The Good Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages | Part 1

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Since the first half of the 17th century, scholars have debated “euthanasia” as a voluntary termination of life with the goal of avoiding useless suffering. However, the term “euthanasia” was not always related to what today would be called “physician-assisted suicide.” In fact, Francis Bacon became the first writer to use it in such a way.[1] The goal of the present three-part essay is to reclaim the forgotten Christian meaning of euthanasia and to apply it to our present time. While the first two parts represent historical surveys of the concept of the “good death,” the last part will provide a discussion of how such ancient wisdom may be applied today.

Antiquity and Middle Ages

In older Christian books on moral theology or ethics, the usage of the term euthanasia was common. However, these works interpret it in a fashion entirely different from how it is currently employed. The word euthanasia is a Greek composite term (eû + thánatos) meaning nothing but “good death,” “beautiful death,” or “pleasant death.” Accordingly, older Christian textbooks presented “euthanasia” as a Christian preparation for death. But what exactly was meant by that?

Since the period of the early church, the Christian preparation for death represented an important topic and was closely related to the counseling of the dying. For instance, Augustine understood it as a final act of friendship to comfort the dying so that they might have a “good death”—that is, that they obtain eternal salvation. He based his argument concerning this final act of friendship on passages such as Matthew 25:36 (“I was sick and you visited me;” ESV) and the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:39).

The publication Admonitio morienti (“A reminder of death”) from the 11th century, likely written by Anselm of Canterbury, became a highly influential work on how to prepare for a good death during the middle ages. This booklet contains two parts. While both sections contain questions which a priest was supposed to ask of a dying person, the first part deals with questions for a monk and the second part questions for a layman.[2]

During the 14th and 15th century, when the European West fell into a deep crisis because of natural disasters, epidemies, and ecclesial schisms, artists crafted drawings depicting a danse macabre,[3] a ”dance of death” in which a personified death invites people to accompany him to the grave,  while priests gave sermons on useful preparations for death.[4] Additionally, writers provided textbooks on how to mentally prepare for death by exploring the question of how a Christian can withstand temptations during the final moments of life and, thus, find a “good death.”[5]

Johannes Gerson (1363–1429): On the Art of Dying (1408)

From this comparatively large number of publications,[6] a work by Johannes Gerson should be noted by way of example. The chancellor of the Sorbonne and chief advocate for reforms at the Council of Constance (1417) published his book De arte moriendi (“Concerning the art of dying”) in 1408.[7] It represented a seminal work for the entire 15th century, both in its structure and its content. The book consists of four parts. The first part deals with topics such as humble subordination under God’s mighty hand, grateful acknowledgement of divine beneficence, and patient bearing of pain and death as repentance for sin and complete devotion to God.

The second part follows the six questions found in Anselm’s Admonitio. In order to die a good death, the dying person is called to answer the following questions: Do I stand firm in the Christian faith? Do I wish to die in obedience as a faithful son of the church? Do I desire God’s forgiveness of my sins? Do I intend, in the case of my recovery, to live better than before? Am I aware of one or more unconfessed deadly sins? Do I still intend to confess them and do I make the decision, if still possible, to make amends? Have I forgiven everyone who has injured or insulted me in my life? The third part contains preformulated prayers to God, Mary, the angels, and the saints (patrons). Finally, the fourth part provides instructions regarding the taking of the sacrament and argues that others should read pious martyr legends or the ten commandments to the dying person.[8]

Right at the beginning, Gerson summarizes the intention of his work: Friends of a dying person should care for his bodily, frail, and decrepit life. However, for him, it is even more important to care for the spiritual and eternal salvation of a dying person than to care for perishable things. True service of friendship means to pray with a terminally ill man, to comfort him, and to exhort him so that he despises the present world and yearns for the eternal world.

Johannes von Staupitz (1469–1524): Von der Nachfolge des willigen Sterbens Christi (Concerning the Imitation of Christ’s Voluntary Death):

About a century later, another significant work about the good death was published by Johannes von Staupitz, a famous figure in church history because of his role as confessor of Martin Luther. In 1515, Staupitz wrote the booklet: Von der Nachfolge des willigen Sterbens Christi (Concerning the imitation of Christ’s voluntary death).

According to Staupitz, God neither created death nor does he rejoice in man’s perishing. Quite contrary, he created everything in such a way that man was able to live an earthly life without fear of death. He was supposed to live in abundance and with unrestricted health. However, (unlike the angels) it was not impossible for man to die as his immortality was dependent upon a life of obedience towards God. Adam’s rebellion against God affected him like deadly poison resulting in a trifold death for Adam: the death of the soul, the death of the body, and the eternal death.[9]

Because of the death of the soul, human life is determined by the opposition of the flesh, the inability to do good, the ignorance of truth, the desire for evil, and, not least, the bitterness of death. In order to escape this deficient life, man has to orient himself towards God and obey him. In this way, he is able to reverse the death of his soul and makes it possible for new life to form within him.

Specifically, man can respond to death in three different ways:

  1. He can despise death and love life itself more than righteous life. God designed eternal death for such people.
  2. He can love righteous life more than life itself. People who chose to respond in this way have great difficulties departing from this life. Death is a heavy burden for them. On the other hand, since they desire eternal life more than temporal life, they are even less interested in foregoing a pious and honorable way of life.
  3. Finally, there are those who have wholeheartedly assigned their entire temporal life to Christ. Temporal life for these individuals is such a burden that eternal life becomes desire and gain. Only this response to death is worthy of a Christian.

