From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain

Carlos M. N. Eire.   From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

This book does an excellent job explaining both the Catholic funeral process and the contents of wills in early modern Spain. The descriptions of the funeral process and the specific aspects of each part of a will help define and contextualize any will or funeral entry you may come across.

Eire’s purpose is to examine how attitudes towards death reflected the amount of faith or piety in an individual. In selecting a scope, he chose Spain because it was highly Catholic and the sixteenth century because little scholarship had been done in this time period.

Summary by Chapter

In the first ‘book’ or section of this publication, Eire outlines how wills serve as salvific instruments and control the distribution of ones estate. Because of the focus on salvation, they are an excellent way of measuring ones attitude towards death, especial as the Roman Catholic Church required wills from all members. It was part of a larger ritual associated with death and dying, and had a strict structure. Dying was meant to bring someone closer to God, so many practices outlined how to live and die well. The administrations of the priest were vital and well recorded, as were the possible places a soul would go once it left the body. Wills were, in part, one of the many ways to help ones soul to heaven.

The majority of surviving wills, are nuncupative, or written by a notary with witnesses present. These wills are highly formulaic, combining spiritual and worldly affairs. The specificity of wills offer a good glimpse into what was important at that time. At the same time, wills must be viewed with caution, as they typically only reflect the stable and prosperous class.

Madrid houses the Archivo Historico de Protocolos, where all government-held Madrid wills from 1504-1889 are stored. These wills are significant because they reflect both the desires of the rulers of church and state as well as those of the ordinary citizens. The author focused in on 450 wills from 1527-1529, the lifetime of King Philip. It shows Madrid’s transition to the capitol city of Spain as well as the changes that followed the Council of Trent. This sample size reflected a fairly even balance of men, women, with some widows and dignitaries. Artisans and merchants make up the majority of the sample. Because it does not fully represent the demographics of Madrid in the sixteenth century, it cannot be said to fully represent the population. However, it gives a valuable look into the mindset of the people during that time.

He then goes through each section of the will, showing what they reveal about death. The invocation gives the document eternal value by evoking the name of God. The identification shows the testator’s meditation on death during illness (the most common time of writing). The preamble supplicates for mercy, meditates on death, resignation to the judgment of God, and a profession of faith in God and Catholicism in general.

Next come religious rituals surrounding the treatment of the body. The only acceptable place of burial was a catholic church, where nearly all wished to be buried. As the city grew this became increasingly difficult, with the exact burial location within a church largely dependent on the wealth of the deceased individual. Most nobles were buried in monasteries and convents, making about 20 percent of the sample size, with requests for specific locations broadening over time as more chapels were built.

Burial dress typically followed the Francscan habit, probably in an effort to claim St. Francis or one of the saints that followed his order as an advocate in the next life. Others wished to be buried in monastic habit for similar reasons. Funeral planning seemed to be viewed as a duty, as the majority of wills gave specific instruction on this matter. The level of elaborateness increased with wealth, and many funerals were well planned in an effort to exert ones status even from the grave, as the urbanization of the city led to many distinct classes.

Ones body and soul were still linked at the time of death, so the treatment and burial of the body was highly important. The procession bringing the body to the church was highly important and codified, with the presence of clergy being the most important aspect. Over time, testators began to request more than one clergy, reflecting the idea that more was always better, as masses, prayers, and other numeric rituals also increased. The order of the friers, much like the burial dress reflected which saint the testator wished as an advocate, and membership in a confraternity ensured a greater number of persons at the funeral and assisting ones soul in the afterlife.

Almsgiving was a significant part of Spanish funerals, as it both helped the deceased person gain merit and gave them help in the divine tribunal of their souls. Most often, they would offer a meal to the poor. The inclusion of this practice increased over time in meals, with six persons frequently being the number of poor fed, and torches or candlesticks being given to them to aid in the funeral procession. Orphans began to be included in this time, keeping with the trend of more elaborate funerals and the desire to gain piety through care of the poor.

Funeral meals were rarely included in the wills, likely because they did little to help in the death process. Mourning gestures, usually performed by priests, confraternities, and the poor were very common. Over time specific gestures were codified as beneficial to the deceased, and specific garb became required of the family or, in the case of royalty, the entire nation. The laws that limited such displays were meant to curb the excess shown in some funerals, with clergy and inquisitors frequently needed to try people for excessive shows of grief. Even so, many of these forbidden practices were commonly performed, according to secondhand accounts. However, they were not requested in Madrid wills.

