The extent to which commemorating the dead is tied up with money in the late Middle Ages (and indeed later) has been forcibly brought home to me this week, as I’ve been transcribing some entries from the surviving book of obituaries of the medieval convent I’m currently working on, the Dames Blanches de Huy.
Having taught literary texts like The Awntyrs off Arthur to generations of undergraduate students, I’m certainly experienced in explaining the ways in which repeating (and paying for) masses for departed souls would have been thought to have an effect on their experiences in the afterlife, expediting their time in Purgatory; and in exploring the ways in which the worlds of the living and the dead so frequently intersect in this and in other contexts in the literature of the Middle Ages. However, although I was fully aware of this practice in theory, seeing its real-life application play out still caught me by surprise: I found transcribing the convent’s obituaries, particularly those relating to its local donors, with their minute enumeration of amounts, annuities or objects donated, and their monetary assessment of the relative value of those objects, quite uncomfortable.
Even more uncomfortable, I noticed, were the entries where I had to transcribe notes added by a very much later hand to the original (usually medieval) obituary. These notes seem to have been undertaken by someone in the seventeenth or eighteenth century overhauling the convent’s books, particularly their sources of income. Beneath several of the earlier obituaries, this hand has quite sharply noted that prayers for X or Y individual are no longer necessary, since the source of income has long since stopped, or they could never find any evidence that it was paid in the first place, and that the entry was, therefore, “un abbus” [an abuse].
Perhaps it was because these entries related to ‘real-life’ individuals who had lived and died – individuals who, moreover, I had sometimes come across before in other documents relating to the administration of the house, such as in the convent school’s accounts, and who, presumably, believed sincerely in the power of the sisters’ prayers to determine the destination of their souls – but I was surprised by how much this affected me, and how merciless or financially hard-nosed it seemed. The experience of transcribing these obituaries is bringing home to me again just how much and how profoundly the sensibilities and approaches to death prevalent in the culture in which I have been raised differ from those of western medieval Christendom, and just how very distant and foreign my own beliefs, emotions and responses to death are from those of the women whose lives and experiences I am investigating. I knew this already, of course, in an intellectual sense: but the practice of working through the transcription of these obituaries has made me feel it in a slightly different way.
On the one hand I feel relieved that I don’t associate death, and the fate of a soul after death, so closely with totting up financial gain, and measuring time spent suffering in Purgatory. On the other, however, I’m intrigued, but also comforted, by the idea of a community in which the names, familial relationships and loves of the dead are never lost or forgotten, because they are recorded and repeated formally by generations of sisters, and are thus commemorated long after their passing. A community, in short, in which regular memorial practices are a core group activity, and in which the line between living and dead members is, therefore, neither rigid nor always obvious.