It is mentioned in the poem that the recipient of this dream vision is a pilgrim fleeing the plague. The plague, despite now being treatable with simple antibiotics, was one of the most virulent and deadly epidemics to ever sweep Europe. With this backdrop in mind, how do you think a medieval reader would receive this poem? Would they find it comforting to know that the body is only temporary but the soul may live on? Or would the admittedly grim image of the body being devoured by worms be repulsive? Or could it possibly be both?
Medieval reader might of received this poem favorably is they read it. In a way the corpse’s changing attitude towards being devoured by worms could reflect the attitude that people had during the plague. You try to fight it off death but no matter how hard you fight it will win in the end and doesn’t discriminate. Similarly, the plague didn’t discriminate whether or not you were rich or poor once you contracted the disease. The rich were more suited to avoid the plague but could still contract the disease. Depending whether it is an aristocrat or a commoner who read the poem would determine how it was received as well.
The idea of the physical body being unimportant, or eventually simply not present due to decay, could have been both a distress and a relief to people of the Middle Ages. For those who have access to more resources, allowing them access to possible hygiene, like the woman in the poem and other nobles, losing their physical features may have been upsetting. They most likely were given merit based on their appearance, and this placed a higher value on their physical features. However, to a common Medieval person, hygiene and prettiness were probably not very high on their list of prioritization, so the notion of leaving their physical body behind may have been a comfort. additionally, a plague suffered may also feel comforted because after death, the noble and the common, the beautiful and the ordinary, the plague victim and those who were spared, are all made even as a result of natural forces of decay; what they look like does not matter, it is the state of their soul that is important.
Very medieval readers could take a fatalistic reading of this narrative, indeed I think they could understand that there was more beyond the dichotomy of body and soul, as Rytting notes that they were fond of scholarly debate on forces of Nature. The meditation on Death by disease, by plague was a familiar sight in the literary canon, but as scientific understanding of how this was brought about was still centuries away, I have a difficult time seeing how a medieval reader would transcend their society’s fixation on physical appearance, as Alexis discussed above. There is an odd (to us at least) comfort in worms having an anthropomorphic aspect – the medieval audience can envision the death of the Body as a struggle rather than a curse from God, which was a popular refrain among priests. Additionally, the medieval reader could receive this poem and look forward to the bodily resurrection in Paradise without dread, having confronted the plague morally as well as physically.
I believe a medieval reader would almost be confused by something of such. Historically, there was a large emphasis put on religion so I imagine that it would be comforting to know that your soul lives on but at the same time there is the off chance that your soul would be “carried off to hell”. Obviously, to think of your body being devoured by worms would gross anyone out but if you look closely at medieval culture, there was already a lack of cleanliness that led to the source of disease and plague. Humans were flea-bitten, carried lice or sexually transmitted diseases, so worms seem to be the least of their problems. One thing to counter everything that I said would be the emphasis that medieval citizens put on their appearance. I think that in this case, the answer is both. There would be comfort found in the longevity of the soul but also disgust in the physical realm of the potential of their bodies and appearance.