Testators were allowed to use up to one-fifth of their estate for pious bequests. Most testators requested masses to lesson their time in purgatory, especially as the protestant reformation did not leave a strong mark on Spain. The fear of purgatory seems to have been very tangible, with numbers of masses constantly rising throughout time. The rise in masses may be linked to inflation within the economy, but these requests outstripped the rising costs. The prices continued to reflect market value, but an increased anxiety over the state of ones soul over time led to an increased number of masses, with testators asking for family or friends to purchase masses when they lacked funding.

There were several specific types of masses one could request, and the specific masses were all outlined in the wills, made for the benefit of both the testator and their family. The detail of exactly which masses should be said, for whom they should be said, and how many times repeated repeats the increasing preoccupation with death and the afterlife.

Executors did not always order the exact amount of requested masses, and clergy also failed to deliver services, with many taking on more than they could ever say. This may be why so many masses were ordered, and part of the reason why reformations within the church frequently focused on correcting such practices, commanding that all requested masses be performed. Types of masses changed over time, especially after reforms labeled certain masses as superstation or witchcraft.

Care for the needy extended beyond feeding the poor at the funeral. Charitable bequests were also important, both given to specific individuals or general charities. These donations came from the one-fifth of the estate allowed for masses and similar acts, and just as masses increased over time, so did this type of almsgiving. This reflects a genuine change in attitude, with an increased propensity towards charity. This is further shown through the transition of alms from goods to money, allowing it to be used to meet the poor’s needs rather than disposing of ones possessions. Some alms went to poor relations, others were left to the poor of the parish. Most expressed a desire for these actions to reflect well on their soul, cleaning their conscience and allowing access to heaven.

In the second ‘book,’ he examines the death of King Philip II. Philip II’s death attracted the most attention of any other monarch in early modern European history, as has the Escorial, which he built both as a monastery, retreat, and place of burial for himself and his descendants. He brought in many holy relics to show devotion to various saints, and went there to die. It took him a long time to die, and he suffered with grace. He paid particular care to make sure his anointing and last rights were administered correctly and ensured that his burial imitated that of his father Charles V, and ensured his death was as pious as possible.

His will tapped every resources to aid in salvation possible. He fulfilled all the parts of wills to the fullest, asking for masses for himself, multiple relatives, and massive donations to the poor. He was buried in simple dress with the most lavish exequies performed across his domain.

Accounts glorifying his church came first from Catholic leaders, followed by eyewitnesses and various interpreters. His death was a reminder that death comes to all, even the great rulers and was used as an analogy for the universality of death. It showed how to deal with pain and death well, showing calmness and patient suffering. It defended Catholic rituals, and by it Catholic teachings and doctrines, especially readings, prayers, images, and crucifixes. It promoted the collection and adoration of relics through his determination to surround himself with them, as well as the use of holy water and acting in charity through almsgiving.

The pope wished to support princes such as Philip, who portrayed the ideal Christian virtues and practices. They interpreted and portrayed his death as a triumph, showing it as a lesson in dying the good death as well as the grandeur of the Spanish monarchy. By so doing, it gave the monarchy an extremely religious character, and a continued focus on the piety of Spanish kings. His own piety deepened and propelled the piety of his people and his successors.

The last section examines the death and legacy of St. Teresa of Avila. Although Philip did everything he could to redeem his soul, it was believed that Saint Teresa of Avila redeemed his soul. Saints were the paragon of piety, belonging equally to heaven and earth. Their bodies became focal points of Christian piety, as a source of power for mortals. St. Theresa was a Spanish saint of the Catholic Reformation, whose life and sainthood were very well documented. Throughout her life, she thrived on self-renunciation and longed for the eternal life death brought.

She died in Alba, receiving last confessions and patiently suffering through her final illness. In her last moments, were spent in meditation, eventually dying in the middle of intense prayer. Eyewitnesses claimed to see lights, angels, and other miraculous visions. Her body emitted a sweet odor, and she appeared much younger and healthier in death. Her burial was quick and simple, with a fourteen day vigil, during which many sisters were cured of various maladies.

Her body was gradually dismembered and the pieces taken to various holy locations. Each time it was exhumed, it was noticed to still smell sweet, exuded blood and oil, and appeared perfect. Wherever her body went, miracles followed. She also worked wonders through images and letters, and occasionally appeared in vision to instruct the nuns of her convent, guide them on their way to heaven, and promising supernatural aide. Her apparitions all had a specific purpose, teaching Catholic doctrine and helping people cope with grief. Her body and spirit were a constant reminder of God’s grace and power.



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