DEATH Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval society attitudes religion death ritual wills testaments probate court jurisdiction funerals cemeteries memorial services chantries Purgatory

 Media vita in morte sumus 

Death and the fate of the soul were matters that must have weighed more heavily on the thoughts of medieval townspeople than those of today. In a society with a propensity for violence, in which executions were usually public events and and corpses were openly displayed or body parts of criminals hung on city walls, where the rate of infant mortality was very high, poverty at a level now associated with Third World countries, sanitation and medical care crude and often ineffective, and which was visited periodically by famine and pestilence, death was almost a part of everyday life and perhaps many people were hardened against it – even though the loss of a loved one could occasion extreme grief to the point of insanity.

Homicides and death by misadventure we hear about primarily through coroners' records. These give us a good sense of the spectrum of mortal dangers existing in medieval society. Both these and other court records point to deaths of criminals, whether in the foul conditions of gaols or through capital punishment, applied more liberally then than today. For deaths from natural causes we rely more on archaeological investigation of medieval burials; a number of excavations of cemeteries have taken place in the late twentieth century, but not so much in urban contexts, as burials there have been much disturbed by changes in the Late Middle Ages and afterwards, such as redigging for new burials, extensions to churches, or encroachments on the churchyard by new building (e.g. almshouses, housing for priests).

Death was to be feared not merely for its own sake, but because it was believed to propel the soul on to a possibly worse fate. Concern about divine judgement provided a daily influence over moral behaviour. The messages that death and judgement were the fate of all and that sinners faced consignment to the torments of Hell were driven home by the Church: through sermons, in architectural and funerary sculpture or inscriptions, and in the wall-paintings and stained glass windows that decorated many medieval churches, giving them a rather more dramatic and less sombre appearance than they tend to have today. These messages were further reinforced by the design of personal devotional items, as well as by secular drama (e.g. the Dance of Death), literature (e.g. Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale), and art – Bosch and Bruegel providing some of the better-known examples of artists depicting the nightmarish imagery that reflect, if in an extreme fashion, popular dread of the Apocalypse and Hell. Death came to be personified and depicted as a skeleton summoning or leading people to the next world.

The need to constantly warn of the afterlife punishments of sinners shows that fear of Hell was effective only to an extent. For it was also believed that a life of sin could be redeemed on the death-bed by true repentance and by recompense through charitable and pious works. The medieval philosophy of balance in all things frowned on economic inequalities, which were perceived as a form of injustice, and at one extreme the accumulation of riches was seen as inherently wicked. Such inequality was a fact of life, but it was felt that some redistribution of wealth at death could help redress the balance. Bequests to the mendicant orders, to the poor or downtrodden, and to the community (whether parochial or urban) were therefore a common feature of the testaments of wealthier townspeople, even though they accounted for only a small portion of the total wealth bequeathed. In return, the recipients – especially the "blessed poor" – were expected to intercede through prayer for the soul of the testator.

Sudden death was particularly to be feared since it left no time for repentance or charity, unless a last will and testament had been drawn up in advance. Setting off on an overseas journey provided the catalyst for some merchants to draw up such a document; however, it was more common for people to have wills drafted within a year or less of their death and, given the lack of medical relief for illness or physical decline, it may have been easier for medieval townspeople to sense when their time was approaching.

The traumatic effect of the Black Death – which, given the state of medical science, could only be understood by the masses as a divine punishment – stimulated depictions of death and judgement in art and encouraged greater ceremonial in funerals, during a period when ceremony was taking a larger place in society as a whole. Repeated, if lesser, visitations of plague after the initial disastrous bout emphasised the imminence of death and the need to be prepared. The act of dying itself came to be perceived by some as an "art" requiring a measure of ritual and even spectacle: with the gathering of family, friends and even neighbours around the death-bed, the expression of last will if none had been written down, farewells exchanged, the priest's visit to hear the death-bed contrition and administer the last rites. By the close of the Middle Ages tracts were being written to instruct people in this art. The importance of such ritual was another reason for dreading a sudden death that would rob one of the opportunity of a death-bed ceremony.

