interest in death and burial in the early modern period as a number of different themes become interwoven. Tarlow 2011 has, for the first time, included folklore as an area of study of the social and scientific changes and the new religious belief systems of the early modern period. Tarlow’s work is also unusual as it includes evidence from across Britain and Ireland. In the early modern period the number of detailed historical records grew exponentially (while the number of archaeologically excavated graves is fewer), and historical works such as Gittings 1984, Houlbrooke 2000, Cressy 1997, and Litten 2002 have specialized in assessing how the changes were used by individuals to alter the way that people remembered them, and Litten has specialized in how the funeral industry developed. There are many journals that carry occasional articles about the subjects. Journals such as Mortality cover all mortality issues (such as modern cremation practice or nursing) but also include the occasional historical article. Major journals for the early and late Middle Ages, such as Speculum or the Journal of Medieval History, as well as journals that cover all of British history, such as the English Historical Review, also occasionally cover aspects of the subject of death and burial. At a more local level, archaeological site-specific studies are often published in county journals, such as The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal or the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine.

  • Bassett, S., ed. In Death in Towns: Urban Responses to the Dying and the Dead, 100–1600. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1992.

    NNNAnalysis of the location of cemeteries in medieval towns using archaeological, textual, and architectural evidence of the urban response. Still relevant, if slightly outdated.

  • Boase, T. S. R. Death in the Middle Ages: Mortality, Judgment, and Remembrance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.

    NNNOne of the early pioneering analyses of the subject from English evidence, with an emphasis on art and memorials.

  • Cressy, D. Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198201687.001.0001

    NNNAn analysis of the rituals surrounding birth, marriage and death and how these rituals provoked arguments and discourse that could change how the rituals were practiced. Useful comparative study for the Middle Ages.

  • Fry, S. Burial in Medieval Ireland, 900–1500: A Review of the Written Sources. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 1999.

    NNNAn analysis of Irish documentary sources, though where evidence is lacking the author draws on English and Welsh evidence and makes the assumption that English/Welsh and Irish practices were the same.

  • Gittings, Clare. Death Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1984.

    NNNA slightly dated but still useful overview of death and burial in early modern England. Shows how the growing concern with the individual gradually began the alienation of death from society.

  • Houlbrooke, Ralph. Death, Religion and the Family in England 1480–1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208761.001.0001

    NNNExamines how the religious changes impacted the death ritual. The living still needed to remember the dead, and Houlbrooke shows how remembrance patterns changed. The long time span allows comparisons to be made, but the majority of the book covers the post-medieval period.

  • Jupp, Peter, and Clare Gittings, eds. Death in England: an Illustrated History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    NNNA “go-to” book for an extensive chronological introduction of death and burial practices from the prehistoric era to the late 20th century. Three chapters cover the medieval period (Anglo-Saxon and Viking, Norman Conquest to Black Death, post-Black Death to Reformation).

  • Litten, Julian. The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral since 1450. London: Robert Hale, 2002.

    NNNCharts the growth of the funeral business, in particular the role of undertakers. Majority of the book covers post-medieval practices.

  • Tarlow, Sarah. Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    NNNAnalyzes the religious, scientific, social, and folk beliefs surrounding the dead in the early modern period. The book includes evidence from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland: this makes it unusual, as most books on the subject only analyze evidence from England.

  • Whaley, J., ed. Mirrors of Mortality: Social Studies in the History of Death. London: Routledge, 2012.

    NNNOriginally published in 1982, this work contains important articles about the exemplary deaths of kings and criminals and the importance of royal burials.

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