Dialogues with Death and the Devil


One of the characteristics of dialogues published in the first half of the seventeenth century is woodcuts on the frontispieces. The woodcuts are often used to identify the characters in the dialogue. They were used as a way of symbolically capturing the text, and were a pictorial representation of the characters that were to feature in the dialogue. The fusion of images with text that mimicked spoken dialect serves as a reminder that:

“The dynamics of communication in mid-seventeenth century England sprang from the interplay of textual, oral, and performative aspects of communication.” (Friest, Governed by Opinion, p239)

Dialogues drew upon this interplay of text, oral culture, performance and visual culture to dramatically portray its message. Like any genre dialogues developed a series of protocols that reoccur through the century one of these is the characters that are used within the dialogue. A popular set of motifs that featured within the genre was Death and the Devil.

Death was used as a character that often appeared to discuss mankind’s frailty and remind people of their own mortality. Death often met the character and the ensuring dialogue between the two characters would involve a discussion of the persons salvation and how they have spent their life. A conversation with death was a means for a person to reflect on the state of their own soul. A means to remind them that they would die and that they should prepare their soul to meet God.

Another popular character was the Devil. The devil was often a character that would appear in conversation with people to expose their diabolic motives. It was a means to reveal that the person was secretly in league with the Devil. The dialogue was thereby a means to reveal their sinister plots as they conversed with the devil. As the dialogue above showed, the devil appeared to the Jesuit in order to discuss their devilish plots. Another popular form was a dialogue with the Devil and the Pope. As the following image shows the Pope hugging the devil.

What these sub genre of dialogues, namely dialogues with death and the devil reveal is that fictional dialogues with Death as a means to reflect existentially upon the state of our own souls is a tradition that was popular in the early modern period. Ingmar Bergman made this motif of a conversation with Death popular with his film The Seventh Seal in which a knight plays chess with Death in order for him to do one meaningful act before he dies. The imagery from the film is iconic and has been appropriated by many films since.

What these early modern dialogues reveal is that this concept has a history. Whilst Death has changed from being a skeleton with an arrow to a cloaked pale man, the idea of a conversation with Death as a crucible in which to reflect upon our own existence is one that has been around for hundreds of years.


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