Lists of deaths from the Middle Ages can be valuable sources for historical research

Necrologies dating to the late medieval period barely researched

19 November 2021

Many regional, ecclesiastical, and municipal archives contain death lists dating back to the Middle Ages. Though largely ignored by research to date, they could provide valuable information on the history of individuals, the local church, or even the region. "We are particularly interested in necrologies from the Late Middle Ages, which have barely been researched before," said Professor Nina Gallion of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Necrologies are calendar-like lists which contain the names of the deceased and usually include the date of their death. They were kept and recorded by monasteries, convents, and other institutions during the Middle Ages. They also provide information on the memorial prayers that were commissioned by the deceased before their death or subsequently by their relatives. In return, religious institutions often received payment in the form of money or possessions. Subsequently, perhaps each year on the anniversary of the person's death, a mass was celebrated or a prayer was said or another form of intercession was made on behalf of the soul of the deceased.

Necrologies reveal both the level of piety and the social standing of the client

Research into necrologies has so far concentrated on records from the Early and High Middle Ages. "However, there is still a real need for examination of material dating to the Late Middle Ages. In the period from roughly 1250 to 1500 A.D. the number of necrologies rose sharply, as did the amount of literature being produced as a whole," explained Nina Gallion, Professor of Late Medieval History and Comparative Regional History at JGU. Wealthy citizens and nobles often had close links with a monastery from which they would purchase intercessions or prayers in exchange for a donation. The religious aspects were not the only reason for this; it could also be used to demonstrate one's level of social status.

This would also represent a starting point for further research as necrologies are interesting from the point of view of ecclesiastical and local history but they also provide rich source material for the study of the lives of individuals, such as members of aristocratic families and the so-called beguines, i.e., members of lay religious orders, and their communities. "The medieval necrologies provide us with multifaceted starting material. They open doors to a wide variety of topics and aspects," added Gallion. According to the historian, they make possible systematic research into specific groups of persons, the examination of manuscripts and records at a material level, the analysis of medieval donation practices, and the so-called afterlife provisions individuals made to ensure they would enter heaven when they died.