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Renaissance and Reformation Last Wills and Testaments
by
Samuel Kline Cohn

Introduction

The testament has been an essential source for the study of the late Middle Ages and early modern period across a wide variety of disciplines, including legal history, property relations, linguistics, demography, women, marriage, the family, economy and material culture, and religious history, but especially in the study of popular piety, charity, burial choices, funerary practices, and the history of death and mentalities. Early on the testament was studied as a legal document in the evolution of contracts and property settlements, and family law. This tradition has continued and has placed the legal history of the will in larger interdisciplinary contexts using fields such as anthropology and social history, to map, in microscopic detail, marriage customs, rights of inheritance, and the emancipation of children. Particularly where no other records of a quantitative character survive, the testament has been a valuable source for evaluating relative mortalities of various plagues (despite the fact that the poor and children rarely redacted these instruments). Most fundamentally, the post–World War II period has witnessed an explosion of studies using the will to investigate popular piety, charity, death, and mentality—a history of ideas and attitudes that cuts beneath the elites and focuses on those who have left no literary works. The second and third generation of the Annales school of the 1970s, and especially Michel Vovelle (see Testaments as Sources of Popular Piety and Charity: France), fueled this new enthusiasm for the will as the principal source of a new social and cultural history of mentalities. Historians have often used wills for more than one purpose, uncovering demographic trends, burial choices, and changes in piety. Thus, the divisions in this entry are heuristic: titles have been placed in categories depending on their emphasis or their most striking conclusions.

General Overviews and Methodology

Le Roy Ladurie 1979, an overview of works during the 1960s and 1970s, and the methodological essay of Hoffman 1984 have developed an approach to using last wills and testaments quantitatively to probe mentalities beneath the political and cultural elites. Particularly since the 1980s, works such as Bertram 1988 and Marsh 1990 have also been critical of the straightforward counting of preambles, intercessions of saints, and types of pious bequests as easy markers of religious or psychological change.

  • Bertram, Martin. “Mittelalterliche Testamente: Zur Entdeckung einer Quellengattung in Italien.” Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken 68 (1988): 507–545.

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    Surveys various types of sources where medieval and early Renaissance testaments are found. Bertram cautions that wills in ecclesiastical archives are often fragmentary, presenting selections pertinent to a particular institution.

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  • Hoffman, Philip. “Wills and Statistics: Tobit Analysis and the Counter Reformation in Lyon.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 14 (1984): 813–834.

    DOI: 10.2307/203467Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A methodological essay based on six hundred wills in the Lyonnais between 1550 and 1725, resolving questions such as whether women gave more than men to pious causes.

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  • Le Roy Laduire, Emmanuel. “Chaunu, Lebrun, Vovelle: The New History of Death.” In The Territory of the Historian, Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Reynolds and Siân Reynolds, 273–284. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    Concentrates on the quantitative use of wills to explore the history of mentalities and religion, especially the transition from the Counter-Reformation to the Enlightenment.

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  • Marsh, Christopher. “In the Name of God? Will-making and Faith in Early Modern England.” In The Records of the Nation: The Public Record Office, 1838–1988; The British Record Society, 1888–1988. Edited by G. H. Martin and Peter Spufford, 215–249. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1990.

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    Examines the difficulties and pitfalls of interpreting testaments as evidence of individual faith in general and for the English Reformation in particular.

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Collections of Papers

Collective papers tend to be subject-based rather than focused explicitly on a type of document. Nonetheless, Nolens Intestatus decedere and Prosperi 1982 utilize testaments to analyze and track attitudes to death and the afterlife, while Goody, et al. 1976 employs testaments to understand family and inheritance.

  • Goody, Jack, Joan Thirsk, and E. P. Thompson. Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

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    Many of these essays utilize wills to analyze the social structure, family life, and customs of inheritance in rural society across western Europe.

