Book Review – "Living With the Dead in the Middle Ages"

December 9, 2016
8 mins read

Geary, Patrick J. 1994. Living With The Dead In The Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
What Is This Book About?
Geary has produced a compilation centered on how the living and dead interacted in the Middle Ages. While modern man considers death to be unnatural and evil, medieval man saw it as a necessary transition and nothing to fear. Under the influence of Frankish traditions, the medieval view of death focused upon the fact that the dead and the living had an ongoing relationship. While modern people tend to “relegate the dead to oblivion,” medieval Europeans maintained a connection with the dead, both offering and receiving tokens and favors (Kieckhefer, 474). The book presents the ways in which medieval Europe memorialized the dead, conducted funerals, and prayed for, and to, the deceased.
In a social-historical manner, Geary analyzes the practices of the Middle Ages, using case studies to develop the concepts. The two groups, living and dead, formed one community, with interactions moving in both directions. These interactions could be both individual and communal, with both individual people and groups, such as monasteries, benefitting from the activities. Yet, the reason for continuing contact with the dead was not only related to receiving beneficial favors, but based upon a social bond that the two groups had for one another.
Why Did The Author Write The Book?
This second book from Geary continues the same basic topic as his first, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Geary furthers his research into saints’ relics and how they were understood and used in the Middle Ages, yet Geary is not limited to relics, but also considers how the dead, in general, were memorialized in that era (Kieckhefer, 474). The book under consideration is a collection of previously published essays, where the author displays the “range and development” of his work since the publication of his first book (Paxton, 983).
Geary’s research has shown that the dead, in medieval times, were not ignored or forgotten, but were omnipresent, continuing to serve an active role in society. Geary states that his intention for this book is to demonstrate how different the past was from the present, regarding how the dead are treated. He also endeavors to show that the medieval approach is both logical and reasonable. While modernity banishes the dead from society, in the Middle Ages the dead remained an important part of the “social, economic, political, and cultural spheres” (Geary, 2-3).
Finally, though the chapters were previously published, only four were originally in English. The rest were in French, German, or Italian, so they were first made accessible to English speakers in this volume. The translation and organization into one volume allows Geary to share his findings with a broader audience.
What Is The Main Thesis/Argument Of The Book?
The central thesis of the book is hard to determine, since there are twelve separately published articles compiled into one book. There is no real, organic “point,” but one that was added, after the fact, by the author. Ultimately, Geary attempts to demonstrate that not only were the dead still considered a prominent, if incorporeal, part of society, but the people of the middle ages interacted with the dead in many tangible ways. This interaction was less about theological or social belief, but based more upon practice (Geary, 44). As such, death was not viewed as an end, but as a transition, and continual interaction between the living and the dead was an essential part of the society (Geary, 2).
The argument is organized into five general sections: Reading, Representing, Negotiating, Reproducing, and Living. Section one covers how historians have heretofore studied the topic of the dead in a medieval context and how these studies could proceed. Section two explicates the concept of how the living and the dead remained in the same community with one another. Section three deals specifically with how living people involved the dead, especially saints, into temporal disputes. Section four considers how cults of saints were formed, how their relics came to be revered, and how certain physical locations became identified with specific saints. The final section presents case studies where the principles from the prior sections can be analyzed.
Geary realizes the difficulty in finding a centralized thesis in this type of book. He is analyzing a very complex society, with all of the tension and contradictions that exist therein. He makes no claim to present a comprehensive picture of the topic, but rather introduces one way in which the study of the topic could proceed, and an understanding of how medieval society existed, in some ways, as a single community of both living and dead.
What Are The Main Ways In Which The Author Supports The Thesis/Argument?blackdeath
The first two chapters, under the heading “Reading,” provide a methodological introduction, by considering the relationship between saints and those who venerated them. Providing a concise history of prior research, Geary explains how he would like to see future studies on the topic be conducted. The connection between the saint, hagiographer, the regional context, and the people who make up the cult of the saint takes center stage in this section. Rather than focus on the society, the author highlights the importance of the saint in this development (Paxton, 983). Furthermore, archaeological studies are introduced and examined, focused upon burial remains and cemeteries, where it is argued that the structure of society, when interpreting such findings, must be taken into account. Peasantry, nobility, clergy, etc. will all have different “meanings” that must be considered (Geary, 34). By considering the anthropological and social theories that are relevant to the topic, Geary is able to emphasize the ongoing relationship between the living and the dead.
The second section, “Representing,” is composed to two chapters, as well. Here, Geary argues the reality that the dead were an important part of medieval society, as well as how they formed that part. By looking at a Carolingian vision (Ninth Century), Geary illustrates the importance of contextualization (Geary, 3; Paxton, 983). The vision serves as one stop along a changing visionary tradition, yet provides for a clear description of the role that the dead play in familial legitimacy and obligation in the Carolingian/Warrior culture (Geary, 73).
Continuing with the concept of how the dead helped to construct medieval society as it existed, Geary points out the impact that the dead had on property rights, exchange, and social cohesion (Geary, 78). Both clergy and laypeople constructed a society where death was simply an “age group” within the community (Geary, 78; Paxton 983). The living could offer prayers to (and for) the dead, who would then be obligated to provide things in return, i.e. land, favors, aid (Geary 79-83). This was not limited to Christian contexts, but pagan stories told of the dead returning to teach, avenge wrongs, etc. The Church did eventually come to control most of the interactions between the living and the dead, providing stability to the community by introducing basic rules and customs associated with communication between the living and the dead.