Crow picks the flesh off a traitor's skull Extract from The Triumph of Death
The association made between sin, punishment and death was intended to inspire (through horror) men and women to live a moral life in conformity with laws of Church and state. The strong belief in the inevitability of judgement and the efficacy of prayers to persuade God to mercy, is suggested by surviving evidence – although we cannot be sure whether the attitude was pervasive across the different social strata.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)
Monk Sir Thomas Erpingham

 Last will and testament 

The ability to dispose, at death, of one's property and possessions as one wished was a privilege, a freedom from the power of one's lord to dictate the disposal; it became one of the principal distinguishing features of burgage tenure. In theory a testator did not own his property outright but held it – in essence as a loan – from his lord. Unless freedom of devise was to be offered by a lord among other privileges intended to attract tenants into towns founded or fostered by them, it was advisable to persuade the lord to allow a testament by bequeathing some portion or some valuable item to the lord. This incentive to respect the instructions set out in a will or testament continued later in the Middle Ages through bequests to urban authorities and to executors.

In the past the testament was, strictly speaking, the device by which personal property (moveables) was bequeathed and the will the instrument for devising real property – principally real estate acquired during the testator's lifetime, for the property he had inherited was expected to be devised to his own heirs. However, testamentum was the term usually applied to both types of document, although we occasionally hear of an ultima voluntas, and sometimes these terms appear to be used synonymously. A testator sometimes drew up separate documents as testament and last will, and often only one of these documents has survived; but in most cases realty and personalty were bequeathed within the same document. (The term "devise" likewise came to apply strictly speaking to realty and "bequest" to personalty, but again the distinction is little used.)

Since the real estate devised by townspeople was primarily situated within the town of residence, it was advisable to register wills in borough court records, and we know of a number of cases where local government required registration and probate before it, at least as regards those clauses concerning lands within the borough. Having a will proved before and enrolled by the borough authorities publicized the intent of the testator and established an evidentiary foundation, even a warrant, for livery of seisin (the formal transfer of ownership of a property). Possibly the occasionally lengthy delays between probate in ecclesiastical and borough courts may have been due to a lack of need for the latter, until a situation arose involving a transaction or challenge affecting some of the property bequeathed.

Wills can give some sense of what real estate an individual owned. Some was probably ignored by wills because it passed automatically to the immediate heirs – although it may be that some testators specified the division anyway – while the widow also had claim upon a portion specified by local custom or common law, although the testament would often deal with this, because of the need to specify what would happen to it after the widow's death. Husbands similarly had a lifetime claim on property brought by wives to the marriage. It may be that testators with direct male heirs are slightly under-represented in the record, because they felt less pressure to make wills and were more prone to dying intestate.

Most borough courts had jurisdiction in transactions regarding burgage tenements and this included disputes arising from devise of such property, perhaps most notably those relating to claims of the spouse; they were prepared to make ordinances regulating such matters. It was natural that they would encourage the entering of relevant documents into the official record, as a source of future knowledge in the event of disputes arising; or demand this course of action, failing which they reserved the right to override the terms of the will. The enrollment may, at first, have been secondary to the public reading of the documents and the authorization of executors to proceed with administration. While we do find examples of burgesses drawing up separate wills and testaments, commonly a document dealt with both real and personal property, and the terms were often used indistinctively in medieval documents; today lawyers use them interchangeably.

The Church encouraged the use of the testament for a final act of contrition, to ensure salvation of the soul, through charitable and pious bequests. Anyone dying unexpectedly would miss confession and the last rites and their souls would rely that much more on gifts for pious works. The Church therefore frowned upon wilful intestacy. Nuncupative wills, often dictated by a testator in extremis, were also looked upon with suspicion, since subject to misinterpretation or fraud, unless well witnessed. But even written wills could be the subject of fraud and forgery. It was also possible for a written will, often drawn up well in advance of death, to be augmented by a written codicil or by oral directions to executors shortly before death; Richard Whittington's is a case in point where his executors were at pains to justify some of their disposal of the testator's wealth on the grounds of death-bed instructions. One of the reasons why probate was necessary, besides ensuring that the written document was genuinely that embodying the testator's wishes, was to confirm with the executors that they were prepared to carry out those wishes. Where the executors were faced with an onerous task, or there was some concern of dispute between them or a risk of negligence or embezzlement, the testator had the option of appointing a supervisor to ensure action was taken and decisions were reached.

