AriÈs, Philippe

Philippe Ariès (1914–1984) did not let a career at a French institute for tropical plant research prevent him from almost single-handedly establishing attitudes toward death as a field of historical study. After publishing a number of prize-winning books in France, Ariès came to international attention with the publication of his study of attitudes toward children, Centuries of Childhood (1962). In 1973 Johns Hopkins University invited him to America to lecture on "history, political culture, and national consciousness." Ariès readily accepted the invitation, but his ongoing research into collective mentalities had led him to conclude that death too has a history—and that was the subject he wished to address.

The lectures delivered at Johns Hopkins, published as Western Attitudes toward Death in 1974, presented an initial sketch of Ariès's findings. Surveying evidence from the Middle Ages to the present, Ariès had discovered a fundamental shift in attitude. Where death had once been familiar and "tamed" ( la mort apprivoisée ) it was now strange, untamed, and "forbidden" ( la mort interdite ). Medieval people accepted death as a part of life—expected, foreseen, and more or less controlled through ritual. At home or on the battlefield, they met death with resignation, but also with the hope of a long and peaceful sleep before a collective judgment. Simple rural folk maintained such attitudes until the early twentieth century. But for most people, Ariès argued, death has become wild and uncontrollable.

The change in Western European society occurred in identifiable stages. During the later Middle Ages, religious and secular elites progressively abandoned acceptance of the fact that "we all die" ( nous mourons tous )to concentrate on their own deaths, developing an attitude Ariès dubbed la mort de soi ("the death of the self") or la mort de moi ("my death"). Anxious about the state of their souls and increasingly attached to the things their labor and ingenuity had won, they represented death as a contest in which the fate of the soul hung in the balance.

The rise of modern science led some to challenge belief in divine judgment, in heaven and hell, and in the necessity of dying in the presence of the clergy. Attention shifted to the intimate realm of the family, to la mort de toi ("thy death"), the death of a loved one. Emphasis fell on the emotional pain of separation and on keeping the dead alive in memory. In the nineteenth century, some people regarded death and even the dead as beautiful. With each new attitude, Western Europeans distanced themselves from the old ways. Finally, drained of meaning by modern science and medicine, death retreated from both public and familial experience. The dying met their end in hospitals, and the living disposed of their remains with little or no ceremony.

Ariès was particularly interested in presenting his findings in America because he noted a slightly different attitude there. While modern Americans gave no more attention to the dying than Europeans, they lavished attention on the dead. The embalmed corpse, a rarity in Europe but increasingly common in America after the U.S. Civil War, became the centerpiece of the American way of death. Although embalming attempted, in a sense, to deny death, it also kept the dead present. Thus Ariès was not surprised that signs of a reaction to "forbidden death" were appearing in the United States. He ended his lectures with the possibility that death might once more be infused with meaning and accepted as a natural part of life.

In 1977 Ariès published his definitive statement on the subject, L'Homme devant la mort , which appeared in English as The Hour of Our Death several years later. Besides its length and mass of detail, the book's chief departure from Ariès' earlier work was the inclusion of a fifth attitude, which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ariès dubbed this attitude la mort proche et longue , or "death near and far." As death became less familiar, its similarities to sex came to the fore, and some people found themselves as much attracted to as repelled by cadavers, public executions, and the presence of the dead. The appearance of the psychoanalytic notions of eros and thanatos at this point in Ariès's schema illuminate the deeply psychological nature of his approach, most clearly articulated in the conclusion to The Hour of Our Death . This aspect of his thinking generated criticism from historians who see the causes of change, even in collective attitudes, in more objective measures, but most have accepted his reading of the modern period. There are problems with the notion of "tamed death," however, which Ariès regarded as universal and primordial. Subsequent research has shown how peculiar the "tamed death" of the European Middle Ages was, and how great a role Christianity played in its construction. Nevertheless, his work has become a touchstone for nearly all research in the field and his contributions to death studies, and to history, are universally admired.

See also: Ars Moriendi ; Christian Death Rites, History of ; Good Death, The ; Memento Mori


Ariès, Philippe. Images of Man and Death, translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death, translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Ariès, Philippe. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, translated by Patricia M. Ranum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

McManners, John. "Death and the French Historians." In Joachim Whaley ed., Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death. London: Europa, 1981.

Paxton, Frederick S. Liturgy and Anthropology: A Monastic Death Ritual of the Eleventh Century. Missoula, MT: St. Dunstan's, 1993.


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