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  • Nolens Intestatus decedere: il testamento come fonte della storia religiosa e sociale; atti dell’incontro di studio, Perugia, 3 maggio 1983. Perugia, Italy: Umbria Cooperativa, 1985.

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    Concerned with wills, principally from Umbria, studied in legal, documentary, formulaic, social, and religious contexts.

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  • Prosperi, Adriano, ed. “Special Issue: I vivi e i morti.” Quaderni Storici 17 (1982): 391–628.

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    Contains papers on the history of death, purgatory, burial, and funerary ritual from the 7th to the 19th century. In particular, the essays on the late Middle Ages and early modern period rely on testaments as a principal source.

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Sources

In addition to edited volumes containing last wills and testaments alone, other edited volumes of registers and private acts often contain many wills. This is especially the case for late medieval Italian wills, which often are presented in edited registers of individual notaries. Many editions of notarial protocols have been published since World War II, particularly for Rome, Siena, and Florence.

England

Editions of archival collections of wills are common in England. Most were begun in the 19th century, and collections such as Sharpe 1889–1890 and especially Raine 1836 were not always clear about their editorial practices—what was selected within testaments and among them. Others such as Foster 1914–1930 appear to provide entire wills, and Fitch 1969–1998 provides entire lists of surviving wills, but the latter is simply an archival inventory.

  • Fitch, Marc, ed. Index to Testamentary Records in the Commissary Court of London. London: British Record Society, 1969–1998.

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    These volumes are an index of the testaments of the Commissary Court of London, presently preserved in the Guildhall Library, London, from its earliest wills in 1374 to 1700. They are organized alphabetically by testator and thus are more beneficial to the genealogist than to the social or demographic historian. See volumes 82, 86, 97, 102, and 108.

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  • Foster, C. W., ed. Lincoln Wills Registered in the District Probate Registry at Lincoln. 3 vols. Lincoln, UK: J. W. Ruddock, 1914–1930.

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    Relevant volumes to the late Middle Ages and early modern period are 5, 10, and 24. Apparently contains full transcriptions of all surviving abstracts of wills relating to the diocese and county of Lincoln from 1271 to 1532. The vast majority, however, pertain to the first thirty-two years of the 16th century. Three wills survive from the 13th, four from the 14th, and one from the 15th century; these take up the first nineteen pages of the first volume.

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  • Raine, James, ed. Testamenta Eboracensia or Wills Registered at York Illustrative of the History, Manners, Language, Statistics, &c., of the Province of York, from the Year MCCC Downwards. Vol. 1. London: Nichols, 1836.

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    The wills registered at York form one of the largest collections of late medieval and early modern wills in Britain. Unfortunately, this early attempt at sampling and abridging testaments has little scholarly value. The selection of wills and sections to transcribe from particular wills appears at the whim of the editor without any indications as to his rules for selection and abridgement.

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  • Sharpe, Reginald R., ed. Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, A.D. 1258–A.D. 1688: Preserved among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London, at the Guildhall. 2 vols. London: J. C. Francis, 1889–1890.

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    Probably the most quarried of late medieval England testament collections. About four thousand wills were proved in the court of Husting between 1258 and 1658; the great majority of these were proved before 1500, and most were the wills of Londoners and the well-to-do. The court of Husting did not necessarily copy entire wills when they were enrolled, and few (if any) of the original testaments survive. In addition, Sharpe made further abridgements with little hint of his editorial practices.

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France

In France, the editing of collections of wills—as made available in Boyer 1964 for the region of Forez, Testaments et inventaires for late medieval France in general, Robert 1902–1907 for Besançon, and Tuetey 1880 for late medieval Paris—has come later and has shown clearer and more sophisticated editorial practices than those from England.

  • Boyer, Laurent, ed. Introduction à l’étude du testament forézien suivie des testaments enregistrés à la cour de Forez (1310–1313). Mâcon, France: Protat Frères, 1964.

