Even though John Skelton wrote poems about a severed head, a dead sparrow, and the suspected murder of the Earl of Northumberland, his treatment of Death goes beyond the macabre. Skelton also perfected the art of writing mock-epitaphs and elegies, used medieval conventions surrounding this grave subject and turned them into satire.
Several scholars have discussed the medieval attitudes towards death. For reference, the following standard works are indispensable: Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, Phillipe Ariès’s essay “Western Attitudes Towards Death”. Though the views expressed by these books are marked by the time in which they were written (1924 and 1974 respectively) these books offer a great background to the subject. For a more general introduction to the subject, Douglas J. Davies’ contribution on Death in the Blackwell series of Brief Histories offers a broad overview. There are numerous books written on Death in general and relating to particular genres of medieval literature; however, no particular attention is paid to John Skelton as too few have recognised the relevance of Skelton’s poetry and the changing perceptions of dying in the later Middle Ages.
Death knew many faces in the Middle Ages: the Grim Reaper, Death the Leveller, the Danse Macabre are striking images of the omnipresence of Death in everyday life. It could be argued that the acceptance of death in the Middle Ages was at a more advanced stage than it is today. Beautifully illustrated books of hours featured so-called Offices of the Dead, which reminded the reader to contemplate and pray for the deceased during at fixed moments. Nonetheless, premodern literature is not totally devoid of thanatophobia (fear of death). The phrase timor mortis conturbat me is a recurring motif in medieval poetry: “the fear of Death disturbs me”. One of Skelton’s influences, William Dunbar, used this phrase to end every stanza of his poem “Lament for the Makars”, in which poets like Chaucer and Gower perform a dance of Death. So, even in the late Middle Ages during which Skelton lived, many of the medieval conventions surrounding Death were still popular. A timeless theme, Death remained a major subject during the early modern period. After all, the best remembered character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (next to the protagonist) is Yorick’s skull.
In addition to the visual and vivid representations of Death, the medieval attitude to dying is well-attested in literature. Branches of literature that dealt exclusively with the art of dying are artes moriendi and memento mori, which comprised of devout treatises that formed a central part of lay devotion. Literary forms from Antiquity were also still in use: epigrams, epitaphs, and laments were used for funerals, speeches, and poetry. Skelton, who was well-versed in both classical literature and church doctrine, employed these poetic forms for different occasions. The epitaph Upon the Dolorus Dethe was a commissioned poem that revered the late Earl in a solemn and formal manner. On the other side of the spectrum is a poem, which is simply known as Epitaphe. Skelton wrote this funeral poem for Adam Uddersale and John Clarke, yet it is not a straightforward epitaph as it mocks the very existence of the two hypocrites.
Despite the grim nature of the subject, the theme of death appears mostly in Skelton’s satirical poetry. For instance in the conventional lament turned mock elegy Phyllyp Sparowe. As is often the case with parody, the fact that Skelton was able to satirise a well-known literary tradition indicates that he was certainly experienced in writing real laments and elegies. The third part of the series of poems known collectively as Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne is called Uppon a Deedmans Hed and features the macabre image of severed head and Death portrayed as a worm-ridden corpse. It uses all the conventional images of a naturalistic death, mirroring the conventional depiction of the Grim Reaper in visual culture. Skelton warns the reader for the inevitable decay. Unlike saints, who were thought to possess incorruptible bodies, sinners like the unfortunate dead man after whom the poem is named, were thought to liquefy the fastest (Westerhof 31). Skelton’s poem therefore ends with a warning and a plea to lead a devout life in order to be certain of one’s place in heaven.