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Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls

“E’ la morte di una civilizazione.”  (“It’s the death of a civilization.”)  These were the words of the Vatican official who told me the following sad story at the beginning of September.  It seems that, after the heat wave of August, hundreds of the cadavers of the lonely urban old folks of France were being kept in the city morgues.  When their vacationing families returned, many of them reacted with amazement and resentment when they learned that they were expected to pay for the burial of their own dead.  As the accurate, if historically tardy, judgment of the papal diplomat implied, these “loved ones” had left behind survivors who were, shall we say, the living dead.  “Vive la France,” indeed.  Read on, for the cheerless end of the story given here has a long prologue.

In his informative and consoling masterpiece of historical research The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy drew the conclusion that the most distinctive characteristic of late-medieval English piety on the eve of the 16th-century religious upheaval was the devout remembrance of the dead.  There was not a monastery, collegiate chapter, parish church, or cathedral that did not have a daily round of Masses and dirges for the deceased; woe to the cleric who was negligent in this regard, for lay folk were devoutly attentive that not a single...

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