Written during the macabre horrors of the Black Death, Ars moriendi, Latin for The Art of Dying, offered advice for the Medieval Catholic on the protocols and procedures of a “good death.”

Technically two separate texts written about 1415 & 1450, the unknown authors are presumed to be Dominican brothers from southern Germany.

The Art of Dying was actually very popular, translated into most of the Western languages at the time. By 1501, 50,000 copies had been printed, becoming the first guide to death and dying in western literary tradition.

The first text, the “long version” was written first perhaps at the request of the Council of Constance, consisting of six chapters.

    1. The first chapter explains that dying has a good side, and serves to console the dying man that death is not something to be afraid of.
    2. The second chapter outlines the five temptations that beset a dying man, and how to avoid them. These are lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice.
    3. The third chapter lists the seven questions to ask a dying man, along with consolation available to him through the redemptive powers of Christ’s love.
    4. The fourth chapter expresses the need to imitate Christ’s life.
    5. The fifth chapter addresses the friends and family, outlining the general rules of behavior at the deathbed.
    6. The sixth chapter includes appropriate prayers to be said for a dying man.

The short version focuses only chapter two, with 11 woodcut pictures telling a story, one of the earliest picture books.

“The first ten woodcuts are divided into 5 pairs, with each set showing a picture of the devil presenting one of the 5 temptations, and the second picture showing the proper remedy for that temptation. The last woodcut shows the dying man, presumably having successfully navigated the maze of temptations, being accepted into heaven, and the devils going back to hell in confusion.”

Read Ars moriendi here, at the Library of Congress.

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