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    Transcriptions in full of testaments and related documents such as donations à cause de mort (180 documents). In comparison to those from Besançon, which pertain mainly to the nobility and bourgeoisie, these contain many more peasant wills.

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  • Robert, Ulysse, ed. Testaments de l’officialité de Besançon: 1265–1500. 2 vols. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1902–1907.

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    The officialité contains all notarized testaments gathered from the entire diocese of Besançon, which the archbishop claimed as his monopoly. The introduction includes the 18th-century inventory of the abbé Guillaume with some additions, listing by date just under eight thousand wills. The text contains the surviving three hundred wills between 1265 and 1498, which have been transcribed in their entirety.

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  • Testaments et inventaires (XIVe–XVe siècle). Archives testamentaires du Moyen Age 2. Saint-Denis, France: Pieca Editions, 2002.

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    A survey of collections of testaments and inventories in France during the 14th and 15th centuries.

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  • Tuetey, Alexandre, ed. Testaments enregistrés au Parlement de Paris sous le règne de Charles VI. Collection des documents inédits. Paris: Imprimere nationale, 1880.

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    Transcriptions in full of testaments registered at the Parlement of Paris from 1380 to 1422. A new and expanded edition (1400–1421) is available in Archives testamentaires du Moyen Age, vol. 1 (Saint-Denis, France: Pieca Editions, 2002).

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Italy

Italy has produced far fewer guides to wills (an exception being Bertram 1991 for Bologna) and collections of them (an exception being Bagliani 1980 for 12th-century cardinals’ wills) than seen in England or France. Perhaps this difference has resulted from the far larger numbers of wills that survive in Italian local, ecclesiastical, and state archives.

  • Bagliani, Agostino Paravicini. I Testamenti dei cardinali del duecento. Miscellanea della società romana di storia patria 25. Rome: Presso la Societa alla Biblioteca Vallicelliana, 1980.

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    Transcriptions and commentary on forty-five testaments or codicils of Roman cardinals.

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  • Bertram, Martin. “Bologneser Testamente. Zweiter Teil: Sondierungen in den Libri memoriali.” Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken 71 (1991): 195–240.

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    Surveys the sources for wills in Bologna, the city and its contado, and especially the remarkable Libri memoriali, which were summaries of all notarized wills in Bologna during the late Middle Ages.

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Flanders and the Low Countries

For Douai, collections of wills such as Mestayer 1962 have been edited to study the evolution of the local dialect of Douai. Other collections, such as De la Grange 1897, are the principal remains of what were once massive archives of testaments, destroyed by a German bomb in 1940.

  • De la Grange, Amaury. “Choix de testaments tournaisiens antérieurs au XVIe siècle.” Annales de la Société historique de Tournai n.s. 2 (1897): 1–365.

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    Because of a German firebomb in 1940 that destroyed the Tournai archives (which then held the largest collection of chirographs in Europe, with thousands of wills), this published collection selected its content based on testamentary artistic commissions, including minor commissions for humble burial tombs. Remains the most valuable source of Tournois testaments.

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  • Mestayer, M. “Testaments douaisiens antérieurs à 1270.” Nos Patois du Nord 7 (1962): 63–86.

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    Includes fourteen transcriptions of the earliest chirograph wills (1248 to 1269) out of the 1,400 conserved in the municipal archives of Douai. Other early Douaisian wills are found in the appendices of Georges Espinas, La vie urbaine de Douai au moyen age, t. 3: Pièces justificatives xie-xiii s (nos 1–860) (Paris: Auguste Picard, 1913).

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German-Speaking Regions

A number of collections of testaments from city archives have been edited over the past several decades (Loose 1970 for Hamburg; Reinhardt 1996 for Lüneburg; Brandt 1973, a list of wills for various towns; Brandt 1964–1973for Lübeck; and Mack 1988–1995 for Braunschweig). In contrast to the collections of English wills edited during the 19th century, the editors of these wills in German-speaking regions make clear their editorial principles and criteria of selection.

