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The Remembrance of the Deceased in the Traditional Polish Culture of the Middle Ages
By Beata Wojciechowska
COLLeGIUM: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.18 (2015)
Abstract: In the Middle Ages, Polish Christian holidays remained consistent, except for minor temporary deviations. Yet, traces of the old Slavic ritual calendar can be clearly identified in the Polish and Czech sources from the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries. Those were rituals and practices of the ancient, broad context of beliefs which confirmed that certain traditional attitudes and behaviour were still very much alive. The Slavic calendar of annual rites was consistent with the crucial moments of the solar cycle. The whole year was imbued with ritual contacts with the dead, waiting for their arrival, presence, and supporting them in various established ways.
Traditional beliefs and practices intertwined with the dominant Christian behaviour and attitudes associated with death and funerals, as well as the methods recommended by the Church to support the soul of the deceased. A Christian funeral, crucial for the salvation of the dead, consisted of ritual celebrations, gestures and a series of prayers recited for the deceased.
The circle of beliefs and ideas about the other world was an area where religious syncretism was very clear even many centuries after the initial Christianization. The remaining fragments of the ancient Slavic conceptions of the afterlife, plucked from the once coherent systems, still coexisted with the assimilated threads of Christian teaching in the waning centuries of the Middle Ages. They were expressed in the efforts to secure well-being, supernatural care and the integration with dead ancestors.
Introduction: In the late Middle Ages, the increasing concern for salvation as the full reward for fulfilling the precepts of faith and the Church was a sign of uncertainty about the posthumous fate of the human being. Exertions such as prayers and the final parts of religious songs contained an element of hope for the successful completion of the earthly existence. All eschatological issues had a widespread foundation. The doctrine of the Church, a component of which is the doctrine of reward and punishment for sin and the posthumous fate of the human soul, was common to all countries of the Western christianitas. They also shared the basic teachings and the essential religious content which were transmitted to the faithful during sermons and confession, and placed on the walls of churches in the form of iconography.
In recent decades, the French, Anglo-Saxon and American studies which culminated in the extensive, synthetic works by Philippe Ariès and Michel Vovelle, identified a broad program of study of the evolution of attitudes towards death in the long term. They also influenced the analytical trend in research which relates to the ideas, rituals, practices, devotional behaviours, and collective feelings associated with a larger discourse of death.