Chapters 5-7, under the heading “Negotiating,” furthers a concept introduced previously – the involvement of the dead in “conflict, arbitration, and negotiation (Geary, 3). The dead serve as authorities in many cases, and as allies for various claimants in others. This section does not always focus upon the dead, but includes them as one part of a larger milieu of disputation. For example, chapter 7 has little to do with the dead, but discusses “dispute settlement in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when public forms of judicial authority were rare”, and when unhappy participants resorted to violence (Paxton, 983). Geary highlights a recurring motif that medieval religion was something “danced,” rather than simply “believed.” This was demonstrated by the fact that saints were often “humiliated,” where the physical remains (or shrines, etc.) of the saint was mistreated or abused in some way. This was done to both influence behavior of adversaries, as well as to put pressure on the saint to act in a certain way. To allow a saint to be humiliated would be very bad for the one for whom the saint was a patron, as he (or she) would be failing to meet required responsibilities to the saint (Kieckhefer, 474).
“Reproducing,” the fourth section, comprised of chapters 8-10, delves more deeply into the role of the saints in the Middle Ages. Unlike the “normal” dead, saints were special, in that they were viewed as being close to God, a “friend of God” (Geary 164). The saints had cults [Editor’s note: this is not referring to the cultish behavior of fringe religious groups, as we normally use that word. It is used in the academic sense, where a group of people maintain a popular interest in an individual] develop around them, and certain areas became infused by power by being associated with certain saints. The Church came to define the role, place, and power associated with the saints. This section explores these topics, showing how the cults developed, flourished, and came to influence society, such as through pilgrimages and the assignment of saintly patrons (Geary, 3-4, 164,168). Shrines were built around burial (or suspected burial) places of saints, but that did not necessarily tie the saint to that location forever. Relics (physical remains or possessions of saints) became important. Trade in relics soon commenced, both legitimate and illegitimate, and flourished. Due to excesses and abuse, leaders began to regulate and standardize cults, shrines, etc. Regardless, the relics of saints continued to move around Europe, some by being gifted or sold, others by theft and deceit.
In context, Geary presents the relics as one more commodity in medieval economics, building upon the content in his first book. However, he realizes that they had major social effects, providing special favor with God to the one who possessed or venerated the relic. In time, no ecclesial community could be complete without relics (Paxton, 984). The commerce, theft, and increased devotion to relics served important roles in medieval society, further cementing the relationship between the living and the dead.
The book’s final section, “Living,” covers the final two chapters. Here, Geary discusses how imported relics provided the opportunity for cults to develop in locations that had nothing to do with the saint(s) and where no cult of those saints had existed before. In a sense, these two chapters are case studies, where the principles provided in the prior ten chapters are considered. The fate of the relics of St. Helen of Athyra and the three Magi are discussed, analyzed, and the cults that developed around their supposed remains serve as an example of how the living and the dead maintained a single community, with ongoing communication between the members of the community.
Each section of the book does highlight the ongoing connection between the living and the dead. Each points to evidence that shows that the modern understanding was non-existent in the Middle Ages. Rather, they maintained some semblance of a relationship. Geary argues that this relationship continued to develop and was brought under the Church’s control. Throughout the Middle Ages, it did not cease to be a major element of social development.
What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Book?
Geary does a great job presenting a topic that many people have not considered. He is able to take an abstract concept and define it in simple terms. One way he does this is by developing his concept that practice trumps belief. He clearly shows how medieval people based their involvement with saints on logic, rather than mere primitive superstition (Paxton, 984). Normally, the writing is fairly easy to follow, and the book covers a wide range of topics. Though the chapters were written at different times, and on different topics, Geary has done a good job of integrating them together, revising, cross referencing, and providing indexes to help join them together.
Though he does work hard to combine them into one book, the reality is that the various chapters were written in 4 different languages, for various purposes, and at different stages in the author’s understanding. Because of this, the book is a bit disjointed. There is little flow between the chapters and some of them don’t seem to have much connection with the others (such as chapter 7). While most of the chapters do have some connection with the overall thesis, and they all contain sections that are relevant, there are other parts of each chapter that do not seem to have any relevance at all. Therefore, the thesis is simply not organic to the parts. Each part is fine. The thesis is fine. They don’t mesh very well. In spite of the weaknesses, the book does serve as a decent introduction to the topic of how the living and the dead interacted in medieval Europe.
Geary, Patrick J. 1994. Living With The Dead In The Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Kieckhefer, Richard. 1996. “Review.” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 76, No. 3. The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 474-475.
Paxton, Fred. 1996. “Review.” Peter N. Stearns: Journal of Social History, Vol. 29, No. 4. Pp. 982-984.

Lead Scheduler at MOTW. Husband, Father, but most importantly, a man of God. Possesses more degrees that most people find useful.


  1. Nice article! I became Orthodox a couple of years ago and one of the “adjustments” was how the Orthodox pray for, and ask prayers of, the dead. There is less separation between the living and the dead as you suggest the book covers. It adds much to the tapestry of the Faith.

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