  • Brandt, Ahasver von, ed. Regesten der Lübecker Bürgertestamente des Mittelalters. 2 vols. Veröffentlichungen zur Geschichte der hansestadt Lübeck. Lübeck, Germany: Verlag Max Schmidt-Römhild, 1964–1973.

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    Band 1: 1278–1350; Band 2: 1351–1363. Relevant volumes are 18 and 24. Abbreviated details of 1,021 testaments from 1278 to 1363; the number of testaments increased dramatically during and after the years of the Black Death.

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  • Brandt, Ahasver von, ed. Mittelalterliche Bürgertestamente: Neuerschlossene Quellen zur Geschichte der materiellen und geistigen Kultur. Heidelberg, Germany: C. Winter, 1973.

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    Lists published collections of wills for late medieval German cities.

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  • Loose, Hans-Dieter, ed. Hamburger Testamente 1351 bis 1400. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg. Hamburg, Germany: H. Christian, 1970.

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    Abridged transcriptions of German and Latin wills in Hamburg, 1351–1400.

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  • Mack, Dietrich, ed. Testamente der Stadt Braunschweig. Beiträge zu Genealogien Braunschweiger Familien. 5 vols. Göttingen, Germany: Goltze, 1988–1995.

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    Abridged transcriptions of wills from the region of Braunschweig divided by chronology and region from 1312 to 1432.

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  • Reinhardt, Uta, ed. Lüneburger Testamente des Mittelalters 1323 bis 1500. Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Niedersachsens im Mittelalter 37. Hannover, Germany: Hahn, 1996.

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    Abridged transcriptions of 293 wills in Low German and Latin from Lüneburg, showing peaks in two plague years, 1375 and 1382.

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Total Histories of Wills

Most works concentrating on wills use them for more than a single purpose, whether to trace demographic trends, changes in piety, property relations, the legal obstacles to the will’s execution, burial choices, or other aspects of testamentary practice. Few studies, however, have focused equally on the pious and nonpious aspects of wills. The works below examine wills quantitatively to investigate changes in attitudes toward family relations, property, and piety: Cohn 1988 for Siena over five centuries, Croix 1981 for Brittany during the 16th and 17th centuries, Gonon 1960 for the 14th century, Klosterberg 1995 for Cologne in the late Middle Ages, Lorcin 1981 for the region of Lyon in the 14th and 15th centuries, and Mauri 1994 for the period immediately after the Black Death.

  • Cohn, Samuel. Death and Property in Siena, 1205–1800. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

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    Analyzes last wills and testaments over six centuries, finding four transformations in notions of property, charity, piety, and attitudes toward the afterlife.

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  • Croix, Alain. La Bretagne aux 16e et 17e siècles: La vie, la mort, la foi. Paris: Maloine, 1981.

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    Primarily through a quantitative analysis of wills, Croix examines rites of passage, marriage, burial, attitudes toward death, and piety across a wide spectrum of Brittany’s population.

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  • Gonon, Marguerite. Les institutions et la société en Forez au XIVe siècle d’après les testaments. Mâcon, France: Foundation Georges Guichard, 1960.

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    Analyzes 3,228 testaments registered at the Chancery of Forez during the 14th century, including their formula, choice of heirs, proportion of women testators, and pious legacies, concluding that peasants, in the face of impoverishment from war and plague, pooled their resources.

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  • Klosterberg, Brigitte. Zur Ehre Gottes und zum Wohl der Familie: Kölner Testamente von Laien und Klerikern im Spätmittelalter. Cologne, Germany: Janus, 1995.

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    Compares the property relations and religious sentiments of the laity and clergy in late medieval Cologne.

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  • Lorcin, Marie-Thérèse. Vivre et mourir en Lyonnais à la fin du Moyen Age. Paris: CNRS, 1981.

