The living and the dead

Books of Hours continued to be printed in England after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and the office of the dead continued in use until 1549. This example of an Hours in English translation, printed in Rouen in 1536, shows Reformed influences, criticising excessive devotion towards the Virgin Mary. The image here, though, is very much traditional. Known as ‘The three living and the three dead’, it is found all over Europe in a variety of guises. Its precise origins are somewhat mysterious: many versions of the tale date back to the thirteenth century, with the best-known coming from England and France. The basic story goes like this: three young noblemen are out hunting when they suddenly come across three corpses, in varying states of decay, but nonetheless still animated. Unsurprisingly, the young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behaviour before it is too late. The opening is from the beginning of the ‘Dirige’, with a marginal verse in red surrounding the image: ‘we have somtyme abyden our chaunce/ but nowe ye must come & trace our daunce’. BC

Horae ([Rouen], [1536]).

CUL: Syn.7.53.19, sig. N7v

Further Reading

Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation (London, 1996), pp. 134-38.

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