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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Lutheran Consolation Poetry in Modern Germany

Even after the plague’s reach was extinguished, toward the end of Middle Ages, child mortality was extremely high in early modern Europe. It was very possible that a mother who bore over a dozen children outlived nearly all of them as well as her grandchildren, if there were any. Consolatory literature was prevalent among early modern German Lutherans. Martin Luther himself lost an infant and an adolescent, both females, and suffered greatly for the loss. The following excerpt of a letter Luther sent to a friend demonstrates his anguish. “My small daughter, my little Elisabeth has died. How strangely wretched it has left my spirit, almost like a woman’s, so that I am moved by the pity of it, for I would never before have believed that fathers’ spirits could grow so tender towards their children. Pray for me to the Lord, in whom I take my leave. Wittenberg, 1528, 5th August.”18

Lutheran clergy began to write consolation manuals for bereaved parents as they came to realize that grief over the loss of a child, no matter how frequent the sorrowful event, was a natural response. Funerary poetry became common among the educated in seventeenth century Germany, particularly as a means of income. The poetry often became a part of a funeral booklet which also included the sermon, a biography of the deceased, and speeches and music from the funeral.19

During the reformation the Catholic concept of Purgatory, where the unbaptized soul would rest neither in heaven nor hell, was abandoned. Thus, the deceased could not be aided in their journey toward to heaven. Therefore, the focus, after the death of a child, was on comforting the living. The consolation books written at this time trained the parent in the proper amount of grief acceptable; that is, in moderation. They taught parents techniques for dealing with their sorrow and offered model prayers “in the hope that they will internalize and appropriate the arguments, putting them in a better position to cope with life’s trials.”20 Additionally, the messages within poetry and consolation books, expressed by its Lutheran writers, focused on themes such as relieving parents from endless worry of the fate of their deceased children.

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