a guest post by Eileen Sperry
For early modern English Christians, dying was an art form. The bestseller list of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, had there been one, would have been topped by some of the period’s many ars moriendi texts. These treatises, which took hold in England in the late 15th century and remained present through the country’s many doctrinal shifts, were wildly popular. One of these, Christopher Sutton’s Disce mori = Learne to dye, offers an excellent example of the lifespan of one of these sorts of treatises.
The content of Sutton’s text is, in some respects, unremarkable; like many of the other Protestant ars moriendi, Disce mori offers its readers spiritual instruction, showing “howe behoouefull it is for euerie Christian man, soberly to meditate of his end” and “That we need not feare Death, much lesse to meditate thereof.” The instructive sections of the text read like an extended sermon, full of marginal scriptural glosses and detailed exegesis.
But in addition to spiritual guidance, Sutton also includes what we might call practical resources to help his readers deal with death. Several central chapters offer scripts for prayers to be said at the bedside, catechisms to assist the dying in focusing their minds and souls on God. Sutton dictates “the manner of commending the sicke into the hands of God, at the houre of Death,” and gives prayers for “those that vndertake any dangerous attempt, either by sea or land, wherein they are in perill of Death,” so that these may “make themselues readie for God.”
It is this practical application, more so than anything else, that drew me to the many editions of Sutton’s text in the Folger’s collection. I began to think about this not just as a theoretical treatise but a practical guide, an object that would have been on hand in some of the most painful and profound moments of its readers’ lives. And the existing physical copies confirm this: the Folger’s collections include eleven copies of Sutton’s treatise. Having surveyed all of these copies, it became clear that these surviving editions tell the story of a popular and durable text, one that would have been a near-ubiquitous physical presence by early modern deathbeds for nearly a century.
Sutton’s text was first printed in 1600 by John Windet, who, we can assume because of the work’s initial success, then produced five more editions in 1601, 1602, 1604, 1607, and 1609. The text was then transferred to printer Ambrose Garband, who printed the 1613 edition, then to George Purslowe, who printed two editions in 1616 and one in 1618, and then finally to Ame Hunt, who printed an edition in 1662. Sutton also capitalized on the apparent success of Disce Mori by writing a companion text, Disce Vivere. This other volume of spiritual advice was first printed in 1602 and also ran for several editions. In 1626, printer Dawson first published Disce Vivere and Disce Mori together in a combined dual edition; this was repeated by Beal in 1629, and again by Richard Badger in 1634. All told, Disce Mori survives in at least eleven stand-alone editions and three dual-editions. The Folger’s holdings include eleven copies: eight single editions (1601, 1604, 1607, 1609, 1613, 1616, 1618, and 1662) and all three dual editions. This long (and complicated!) print run confirms that Sutton’s text was sought after and highly marketable; printers could produce multiple runs, knowing that readers would reliably purchase these editions.
The copies themselves also reveal evidence of heavy use, particularly the single editions, squat and portable duodecimo printings that lent themselves to frequent handlings. In STC 23475, the Folger’s 1601 Windet edition, for instance, handwritten across the bottom of the page, is a note marking the death of an individual, Richard Whartun, in 1609.
While we don’t know who Whartun was or why his death was noteworthy, I think the existence of this inscription alone tells us a lot about how Disce Mori was used. Since this is a 1601 edition, it’s likely safe to assume that this was in its owner’s possession for sometime before Whartun died. If someone were to purchase this to mark the occasion of a death, that is, they would have been far more likely to buy one of the many more recent editions. This suggests that whoever owned this text had had it in their possession for several years, had already read and consulted it, and then took the opportunity to use it to memorialize Whartun’s death.
These kinds of memorial inscriptions are also often found in bibles in the period: families would record birth and death dates in Anglican bible’s liturgical calendars, using them as both sacred text and family history. It’s entirely possible that this copy belonged to Whartun himself and, on his death, became a family object memorializing his passing. What we can glean from this is a sense of the emotional connection readers felt with Disce Mori. This text seems to have been read and reread, accruing enough personal significance that its owners felt it an appropriate place to record such an important milestone.
Another trace of a previous reader or owner can be found in STC 23488.8, the Folger’s copy of the 1626 Dawson edition. While there are multiple marginal notes in this edition, perhaps the most moving trace of its former owner is this thumbprint found on a prayer midway through the text.
There’s no knowing what material the print is made from; the obvious answer is probably ink, though given the subject matter there’s a temptation to imagine it as blood. But regardless of what it is, the trace of human presence here is, to me, incredibly poignant. This print appears in the prayer section of Sutton’s treatise, in the middle of several dozen pages of scripted prayers for different deathbed occasions. This particular page gives “a prayer to be used by any who finds himself troubled in conscience or disquieted by evil motions.” Physical traces like this one suggest that readers did not just read Disce Mori but used it—as a guide or script in moments of struggle.
One final and notable example from the Folger’s holdings is STC 23479, the library’s copy of the Ambrose Garband edition of 1613. This, like all the other single editions, is a duodecimo of approximately 5×7 inches. These texts were designed and printed in a way that made them portable, pocket-sized objects and this particular copy shows the degree to which that portability created a sense of intimacy and connection.
This copy is covered in a hand-embroidered and beaded cover, marked with its unknown previous owner’s initials—M and I. Since the textile work on this is so fragile, I wasn’t able to examine the inside of the text, but this cover tells a story all its own. The work on this is represents a significant labor of skill, time, and love; there’s intense care given to the text as an object, suggesting that its owner cared enough about the contents to celebrate it with this kind of detailed ornamentation. I think that certainly this kind of decorative work, especially when paired with the text’s relatively small size, tells us that Disce Mori was an object that enjoyed a very personal connection with its owners.
For as popular as this text appears to have been, Disce Mori has been relatively neglected by scholars. And yet, as the treatise’s wide-ranging bibliographic history suggests, Sutton’s text was a constant presence in England for nearly a century. A volume that appears to have been on hand, often literally, in some of the darkest moments of its owner’s lives, these surviving copies of Disce mori still have many stories to tell not just about what early modern ars moriendi texts taught but about how they were used. Regularly consulted texts, these little books functioned as daily objects of devotion and practice, themselves actors in the art of early modern dying.
Eileen Sperry is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Skidmore College and a 2022-23 Folger Institute Fellow. Her current project examines death, decay, and lyric form in early modern English poetry.