With its view of testaments, the Church not surprisingly contested the jurisdiction of borough authorities in matters of probate, and probate of testaments (in the strict definition) was really within the ecclesiastical sphere. This had not been the case in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, where the Church had shown interest in testaments only as regards pious legacies; but in the thirteenth century it extended its jurisdiction over testaments, notably challenges to their validity, and the performance of executors. Where a testator held property in two or more jurisdictions, it was generally necessary to obtain probate from an ecclesiastical court. In cases where wills and testaments were enrolled in borough records, sometimes the clerk extracted only those sections dealing with borough property; but it was often less intellectual effort just to transcribe the whole document. We even find them enrolling documents dealing only with moveables; similarly, ecclesiastical courts are sometimes found proving wills dealing only with real estate within a single secular jurisdiction. In most towns there was collaboration with ecclesiastical authorities in the area of probate; and probate in ecclesiastical court typically preceded probate in borough court. In the Cinque Ports, however, borough probate acquired an unusual degree of independence; at Fordwich, for example, the validity of even a nuncupative testament was unquestioned if the mayor and jurats were the witnesses, and even in cases of intestacy officials of the Church were specifically prohibited from intervening.

Wills and testaments provide us with the best single source of information about the extent of landholding (unless there was an inquisition post mortem, which was rare in the case of townsmen), and the household items and personal possessions of townspeople; they are also an important source of information about family relationships. However, it is largely the wealthier urban residents, particularly landowners, who are represented in this kind of record. The majority of wills, or the extracts copied into official records, are relatively short; typically, the estate simply went to the heir with a life interest in a share for the widow, and there was not the need in most cases for lengthy provisions. The wills presented in this, or other, sections of Florilegium Urbanum are not to be considered "typical"; they have been chosen because they present a more detailed or more intimate look at a testator's arrangements, possessions, and attitudes – insofar as we can take these as normal, given that the testator's mind was on death.

Historians continue to debate to what extent we can trust wills as evidence of the religious attitudes of the testators. To what extent did convention play a part in dictating the arrangements testators made for their funeral ceremonies and related pious and charitable investments post-mortem? To what extent do they reflect testators' behaviour during life? These questions are not easy to answer. However, despite the formulaic elements in wills, there is sufficient variety of approach and expression – especially in those that are highly detailed – that we may imagine seeing the personality of the testator emerging.

Richard Whittington on his death-bed
An emaciated and dying Richard Whittington conveys to his executors his last wishes.
(click on the image for a full version and more information)


In principle, people could choose for themselves where they were buried, although before the twelfth century lay burials within churches were prohibited (and excavations suggest this restriction was respected). Although wills often specified the location, there was no legal requirement for this – all that was needed was the testimony of a credible witness to the deceased's wishes in this regard; wills were sometimes used to specify funerary arrangements in more detail, but this seems the exception rather than the rule. In cases where no preference for place of burial or funeral arrangements was expressed before death, kin and executors doubtless had a say, and in certain cases they could even override impractical requests by the deceased. In practice, choice of place of burial was often dictated by factors such as residence, place of death, location of family members' graves (particularly those of spouses), or whether the deceased had provided for the establishment of a chantry or other yearly commemorative services at a particular altar in a church.

It was most common for townspeople to be buried in the cemetery or even within the church of their parish, and the parish priests encouraged this, since it was a source of income for them: not formally, but the practice of gifts, in money or goods, to the church – a kind of mortuary payment – in recompense for the officiating of priests became general. Many of the more important urban churches seem to have originated with often large graveyards attached or surrounding; some of these grounds may have been absorbed into marketplaces, if such arose beside the church, or were taken up by buildings such as almshouses. Lesser churches may often have come into being without the provision of any graveyard, particularly if they originally had the status only of a chapel. Alternate choices to the parish cemetery could be made and friaries or even cathedrals were popular with wealthier townspeople, although even then financial compensation was often made to the parish church. Despite that, there was rivalry and sometimes animosity between the parties responsible for potential burial places; in particular, parish clergy resisted burial rights being accorded to detached chapels lacking parochial status. Jewish cemeteries were generally located just outside the town walls and were not associated with any synagogue.

