Ars moriendi-The Art of Dying

This post was written by Simon Thomas for the Bodleian Library. The images featured in the post were taken from Douce 75 and S. Seld. d.11, two volumes that have already been digitized for the Polonsky Project. Check back for links to more copies as digitization progresses.


Douce 75 f.A6r

In the Bodleian Library’s incunable collection are several editions, copies, and versions of a popular fifteenth-century work called Ars moriendi (or The Art of Dying). This tract was intended to bring Christian comfort and practical instruction to the dying man and his family, and all later versions relate to two Latin texts dating from 1415 (the ‘long version’) and c.1450 (the ‘short version’). The popularity of these works was no doubt in part due to the wide spread of fatal diseases throughout the period.


The long version was written by an anonymous Dominican friar, probably commissioned by the German Council of Constance (1414-1418). It incorporates six chapters, the first four of which encourage the dying Christian with hope, steer him from temptation, remind him of Christ’s love, and exhort him to imitate Christ. The final two chapters instruct friends and family with proper bedside behaviour and appropriate prayers for the dying.


The short version, first dating to around 1450, is essentially an adaptation of the long version’s second chapter, concerning five temptations to resist when dying. These were illustrated with pairs of woodcuts, showing each temptation and its defeat. This version was never translated into English, but manuscript and block book editions were popular in Britain.


Copies in manuscript were incredibly popular, and many printed editions were published throughout Europe after the advent of the printing press; there were nearly 100 editions of the long version before 1500. Copies held by the Bodleian hail from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and England. They mostly date to the 1490s.


S. Seld. d.11(1) f.1r


England’s first printer, William Caxton, turned his attention to publishing tracts and religious books in the final years of his life, between 1489-1491/2 (the exact year of Caxton’s death is not known). It is possible that the Maude Caxton who was buried in Westminster’s St. Margaret’s Church in 1490 was the printer’s wife, and this bereavement would naturally put him in mind of death. What is known is that Caxton interrupted his translation of The Book of Eneydos to translate a French abridgement of the Ars moriendi, which he completed on 15 June 1490 under the title The Art and craft to know well to die (S. Seld. d.11(1)).


A year later he published a shortened English version, made from a composite Latin text. The only known copy of this edition (Arch. G f.9) was bequeathed to the Bodleian by Bishop Tanner upon his death in 1735.


Douce 75 f.B4rIncunable copies of Ars moriendi being digitized by the Bodleian:

Douce 75 – Leipzig: Melchior Lotter, after 1500? Douce.

Auct. 1Q 6.23 – Paris: Guy Marchant, 1494. Pococke.

Inc. f. I22.1498.1 – Brescia: Angelus Britaanicus, 1498. Henry Cecil Sotheran.

S. Seld. d.11(1) – Westminster: William Caxton, after 15 June 1490. John Sergeant. (English trans. from French trans. of Latin)

Inc. e. I9.1487.2 – Florence: Francesco di Dino, 1497. Giuseppe Alberto Martini.

Auct. 1Q 6.29 – Zaragoza: Johannes Hurus, c.1488-91. Henri Ternaux-Compans.