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    A study of wills in the region of Lyon before and after the Black Death, charting changes in demography, family solidarity, property relations, women’s rights, piety, and religious sentiment.

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  • Mauri, Luisa Chiappa. “Testamenti lombardi in tempo di peste: alcuni reflessioni.” In La Peste Nera: Dati di una realtà ed elementi di una interpretazione. Atti del XXX Convegno storico internazionale, Todi, 10–13 ottobre 1993. pp. 215–252. Spoleto, Italy: Centro italiano di studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 1994.

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    Against the claims of Chiffoleau for Avignon (see Testaments as Sources of Popular Piety and Charity: France) Mauri sees no change in testamentary preambles or funerary rites but does see a change in property descent and charity occasioned by the sudden dearth of biological heirs after the Black Death.

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The Will as Evidence of Demographic Crises

The testament is probably the most problematic of serial records for evaluating population trends. However, before the presence of burial records or bills of mortality, these are often the only sources for plotting crisis moments or determining the seasonality of plagues and other epidemic diseases. By the late 14th century, the will becomes more problematic for tracing crises such as plagues, because the disease became one principally of the poor and of the young—two groups that seldom redacted wills. Also, the will is more problematic as a source for detecting famine; again, the poor, especially those without property, were unlikely to redact wills even in good times. In addition, see the entry titled “The Black Death and Plague: The Disease and Medical Thought.”

England

In England, the will has been used for a variety of demographic questions such as the effects of various plagues on population, as discussed in Gottfried 1978, and the replacement rates of the merchant class in London after the Black Death, covered in Thrupp 1948.

  • Gottfried, Robert S. Epidemic Disease in Fifteenth-Century England: The Medical Response and the Demographic Consequences. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1978.

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    Employs quantitative methods to examine last wills and testaments gathered from eastern England, 1430 to 1480, to chart the chronology and seasonality of plague.

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  • Thrupp, Sylvia. The Merchant Class of Medieval London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

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    Uses last wills to calculate the replacement rates of the merchant class in London after the Black Death, showing that the growth of this class depended on social and geographic mobility.

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Italy

In Italy, the large numbers of surviving testaments allow historians to chart trends in mortality where no other quantitative sources such as burial records survive, and to compare the conclusions drawn from testaments with other sources, such as burial records, religious necrologies, and books of the dead—as in Cohn 2002.

  • Cohn, Samuel K., Jr. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. London: Arnold, 2002.

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    Along with burial records and Dominican necrologies, Cohn analyzes the trends, cycles, and seasonality of plague for various cities in Italy, France, Flanders, England, and German-speaking regions from 1348 to 1500. Wills from Italy are most prominent, however.

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France

Alongside other sources, Dubois 1988 utilizes wills to plot mortality crises across the late Middle Ages, Fournial 1967 traces demographic trends, Michaud 1998 follows in detail the trajectory of the Black Death, and Zerner 1979 analyzes the demography of small towns.

  • Dubois, Henri. “La dépression: XIVe et XVe siècles.” In Histoire de la population française. Vol. 1, Des origines à la Renaissance. Edited by Jacques Dupâquier, 313–366. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988.

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    Among other sources, examines lists of last wills and testaments to plot crisis points in the demography of France during the 14th and 15th centuries.

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  • Fournial, Étienne. Les villes et l’économie d’échange en Forez aux XIIIe et XIVe siécle. Paris: Les Presses du Palais Royal, 1967.

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    Uses testaments to analyze demographic trends as well as matters of material culture, such as the diet and clothing of various propertied classes.

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  • Michaud, Francine. “La peste, la peur et l’espoir: Le pèlerinage jubilaire de romeux marseillais en 1350.” Le Moyen Age 3–4 (1998): 399–434.

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    Uses wills to show the arrival and trajectory of the Black Death in 1348.

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  • Zerner, Monique. “Une crise de mortalité au XVe siècle a travers les testaments et les roles d’imposition.” Annales: E.S.C. 34 (1979): 566–589.

