Manuals on Ars Boni Moriendi

In the Late Middle Ages, the prevalence of apocalyptic mood in Western Europe became more increasingly pronounced. Manifestations of anticipation for the Last Judgement could be observed, with abundant literary descriptions of this very old subject in history and its portrayals in art. Such apocalyptic trends were influenced by the outbreak of plague in the mid-14th century, the so-called Black Death, devastating Europe, with a death toll of almost one third of its population. This gave rise to the wording in the wills ‘Nothing is truer than death and more unknown than the hour of our death’, which in the course of time became a ‘classical’ phrase, embedded in the texts of testaments. It was namely at that time that the admonitions related to death were becoming popular. The message they spread was that every individual had to embark on a lifelong journey of preparation for one’s own death which could descend on a person any moment. Thus, the early 15th century saw the spread of manuscripts and publications advocating continuous preparation for death, informing the dying what to expect, and prescribing prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a “good death” and salvation, the so-called prayer books on Ars boni moriendi. A century later, the aforementioned publications reached Poland and Lithuania.

Readings about death in the native tongue

At first, imported publications or those printed in Poland were used in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, in the second half of the 17th-18th centuries, more than a dozen guides to Ars boni moriendi were published in Vilnius alone. It would be wrong to assume that such prayer-books were targeted merely at the nobility or clergy. All over Europe, they were oriented to the general audience of literate believers. This explains the fact that most manuals of this type were published in GDL not in Latin but in the Polish language and starting with the mid-18th century the manuals on Ars boni moriende appeared in the Lithuanian as well. Several such guides on the art of dying well were also published in the 19th century, but by that time their popularity had significantly receded.

The manuals on Ars boni moriendi was a phenomenon popularized by the Baroque piety, prevailing in GDL.

It was during the period under analysis that the brotherhoods of St. Joseph and St. Barbara, regarded as patrons of proper death, that is, Christian death and dying Christians, enjoyed soaring popularity. This is sufficient proof of the popularity of death-related themes among the Christian congregation and concern with the very moment of death.

Quotidian exercises of “proper” death

The manuals of the Art of dying consist of three parts. The first part is an invitation to reflect upon death in a time of affliction. In case the disease persists, the second part encourages the individual to complete all the assignments and deliver the promises made; it also reminds the individual of the urgency to draw up a will, pay debts and reconcile with the enemy while there is physical strength left. The last part of the guide gives advice on how to behave at the time of death. The manuals of Ars boni moriendi were not intended to intimidate people; they did not contain any hideous death pictures, so popular in Medieval times, or raging and frenzied dance macabre. The guides to the art of dying were meant to instruct, and in some cases to illustrate with death-bed images how to reflect on death in a Christian manner, how to face and embrace death and how the family members, attending to the dying person, should behave.

It was recommended to read the guides to the art of dying and practise “the skills of dying” daily.

In some of these manuals, the readings were grouped into smaller sections to be read during the separate weeks of the year. Such preparation for death was believed to reduce the tension felt during the last minute of one’s life. Cherishing the hope of reducing the fear of death, the believers of the Baroque epoch (even though the fear of death could not be defeated in any of the historic epochs), tried their best to ponder on death as much as possible, hoping to “tame” death by turning it into their “neighbour” or a “chaperon” as well as to come to terms with it.

At times “rehearsals” were even held, the aim of which was to train the individual how to behave in the face of death, practising the last minutes of one’s life through role-play and empathizing into the role of the dying person.

The guides of this kind described the entirety of rites to be followed. According to the manuals on the art of dying, during the last minutes of one’s life it was important to denounce any doubts regarding one’s faith and to relinquish all attachment to vain glory and avarice. Such messages had to be read and memorized on a daily basis.

It was strongly believed that it was during the last minutes that the Satan’s attack and temptation was the most intense, therefore the dying person had to be thoroughly prepared to fight the Devil, attended by family members.

 “Professionals” on Death

During the period under analysis, contemplations on death were popular and regarded as a norm of appropriate behaviour. The proof of that can be found in funeral sermons. In them, it is quite often highlighted that the late person was prepared for death by regular reading of the manuals on Ars boni moriendi, and thus faced death in an appropriate manner. Specific examples are also given to illustrate the point. Even in those cases when death came unexpectedly (caused by external factors or from seizure), it was often stated that the deceased had often reflected on death and therefore death could not have come unexpectedly to him or her. The descriptions of deaths also show the influence of guides to Ars boni moriendi. For example, the Kaunas pantler Stanislaw Dziewialtowski passed away in an exemplary manner. Having become afflicted, he invited his family mamners and neighbours and apologized for having hurt some of them, blessed his children, made a confession, took the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and passed away. In 1648, Wladyslaw Vasa faced his death in Merkinė in a serene and Christian manner. After he developed a fever and intensified stone attacks, doctors warned him of a forthcoming death. Hearing this, Wladyslaw Vasa drew up a will, made a confession, took the Communion and, prepared by Jesuit Monks, passed away at night.

Guides to Ars boni moriendi were popular both among the Catholics and the Orthodox. The Evangelicals, who accounted for a significant part of GDL population, paid far less attention to the rites, even mocked at them, and did not believe in the intercession of the saints in the face of death. They emphasized faith in the redemptive passion of Christ, which was believed to secure eternal life to them.

Literature: M. Paknys. Mirtis LDK kultūroje XVI–XVIII a. Vilnius, „Aidai“, 2008.

Mindaugas Paknys