The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages

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Nancy Mandeville Caciola
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , May
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages, Nancy Mandeville Caciola takes a fascinating look at the way various groups of people approach the complex subject of death—and its consequences. By considering how both Christian and pagan traditions dealt with the inevitable, Caciola brilliantly shows how, despite the fact that we have to rely on elite culture to learn about the past, “these levels of culture interpenetrated one another and existed in ongoing dialogue, rather that in diametric opposition” (205). The subjects she chooses to approach contribute, without a doubt, to her excellent analysis; first she establishes how the idea of death evolved from what she calls the “Gregorian model” (63), in which death is a long term process of detachment from the world, to the “Augustinian model” (63), by which she describes death as a single, instantaneous event caused by the soul leaving the body. Carried out by Church elite and theologians, the Augustinian model became the stronger narrative from the thirteenth century onward.

Caciola’s distinction between the North and the South of Europe is also helpful in fully grasping the differences and similarities of witness accounts, folklore, and representations of death and revenants—cadavers, ghosts, shades, etc.—available through various sources. These allow her to deal with important elements such as geography—mountains are especially well studied—and family, which would be of interest to scholars not necessarily working on the subject of death and revenants, but rather on a better understanding a given society. Given that “the dead are poised in a peculiarly vivid symbolic position” (6), they allow Caciola to talk about a great number of aspects of the medieval life. She does so with an incredible ease, making a complex and treacherous subject look almost easy and simple. Let’s not be fooled: this book should be cited as an example to anyone interested in cultural studies, medieval ecocriticism, history, religious history, and any other relevant field.

Caciola’s writing is fluid, honest, and precise. She manages to include an incredible amount of knowledge and insight in what reads almost like a novel, with vivid examples and a strong conducting line. Whether she is discussing Hellequin and the Army of the Dead as told by the Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis (164), studying spirit possession in Italy (308), or talking about (dead) King Arthur’s court inside a mountain (197), Caciola maintains the same level of enthusiasm, clarity, and ability to keep her reader engaged. This is a book that will undoubtedly be used by this reader over and over again.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geneviève Pigeon teaches religious studies at l'Université du Québec à Montréal and is research associate at the Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique à Rennes, France.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nancy Mandeville Caciola is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages and Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, both from Cornell.



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