The Three Living and the Three Dead

31 Oct 2018

A medieval cautionary tale

‘The Three Living and the Three Dead’ – aka De Tribus Regibus Mortuis or The Three Dead Kingshas to win the award for most-evocative-yet-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title for any trope of literature or art known to man (or beast)! It’s essentially a cautionary tale and an effective memento mori – a reminder that death comes to all.   

The story itself is simple, though grotesque: three young noblemen are out hunting in a forest when they suddenly encounter three corpse counterparts, in various horrifying stages of decomposition but all very much walking and talking. Understandably shocked at the sight, the noblemen hesitate between fleeing and facing down the dead and become even more terrified when the cadavers launch into a tirade, advising them to check their behaviour, curb their greed and act with humility and piety – or suffer for it in the afterlife.  

The crux of their message is: we were you, and if you don’t change your ways before it’s too late you will be us.

Origin and formats

The origins of the story are shrouded in mystery, but it may well have originated in France. Whatever the origin, it become hugely popular - there are countless ‘tellings’ of the tale in various formats throughout England and France, dating back to at least 1280, as well as known examples in Scandinavia and Switzerland.  While the earliest known example of the story is a poem, it was clearly a story that could be well-told through visuals and it became a common tableau in church art.

Where to see the story in our churches

Three examples of the story survive in our churches, in the form of medieval wall paintings…

Holy Trinity, Wensley, Yorkshire

The only remaining fragment of this tableau is the legs of the three dead - complete with worms hanging from their decomposing bodies.

St Faith's, Little Witchingham, Norfolk

The Three Living and the Three Dead at St Faith's, captured by Andy Marshall

St Mary's, Tarrant Crawford, Dorset

The remains of a series of rare 14th-century wall paintings in a rural Dorset church