La Danse Macabre, Burials

Life was different in the Middle Ages, and death even more so.

Take these last three images from a series showing "the art of dying well", Ars moriendi (all nine of the series can be seen at the bottom of this page):

: Ars moriendi : Ars moriendi : Ars moriendi
Sewing Mass Burial

To the left, the corpse is sewn into a shroud. In the church during the mass the corpse is enclosed in a coffin, which is then carried out to the cemetery (middle picture), but the coffin is solely for transportation and the corpse is interred only in the shroud it was sewn into (picture to the right).

Burial. The corpse is inhumed in a shroud.
Burial
Burial. Notice the bones.
Burial

Uncountable books of hours show how people are buried sewn into a shroud (to the left and right).

But the story doesn't end there, for when digging to make room for the newly departed, the diggers would unavoidably encounter bones from earlier burials (picture to the right).

Almost all of these scenes show how the diggers first have to remove the old bones in order to make room for the new customer (the picture to the left is in fact one of the exceptions).

Funeral procession and burial.
Burial
Funeral procession and burial.
Burial

These two scenes shows how the cemeteries have been busy. The diggers hardly have time to remove the old bones, before a new funeral procession arrives.

There has been a lack of consecrated ground inside the city wall, but St. Innocents' cemetery was famous for its ability to dissolve the bodies. It reportedly contained soil from the Holy Land, and Gilles Corrozet tells us in 1550, that the soil was so putrefying that it was able to consume a human body within nine days: »la Chapelle des S Innocents, […] c'est le grand cymetiere de Paris, la terre duquel on dit si pourrissante, qu'vn corps humain y est consumé en neuf iours«.(1)

St. Innocents' cemetery's legendary talent for consuming corpses was really put to a test. While the churchyard was rather big (see the images of the church and the churchyard), it served not only its own parishioners but also 22 other parish churches that didn't have a churchyard of their own,(2) besides the city's hospital/poorhouse, l'Hôtel-Dieu, and the unknown dead, those who were found on the highway or drowned in the river Seine.

Death's three comrades in arms: Famine, War and Pestilence
Godard, Friends

Mercier estimates the number of burials at "close to 3,000 a year", but at the same time he estimates the total number since Philip the Fair at "10 millions cadavers at least".(3)

Mercier doesn't explain how "close to 3,000 a year" within less than 500 years could turn into "10 millions at least", but it is probably due to the fact that the number 3,000 didn't take into account those years when Death was assisted by his three comrades in arms: Famine, War and Pestilence (pictured left).

Just between 1348 and 1584 there were about 30 plague epidemics.(4) During one of these, in 1418, 50,000 died within less than 5 weeks. Here is a contemporary report that describes how the dead were placed in layers of 30 or 40 — »arrangez comme lars« — arranged as bacon sides:

Item, in the said month, September, there was in Paris and surroundings a pestilence so very hard, which one had not seen for 300 years according to the elders. For nobody who was struck by this epidemic escaped, in particular young people and children; & so many died towards the end of said month & so quickly that it was decided to dig large pits in the cemeteries of Paris, where one would place thirty or forty in each, & they were arranged as bacon sides, & and then a little soil was scattered over them.

& always day and night one could not go into the streets without meeting Our Lord who was carried to the sick & all had the most beautiful perception of Our Lord towards the end, as any Christian has ever had.

But according to the clerics, one had never seen nor heard of a malady that was so terrible and more fierce, nor one where so few escaped of those who had been struck; For in less than five weeks more than fifty thousand persons died in the City of Paris & so many people died that they buried four or six or eight heads of families during one sung mass & it was necessary to bargain with the priests about how much they should have & very often one had to pay sixteen or eighteen Parisian sols, & for a low mass four Parisian sols.(5)

Burial
Burial
Detail
Burial

The picture to the left shows another one of these funerals, where the ground is dotted with ancient bones and skulls. And what did people do then with all those old "bacon sides" that reappeared?

The detail-image to the right answers the question. In fact, the answer is staring us right in the face: The "bacon sides" were simply stored in the attic of an ossuary.