In order to achieve this attitude, a Christian is called to understand Christ’s death on the cross as a paradigm for his own death, teaching him how to righteously bear suffering, overcome temptation, and die a good death. Specifically, Christ’s words on the Cross serve as an example. Christ’s prayer “Father forgive them” teaches that evil angels have to step aside with their accusations and need to make way for good angels coming to help Christians during the time of death. “Today you shall be in paradise with me” promises that one can die in hope if one is not an unrepentant person, if one acknowledged his own injustice, if one does not cling to perishable things, if one desires to flee temporal pain, and if one longs for eternal life. The saying “Woman, behold your son, son, behold your mother” teaches that one overcomes the flesh by emotionally letting go of close relatives and friends as he bids them farewell in a blessing manner. Christ’s call “I am thirsty” teaches, according to Staupitz, that nothing is more beneficial to humans than to desire heavenly refreshment, that is, to thirst after living water. The cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” calls us to serenity: “Leave, oh noble soul, all things and yourself for the one who left all things for your sake.”[10] Hence, Staupitz teaches that a good death consists in following the death of Christ. His little booklet providing comfort for the dying probably marks the climax of late medieval mystical spirituality on the topic of the good death.

Following this climax, the time of the Reformation did not forget the concept of the Ars Moriendi. In the next part, we will look at one of Luther’s sermons on death. We will see a continuation of the Christian euthanasia tradition as a preparation for how to die well, a practice which declined during the modern period.

Continue reading this series: Part 2, Part 3


[1] The concept is already found in his 1605 work De dignitate et augmentis scientarum (“Concerning the dignity and advancement of the sciences”) in which Bacon discusses Sueton’s report of Augustus’ death. Cf. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1963).    

[2] This book by Anselm of Canterbury represents an indispensable source for late medieval writings. Cf. “Ars Moriendi,” in Lexikon der Kunst, Malerei, Architektur, Bildhauerkunst, ed. Wolf Stadler (Erlangen: K. Müller Verlag, 1992), 1:272. A discussion and German translation of the Admonitio morienti et de peccatis suis nimium formidanti can be found in Adolph Franz, Das Rituale von St Florian aus dem zwölften Jahrhundert: Mit Einleitung und Erläuterungen (Freiburg: Herdersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1904), 196-200. According to Franz, the priest asked the dying person whether he or she believes the teachings of the church, whether he or she is glad to die in the Christian faith, whether he or she confesses to have insulted God heavily, whether he or she repents of this and promises to do better, if he or she stays alive, and whether he or she believes that he can only find salvation through the merit of Christ.

[3] Kurt Fassman, “Ars moriendi,” in Kindlers Malereilexikon, ed. Helmut Kindler (München: Dtv,1984), 6:87; Karin Hahn, “Ars Moriendi“ in: Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, ed. Engelbert Kirschbaum SJ (Freiburg: Herder, 1968), 1: column 188.

[4] E.g. the sermon held by the Florencian preacher Girolamo Hieronymus Savonarola regarding the “art of dying”; Wilhelm von Langsdorff, ed., Hieronymus Savonarola. Ausgewählte Predigten (Leipzig: Richter, 1890), 126ff.

[5] Peter Jezler, Himmel, Hölle, Fegefeuer, Das Jenseits im Mittelalter. Katalog zur Ausstellung (Zürich: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 1994), 398.

[6] Cf. “Ars Moriendi,” in Lexikon der Kunst, Malerei, Architektur, Bildhauerkunst, ed. Wolf Stadler (Erlangen: K. Müller Verlag, 1992), 272.

[7] The Latin text of Gerson’s De arte moriendi can be found in Johannes Gerson, Opus tripartitum de praeceptis decalogi, de confessione, et de arte moriendi (Cologne: Ulrich Zell, 1470). For a discussion of Gerson’s publications on the art of dying see Allen Verhey, The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 85-88.

[8] Cf. Alois M. Haas, Todesbilder im Mittelalter: Fakten und Hinweise in der deutschen Literatur (Darmstadt: Wissenschftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989), 176–177.

[9] Text: Johannes von Staupitz, “Das Büchlein von der Nachfolge des willigen Sterbens Christi” in Johannes Staupitz. Luthers Vater und Schüler. Sein Leben, sein Verhältnis zu Luther und eine Auswahl aus seinen Schriften, ed. Alfred Jeremias (Berlin: Hochweg, 1926), 133–159. See also Albrecht Endriss, “Nachfolgung des willigen Sterbens Christi: Interpretation des Staupitztraktates von 1515 und Versuch einer Einordnung in den frömmigkeitsgeschichtlichen Kontext” in Kontinuität und Umbruch: Theologie und Frömmigkeit in Flugschriften und Kleinliteratur an der Wende vom 15. Zum 16. Jahrhundert, ed. Josef Nolte, Hella Tompert, and Christof Windhorst (Stuttgart: Clett-Cotta, 1978), 93–141.

[10] Johannes von Staupitz, “Das Büchlein von der Nachfolge des willigen Sterbens Christi” in Johannes Staupitz. Luthers Vater und Schüler. Sein Leben, sein Verhältnis zu Luther und eine Auswahl aus seinen Schriften, ed. Alfred Jeremias (Berlin: Hochweg, 1926), 155.