Media vita in morte sumus
Media vita in morte sumus (Latin for "In the midst of life we are in death") is the first line of a Gregorian chant known as "Antiphona pro Peccatis" or "de Morte" . The most accepted source is a New Year's Eve religious service in the 1300s. Reference has been made to a source originating in a battle song of the year 912 (C.E.), by a monk of St. Gall, by the name of Notker the Stammerer, however, the Synod of Cologne declared in 1316 that no one should sing this without the prior permission of the residing bishop .
Media vita in morte sumus
In the midst of life we are in death
The English translation is a poetic adaption from the Book of Common Prayer.
Latin liturgical use
In addition to its uses in the ordinary liturgy, "Media vita" was sung as a hymn to ask God for aid in times of public need, and sometimes even as a sort of curse. In 1455 a group of nuns in Wennigsen, resisting the attempt of the Augustinian canon Johannes Busch and Duke William of Brunswick to reform their house, "lay down on their bellies in the choir with the arms and legs stretched out in the form of a cross, and bawled all through, at the top of their voices, the anthem "In the midst of life we are in death" ... Wherefore the Duke was afraid, and feared lest his whole land should go to ruin." Busch assured the Duke that no harm could come from the chant, so he responded to the nuns: "How were ye not afraid to sing the anthem "Media vita" over me? I stretch my fingers to God's holy gospels, and swear that ye must reform yourselves, or I will not suffer you in my land."
Popular in the Baroque period, the Latin phrase was translated into the vernacular early and has continued to circulate especially widely in German and English, in literature and in song.
In 1524, Martin Luther translated it as "Mytten wir ym leben synd" and consequently it is now in the Evangelisches Gesangbuch hymnbook as number 518, or 654 in the Gotteslob hymnbook. Later, the Bavarian Guglmänner secret society used the phrase as its motto.
It is echoed in Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Schlußstück": "Der Tod ist groß [...] Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen/ wagt er zu weinen/ mitten in uns." as well as in the title of Hermann Hesse's poem, "Media in vita".
The Latin phrase was translated by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, whose English-language version became part of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer's contemporary and fellow Anglican bishop Miles Coverdale wrote a poetic rendering of Luther's "Mytten wir ym leben synd", beginning "In the myddest of our lyvynge." Catherine Winkworth made another English version of "Mytten wir ym leben synd" in her Lyra Germanica: Hymns for the Sundays and Chief Festivals of the Christian Year, beginning "In the midst of life, behold."
The Book of Common Prayer text of "In the midst of life we are in death" has been set to music in the Booke of Common praier noted (1550) by John Merbecke and in Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary by Henry Purcell.
The Latin text was popularised anew by the Irish choir Anúna in a four-part harmony version, with the line of text "Juste irasceris" left out because, according to Michael McGlynn, "The particular piece of parchment I was working from was missing those lines".
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- "Schlußstück", Rilkw
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- Winkworth, Catherine (1864). Lyra Germanica: Hymns for the Sundays and Chief Festivals of the Christian Year. Boston: E. P. Dutton and Company. pp. 236–237.
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