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The Signs and Sounds of Death

After the sounds of old age come the sounds and signs of death.  These derive from medical lists of symptoms given in Hippocrates and Galen (see Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (1968), pp. 79–82).  Some medieval poets, whether for mnemonic, rhetorical or other purposes, transformed them into verse.  In the early fourteenth-century Fascisculus Morum (a handbook for preachers written by a Franciscan friar), three Latin couplets listing the signs of death attributed (apocryphally) to St Jerome are cited, as well as a Middle English poem beginning ‘When the hede quakyth / And the lyppis blakyth’ which gives eight different signs of death before a brief conclusion.  Other versions, medical and moral, are recorded by R H Robbins, ‘Signs of Death in Middle English’, Mediaeval Studies, 32 (1970), 282–98.

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