Canterbury churchyard Canterbury cathedral cloister
Medieval townspeople were mostly buried in the cemetery attached to their parish church, or occasionally inside the church itself. A handful of greater wealth and status might aspire to a more prestigious burial place in abbey or cathedral. Testators' requests concerning burial location were governed by factors such as associations with specific places of worship when alive, attachment to some particular saint, or the place of interment of previously deceased family members.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)

Coffins were the preserve of the wealthier members of society. Rank-and-file townspeople were buried without coffins; women sometimes in a shroud and men in a hair shirt. Even poor people were entitled to burial in their parish church. The parish priest could only turn down some select categories of deceased, such as the unbaptized, suicides, heretics, excommunicates, and notorious and unrepentant sinners. Even this may have been more honoured in the breach than in the observance, since the idea of burials outside consecrated ground was repugnant to the Church; there are indications that some churches had separate churchyards for such undesirables, perhaps with burials carried out unsanctioned or in private. Because of demands on space within a church and even in the churchyard, older burials were periodically disturbed and the bones transferred to charnel houses established on church property. Nonetheless, in recent decades cemeteries – particularly those abandoned, forgotten and therefore undisturbed (such as at friary sites) – have proven fruitful for archaeologists, giving a sense of population characteristics such as life expectancy, gender mix, health problems and diet. Even so, relatively few have been systematically excavated as yet.

Death, where not sudden, might be considered the prelude to funerary ceremonies, in the sense that a range of preparations was desirable. This might include the dictation of a will, although the timing of will-drafting seems more influenced by the onset of old age or declining health more than by imminent death. Possibly even existing wills were reviewed and confirmed on the death-bed, for they represented a kind of rite of passage, with the testator indicating the intent to divest himself or herself of material possessions. A priest would be summoned to hear confession and, by asking a series of prescribed questions, ensure the dying person was repentant and free of animosity towards anyone; this was another form of divestment: this time, of worldly concerns. Extreme unction and the sacrament would be administered when death was considered close. Throughout this period the death-bed might be surrounded by family members, friends, executors, servants, doctors, and clerics – dying could be quite a public matter.

Under normal circumstances, funerals usually commenced one to three days after death. A longer interlude might be requested by a testator, although there were concerns over having decaying bodies lying around. In the interim the corpse would lie in the place of death, and be put in its shroud. Funerals were to an extent a communal affair; the community after all had lost one of its members. The community was alerted to a death and a funeral by the tolling of the church bell and by public announcements made by bedemen (or bellmen), often minor civic officials, who also exhorted townspeople to pray for the soul of the deceased; specific testamentary provision was sometimes made for the associated costs. Those who belonged to socio-religious gilds could anticipate their fellow members to attend their funeral in numbers, and these gilds often had as one of their core functions the arrangement of funerals of members.

Coffin Church bells
Funerals were elaborate ceremonials that some men planned in detail and were prepared to spend lavishly on, as they approached death, although others took a more frugal approach.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)

The first stage (if one discounts the preparation of the dying person by confession and prayers around the death-bed) was to convey the body to the church altar, where funeral rites would be celebrated. This procession could entail some ceremony – again particularly if a gild was involved – with the carrying of lights, ringing of a handbell, and chanting of psalms. Burial was preceded by a sequence of religious rites covering parts of two days: Placebo, Dirige, and Requiem Mass. The Placebo was simply a slight variant of the Vespers (Evensong) service, while the Dirige a variant of Matins; a vigil might connect the two events. Candles were lit around the coffin and kept alight throughout the services, if not overnight. Later in the morning the Mass, followed by a Commendation, completed the services, and led into the burial proper. By the fifteenth century these services were often being sung (performed "by note"), rather than said, and sometimes testators specifically requested this. The actual burial was of lesser importance in the funerary sequence.

