Was Hell that prominent during early modern England?
The supernatural was a subject which was wholly believed during the medieval and early modern period. God and Religion would be the people’s savior from Satan and his many demons. The modern perception of this belief would suggest that late medieval to early modern England was a place obsessed with the devil, and hell, in order to scare everyone into regular prayer and good works, in an attempt to secure their place in heaven. But is this image true? Although it is well-known that early modern people obviously feared this, just how prominent was this image of the fiery and eternal hell?
Purgatory was a key aspect of heaven and hell. It was the place stuck in between these two extremes, and was there specifically to cleanse you, in order for you to move to heaven. Purgatory is something which has stayed with us. It features regularly in many different aspects of modern life, and would therefore suggest that it was most definitely an important part of historic life. Where this is true, there is also evidence to suggest that this doctrine was in fact very short-lived. It did not become an official doctrine until the 13th century, and was ignored after the reformation in the 16th century, as protestants believed it to be a ‘futile thing, foolishly conceived and grounded on no evidence of scripture. It is repugnant to the word of God’ (as recorded in the twenty-second of the thirty-nine articles, published in 1563).
Although Hell is placed firmly in the scripture, evidence has appeared which suggests that imagery within churches were mainly heavenly. Death was most certainly the most important part of life to medieval Christians, and heaven was the end goal. In order to encourage prayer, good works, and a fantastic relationship with God, images of angels and heaven would frequently be placed throughout churches, as a way to remind the congregation of their final resting place.
Nevertheless, there is many different artefacts which depict death and hell horrifically, a brutal reminder of the prominence of evil. Alixe Bovey from the British Library writes about the Office of the Dead, which was a series of prayers which were to be said at different stages of death (anticipation of death, the funeral, and when remembering the dead). Many of these prayers were marked at the beginning with ‘horrifying images of the living being attacked by Death’. This is something which Bovey also believes was made to offer ‘a powerful incentive to their owners to pray’.
Similarly to manuscripts, art is a tremendously important indicator of the beliefs during this period. P. Williams writes that The Last Judgement, (c.1500) was an oil painting in which Christ is seated on a rainbow, which already depicts a joyful state, rather than the stereotypical dark and depressing medieval beliefs. Christ is surrounded by angels, and below him are the bodies of his faithful followers, rising from their tombs. This painting alone shows how important it was to display pictures of judgement day in a positive light. The parishioners who viewed this piece would hopefully be inspired to increase their devotion, and therefore be able to follow Jesus swiftly into the afterlife, as shown in the painting.
(The Last Judgement, c.1500.)
The Art or Craft to Die Well was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1505, and is also called the Ars Moriendi. This piece can almost be used as an instruction manual, teaching others how to live a perfect, religious life. Included in these paintings is a death scene, where the dying man is supported by angels and saints, and ultimately defeats the devils and demons, which are pictured below his bed, and are yelling with rage. This again demonstrates that hope is pictured a lot in early modern artwork, showing the parishioners the rewards which they will reap as a result of living a good, clean, Christian life.
Finally, the four panels taken from the Last Things (from an altarpiece) are also a good indicator of beliefs. These are estimated to have been made c.1430-75. The four panels which were featured in the book Gothic Art for England, 1400-1547 were the fifth, sixth, tenth and thirteenth. All of these panels feature an angel, holding a scroll. These depict Judgement Day, and signify that despite the terror surrounding them, humans will be protected by God and his Angels, and with prayer and faith, they will not be deserted.
All of these pieces of art show that although the devil and despair feature in everyday life, they were not always the main focus. People were taught through these images to ignore the temptation of Satan, and to ignore the fear that he brought, and instead focus on their saviour, Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, this article will have argued the tradition view that the medieval and early modern period in England was one which had been surrounded by images of hell and the devil, and the common belief that citizens were reminded on a daily basis of the terrors of hell and purgatory. Although this may have been true to a certain extent, especially within the middle ages (i.e. The 13th century), we can see through evidence that as the period progressed, the fear of the devil became less prominent, and instead, visions of heaven and hope took their place. Despite the period remaining wholly religious, the lessened, and people were able to be inspired by the paintings and sculptures they saw, and were therefore able to continue living their lives as dedicated Christians.