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    From wills, Zerner analyzes demographically the small Comtadine town of Valréas, 1423–1451, particularly the effects of the plague of 1419–1420 on population decline up to the mid-15th century.

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Scandinavia

Researchers in Scandinavian countries have even used wills where few survive to speculate on demographic trends during and after the Black Death (e.g., Benedictow 1992).

  • Benedictow, Ole Jørgen. Plague in the Late Medieval Nordic Countries: Epidemiological Studies. Oslo, Norway: Middlealderforlaget, 1992.

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    Often using fewer than a dozen wills, Benedictow maintains that plague crises struck at various times and places in Scandinavia during the 14th century.

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Spain

Works such as Betrán 1996 and Günzberg Moll 1989 use wills to plot demographic crises in Spain before and after the Black Death.

  • Betrán, José Luis. La peste en la Barcelona de los Austrias. Lleida, Spain: Milenio, 1996.

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    Uses testaments to plot plague crises and the seasonality of plagues to the early modern period.

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  • Günzberg Moll, Jordi. “Las crisis de mortalidad en la Barcelona de siglo XIV.” Boletin de la asociacíon de demografía historica 7 (1989): 9–35.

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    From eight hundred unpublished testaments in the archives of Barcelona, Günzberg Moll analyzes the severity of demographic crises over the 14th century and charts the monthly distribution of mortality of nine crisis years from 1323 to the plague of 1384.

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Swiss Cantons

For the Swiss cantons, Pasche 1998 uses testaments to compare late 14th century plagues and their seasonality.

  • Pasche, Véronique. “Les épidémies de peste en suisse romande: vers de nouveaux compartements?” In The Regulation of Evil: Social and Cultural Attitudes to Epidemics in the Late Middle Ages. Edited by Agostino Paravicini Bagliani and Francesco Santi, 125–136. Florence, Italy: Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998.

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    Analyzes testaments from the French-speaking Pays de Vaud and Valais to plot the seasonality of plague and to compare the plagues of 1348 and 1360. Also considers changes in burial choices during and after the Black Death.

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Legal History of Wills, Inheritance, Property, and Women’s Rights

Studies that approach the testament from a legal perspective have concentrated on inheritance and rights of succession; these have necessarily dealt with questions of marriage, dowry, and the rights of women.

England

Works from legal historians, such as Sheehan 1988, have examined family relations through the will.

  • Sheehan, Michael M. “English Wills and the Records of the Ecclesiastical and Civic Jurisdictions.” Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988): 3–12.

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    Considers wills in England within the legal contexts of the family. Cautions that family records other than the will must be considered to evaluate a testator’s possessions. Outlines the legal obstacles for fulfilling testamentary intentions.

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France

Auffroy 1899 is one of the earliest works to examine the legal importance of the revival of the will for contractual relations in the late Middle Ages.

  • Auffroy, Henri. Évolution du testament en France des origins au XIIIe siècle. Paris: Rousseau, 1899.

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    Considers the revival of the Roman testament in the 12th and 13th centuries—its development from contractual donation to the testament, with its possibilities of renunciation and codicils.

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Italy

Italian studies use the testament to address a wide range of issues in legal and family history, from broad surveys of law and custom, as with Besta 1935. Hughes 1976 uses testaments to address specific issues such as the importance of family groups and structures, while Kuehn 1994 does the same for concepts of property and inheritance, Kuehn 2008 for repudiation of inheritance, Rosenthal 1988 for property rights of women, and Trexler 1972 and Trexler 1971 for the ways in which church law and custom impinged on secular property rights.

  • Besta, Enrico. Le successioni nella storia del diritto italiano. Padua, Italy: CEDAM, 1935.

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    An outline of the history of Italian laws and customs governing inheritance, pious legacies, legitimacy, and the execution of testaments.