Those who were wealthier could afford showier funerals, although this was not always the personal inclination, and some explicitly discouraged it. The deceased could enlarge the body of mourners by making testamentary provision for additional priests and for paupers to attend the services, in return for payment and sometimes they were provided with mourner's gowns as well. Post-burial meals and/or charitable doles were also a commonplace of funerals, and very occasionally – in the case of the wealthiest and proudest townsmen – lavish; the intent was to maximize the reach of the charity through small handouts, so that many individuals would offer a prayer for the deceased.

Ceremonial brass Tomb monument
Many of those who could afford it liked to leave some memorial to themselves. This was not simply a case of ego or pride; remembrance was the key to continued prayers for the soul of the deceased. These memorials could take a variety of forms.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)

The funeral did not conclude things, for there remained things that could be done to assist the deceased in deliverance from Purgatory to Heaven, as well as to show that the deceased was not forgotten. The funeral's sequence of services was mirrored at commemorative ceremonies typically held, for those who could afford them, a week and/or a month after the funeral and each year on the anniversary of the funeral. During the initial month after death or burial, considered to be a crucial period for the soul, daily services might occasionally be funded, with a view to an intense period of intercession.

Longer-term arrangements were also made for services and charity, to remind priests and community on at least an annual basis of the needs of the deceased's soul. Aside from commissioning anniversaries, which repeated the funeral rites and sometimes the alms-giving, long-term arrangements involved founding institutions such as chantries or almshouses. Testamentary provision for anniversary obits (a term derived from the Latin for "departure" or "passing on") might be thought of as akin to an insurance policy, but to protect the soul rather than the body. Even those whose religiosity during life was lower than the standard expected could not afford to ignore the risks of Purgatory, fear of which intensified as the Late Middle Ages progressed. On the contrary, they could afford to indulge the possibilities for lightening the burden on their souls. Every prayer, every mass said for the dead was considered to lighten the suffering of the soul in Purgatory.

While testators' provisions for lavish funeral ceremonies and periodic commemorations were selfish, they nonetheless provided an important source of relief for the poorer members of the urban community, in the form of gifts of money, food or drink. Others might also benefit similarly: the clergy, friars, and borough officials who were asked to attend were also rewarded with a meal and/or payment – often the payment could be generous; this perhaps became a minor but not insignificant source of supplementary income. Chantries provided long-term employment for some priests, just as some of the wealthier founders had employed priests to serve in their private chapels; in the larger cities there may have been a sizable group of priests employed by townsmen living and dead. Thus, while death deprived towns of citizens who contributed to economic, social and administrative well-being, the other side of the coin was a redistribution of wealth, including an injection of funds into the physical and social fabric.

Altar in Jesus Chapel
The best assurance of remembrance and prayers was to found a chantry, although this could be an expensive proposition; perpetual chantries required a long-term source of funding, usually in the form of assigned revenues from rental properties. Medieval parish churches often had several altars (besides the high altar) dedicated to particular saints; there the chantry services were held. The chapel shown above is, however, Jesus Chapel in Norwich cathedral; the altar is Norman.

 Further reading 

ASTON, Margaret. "Death", pp.202-28 in Fifteenth-century Attitudes: Perceptions of society in late medieval England, ed. Rosemary Horrox. Cambridge: University Press, 1994.

BASSETT, Steven, ed. Death in Towns: Urban Responses to the Dying and the Dead, 100-1600, Leicester: University Press, 1992.

BATESON, Mary. Borough Customs, volume II. Selden Society, vol.21 (1906).

DANIELL, Christopher. Death and Burial in Medieval England, 1066-1550. London: Routledge, 1997.

DAVIS, Christopher and Crystal WILSON. Chaucer and Death in Medieval England. Auburn University, 1999.

DUCLOW, Donald. "Ars Moriendi", in Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

JACOB, E. F., ed. The Register of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1414-1443. Vol.II: Wills proved before the archbishop or his commissaries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938.

MARTIN, G. H., ed. The Ipswich Recognizance Rolls 1294-1327: A Calendar. Suffolk Records Society, 1973.

SHARPE, Reginald, ed. Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, A.D. 1258-A.D. 1688. London: Corporation of London, 1889.

main menu

Created: February 29, 2004 Last update: September 13, 2011 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2011