Read
more about
ossuaries

Theme: Burials and Ossuaries

Burial
: Burial
Three Living
: Three Living
Ossuary
: Ossuary
Boneyard
: Cemetery
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Ars moriendi
: Ars moriendi
Burial
: Burial
Sainct Innocent
1860: Sainct Innocent
S. Inocens
1499: S. Inocens
Innocents 1550
1499: Innocents 1550
Innocents 1780
1499: Innocents 1780
Ossuary
1499: Ossuary
Jakob Grimer
1499: Jakob Grimer
Jakob Grimer
1499: Jakob Grimer
St. Innocent
1499: St. Innocent
St. Innocent
1499: St. Innocent
St. Innocent
1499: St. Innocent
Bernier 1786
1499: Bernier 1786
Catacombs
1499: Catacombs
Burial
1499: Burial
Burial
1499: Burial
Burial
1499: Burial
Burial
1499: Burial
Burial
1499: Burial
Wharncliffe hours
1499: Wharncliffe hours
Burial
1499: Burial
Burial
: Burial
Burial
1499: Burial
Burial
St. Innocents 1499: Burial
Burial
St. Innocents 1499: Burial
Burial
St. Innocents 1499: Burial
Burial
St. Innocents 1499: Burial
Burial
Book of hours: Burial
Burial
Book of hours: Burial
St. innocents, 1610
St. Innocents 1499: 1610
Hortulus anime
Hortulus anime
Vor froe tider
Vor Froe Tider
Douce 16
Douce 16

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

Gilles Corrozet (1510 - 1568) author, publisher and bookseller. Quoted from "Les antiqvitez croniqves et singvlaritez de Paris, ville capitalle du royaume de France", 1550 / 2. edition from 1561, page 65 to the right.

Gilles Corrozet also wrote the quatrains for Holbein's great dance of death and for Holbein's illustrations for The Old Testament.

22 parish churches . . .: This information is often repeated. Apparently it originally derives from "Mémoires secrets pour servir à l'histoire de la République". We read here how on February 4, 1757 a proposal was put forth to close the town's cemetery because of the risk of infection:

»4. Fevrier. Depuis long temps on se plaint de l'infection que causent dans Paris les cimetieres, entr'autres celui des Innocents, où vingt-deux paroisses viennent journellement déposer leurs cadavres. Il est question aujourd'hui sérieusement de fermer ce séjour de corruption. On assure que Mr. le lieutenant-général de police a proposé de le clore par provision pour cinq ans, & d'aviser pendant ce temps aux moyens de supprimer absolument un usage aussi funeste«.
(Volume 19, pages 284-285)

Although the book has the character of pages from a diary written by Parisians, it wasn't released before 1786, and in London.

»Cimetiére ferme.

Nous avons dit que l'on déposoit dans le cimetière des Innocents, situé dans le quartier le plus habité, près de trois mille cadavres par année. On y enterroit des morts depuis Philippe le-Bel. Dix millions de cadavres au moins se sont dissous dans un étroit espace. Quel creuset! […] Oh! quelle histoire sortiroit de cette enceinte, si les morts pouvoient parler!
«

(Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 1783, volume 9, DCCLII, pages 322-323)

Here I take support from Histoire des souterrains secrets de Paris by Fabrizio de Gennaro, 2013 (no pagination).

The number of plague epidemics is obviously hard to determine. Wikipedia has only about half that number, but then they also fail to include the epidemic of 1418, that we are about to look at.

The quote is from the same (anonymous) chronicle that is quoted on the page about dating the dance: »Item, ce dit moys de Septembre estoit à Paris, & au tour la mortalité si très-cruelle qu'on n'eust veü depuis trois cens ans par le dit des anciens : car nul n'eschapoit qui fust feru de l'Epidymie, especialement jeunes gens & enffens ; & tant en mouru vers la fin dudit moys & si hastivement, qu'il convint faire ès Cymetieres de Paris grans fosses , où on en mettoit trente ou quarente en chacune, & estoient arrangez comme lars , & puis un pou pouldrez par dessus de terre, & toujours jour & nuyt on n'estoit en rue que on ne rencontrast notre Seigneur, qu'on portoit aux malades, & tretous avoient la plus belle cognoissance de notre Seigneur à la fin , que on vit oncques avoir à Chrestiens. Mais au dit des Clercs , on ne avoit oncques veü ne ouy parler de mortalité qui fust si desuée , ne plus aspre , ne dont moins eschapast de gens qui feru en feussent : car en moins de cinq semaines trespassa en Ville de Paris plus de cinquante mille personnes, & tant trespassa de gens, que on enterroit quatre ou six ou huit Chefs-d'Ostel à une Messe à Notte , & convenoit marchander aux Prestres pour combien ils la chanteroient, & bien souvent en convenoit payer seize ou dix-huit sols parisis, & d'une Messe basse quatre sols parisis.«.

Memoires pour servir à l'histoire de France et de Bourgogne, 1729, page 49.


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