Medieval Lists of the Dead: What Are They and Who Reads Them?

by Laura Moncion (University of Toronto)

The premodern period was full of lists, as many of this blog’s previous entries have shown. Medieval monasteries in particular, as the bureaucratic centres of medieval Western Europe, produced and dealt with a large number of lists: the monastic hours of each day, calendars of saints’ days, monastic rules and customaries, charters, profession and patronage records, and many others. Among these types of monastic lists are lists of the dead, including the monastic necrology and liber vitae (book of life), both types of lists intended to memorialize the deceased members of a monastic community. Necrologies are lists of the dead attached to calendars, martyrologies, or some other type of time-keeping device, whereas libri vitae are books which simply contain lists naming monks, abbots, patrons, and members of associated monasteries or confraternities. (For an example of a liber vitae, see London, British Library Stowe MS 94; for an example of a necrology, see British Library Additional MS 16979.)

Although these books clearly serve to commemorate the names of the dead, the precise use of these lists has left historians somewhat perplexed. We assume that they were used to read out names for commemoration during certain services, but at what exact moment? And how many names would have been read out of these often jam-packed books?[1]

The questions concerning the precise use of monastic lists of the dead lead to a more general question for list scholars: how were lists read, particularly those lists which appear outside of an immediate literary context? Who, beyond their writers, are the readers of more mundane lists, of shopping lists, receipts, to-do lists, invitation lists, inventories, instructions, and indeed lists of the dead?


History of the genres

 Monastic lists of the dead are exceptional among liturgical books in their longevity and use: continually present from around the 9th to 18th centuries in Britain, France, and Germany, they were also constantly updated and enriched more than any other liturgical book.[2] These lists are the textual expression of an ancient practice, namely the ritual commemoration of the dead. In Christianity, this commemoration was specifically liturgical from fairly early on: the earliest mention of ritual commemoration in Christianity dates from the 3rd century, when Cyprian of Carthage mentions that Christians recited names of the dead during mass.[3] The first of the written lists of the dead appears in the Merovingian period: known to scholars as diptyques, these were simple wax tablets recording the names of both living and dead, apparently for liturgical recitation.[4] Diptyques were the memorial document in use when the recitation of names of the dead was officialized as part of the Carolingian liturgy by the Admonitio generalis of 789 and the Council of Frankfurt in 794.[5]

Libri vitae follow closely on the heels of the diptyque and probably co-existed with it for a time, since the libri vitae of both Britain and France date from around the 8th to 9th century.[6] They also share many of the characteristics of diptyques: although no longer written on tablets, libri vitae also include names of the living alongside the dead, and seem to serve a liturgical function.[7]

Around the 9th century, ‘necrologies’ proper begin to appear: lists of the dead written in the margins or blank spaces of calendars or martyrologies, inserted into the order of religious feasts which were already celebrated by the monastic community. The obituary develops around the same time and is arguably a different form from the necrology. The main formal difference between these is that while a typical entry in a necrology will read something like “Johannes, obt [obitus],” obituaries often include a small biography of the person in question.[8]


Use of Necrologies and Libri vitae

Necrologies are the more transparent of the two types of lists, in terms of use: with the exception of necrologies overloaded with names, it is reasonable to say that the names listed alongside a particular day were recited out loud every year on that day. In monastic observance, the names of the dead would have been read aloud at Prime, after the saints of the day were read—hence the convenience of a necrology attached to a martyrology or calendar.[9] Prime was the third office of the monastic day after Matins and Lauds, celebrated around 6am. While the fact of being named during an office at the beginning of the monastic day would ensure that the names of the dead were in the minds of the monks throughout the day, Prime was still a “little hour,” including a service but not a full mass.

Libri vitae, on the other hand, seem to have only been used during mass. In his study on necrological documents, Nicolas Huyghebaert mentions that the Carolingian statutes make a distinction between “memento of the living” and “memento of the dead,” and that the libri vitae, which contain the names of living and dead, could be used to commemorate both. In terms of use, he speculates that the deacon would have placed the liber vitae on the altar during the first memento for the living, and that the priest would then recite a few names from the margins of the sacramentary as the memento for the dead.[10] This account, brief and speculative as it is, seems somewhat unsatisfying in terms of the exact liturgical use of libri vitae. However, it does suggest a certain amount of symbolic power given to libri vitae, preserved as liturgical books but not ‘used’ in the sense of being read from.


Who reads lists?

The possible use of necrologies and libri vitae calls into question the status of the reader of lists. Who can we count as a reader of these lists? If they were taken out and read from as assiduously as scholars suggest, the celebrating priest is one reader. Perhaps we can also count the multiple scribes who added names to each of these lists over the years as readers, imagining that they read the names already written on any given page for context and guidance regarding how to record their set of names, or that they occasionally flipped through previous pages and read some of the names to themselves. It is difficult to imagine any one person opening up a liber vitae for casual, or even edifying, reading. These lists were designed to be read aloud as part of the liturgy, and their form suggests a collective rather than individual type of reception.

Their form also suggests a kind of utility which, although it has rhetorical form, does not ask to be read as aesthetically delightful or educational. Lists of the dead do a job: they commemorate the dead. They continue to do that job even without a reader, like a clock ticking in an empty room. In closing, I present the following questions to those interested in lists: are readers necessary for lists? Is there something inhuman about a list, something mechanical and automatic which moves beyond the need for a human subject? Do all lists, like other kinds of texts, imply a reader, or does the reader become at some point incidental to the list?

[1] A similar question arises regarding the use of bede rolls, discussed in a previous Listology post here.

[2] Jean-Loup Lemaître, “Un livre vivant, l’obituaire,” in Glénisson, Le livre au Moyen Âge (Brussels: Brepols, 1988), p. 92.

[3] Virginie Greene, “Un cimetière livresque: la liste nécrologique médiévale.” Le Moyen Age: Revue d’histoire et de Philologie 105, no. 2 (1999), p. 310.

[4] Greene p. 310; N-N. Huyghebaert, Les documents nécrologiques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1972), p. 13.

[5] Huyghebaert p. 13.

[6] Huyghebaert p. 13; Greene p. 310.

[7] Huyghebaert pp. 14-15.

[8] Huyghebaert p. 35; Greene p. 312; Lemaître p. 92.

[9] Huyghebaert p. 35.

[10] Huyghebaert p. 14.

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