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  • Hughes, Diane Owen. “Struttura familiare e sistemi di successione ereditaria nei testamenti dell’Europa medioevale.” Quaderni Storici 33 (1976): 929–952.

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    The spread of testaments in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries did not spell the sudden independence of the individual; rather, this reinforced family groups on a new basis—that of vertical bloodlines.

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  • Kuehn, Thomas. Law, Family, and Women: Towards a Legal Anthropology of Renaissance Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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    Along with other sources, uses wills for case studies to discuss early Renaissance concepts of property, inheritance, and dispute settlement.

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  • Kuehn, Thomas. Heirs, Kin, and Creditors in Renaissance Florence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Studies wills and legal consilia to understand the repudiation of inheritance during the Renaissance; cuts against a Burckhardtian conclusion that these practices arose from new sentiments of individualism.

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  • Rosenthal, Elaine G. “The Position of Women in Renaissance Florence: Neither Autonomy nor Subjection.” In Florence and Italy: Renaissance Studies in Honour of Nicolai Rubinstein. Edited by Peter Denley and Caroline Elam, 369–381. London: Committee for Medieval Studies, Westfield College, University of London, 1988.

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    Using wills, Rosenthal evaluates the property rights of married women and widows, as well as legal obstacles—such as the Lombard legal restriction (mundualdus)—placed on women representing themselves in court or in legal documents.

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  • Trexler, Richard. “Death and Testament in the Episcopal Constitutions of Florence (1327).” In Renaissance: Studies in Honor of Hans Baron. Edited by Anthony Molho and John A. Tedeschi, 29–74. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.

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    Shows how papal decrees, consilia, glosses, and especially the Episcopal constitutions of Florence impinged on the writing and execution of wills and thereby influenced the social history of the Florentine merchant class.

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  • Trexler, Richard. “The Bishop’s Portion: Generic Pious Legacies in the Late Middle Ages in Italy.” Traditio 28 (1972): 397–450.

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    Shows the ways in which canon law impinged on testamentary choices and siphoned funds to the episcopate.

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Flanders

Perhaps researchers on Flemish history of the late Middle Ages have gone the furthest in using wills for understanding local customs of the dowry and women’s rights over property. These works include Howell 1998, mainly for Douai; Jacob 1990, for regions across northern France, Flanders, and into German-speaking regions west of Flanders; and Kittell 1998, which compares wills in Douai and Genoa.

  • Howell, Martha C. The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place, and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300–1550. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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    From the study of marriage contracts and settlements found in last wills and testaments, largely from Douai, Howell charts a change at the end of the 14th century in customary and legal practices regarding dowry and women’s property rights.

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  • Jacob, Robert. Les époux, le seigneur et la cité: Coutume et pratiques matrimoniales des bourgeois et paysans de France du Nord au moyen âge. Brussels: Facultés Universaries St. Louis, 1990.

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    Largely through testaments in northern France as far west as Normandy, Flanders, Hainault, Liègeois, and other regions of the southern Low Countries, Jacob analyzes and compares inheritance practices, marriage customs, and protection of children before and after the Black Death.

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  • Kittell, Ellen E. “Testaments of Two Cities: A Comparative Analysis of the Wills of Medieval Genoa and Douai.” European Review of History 5.1 (1998): 47–82.

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    Compares two commercial centers during the late 14th century, with particular attention to the history of the dowry and women’s property rights.

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Testaments as Sources of Popular Piety and Charity

Since the 1970s, scholars have concentrated on wills as sources for the history of mentality, including popular piety, religious sentiments, the implementation of ritual, liturgy, and notions of the afterlife (although such considerations antedated the classic Vovelle 1973). Certainly, many more titles than those listed in this section can be cited.

England

For the analysis of changes in religious sentiment English studies of wills have focused on the changes that brought on or followed the Reformation. Jordan 1959 concentrates on charity, Houlbrooke 1988 on death rituals, Houlbrooke 1989 on secular sentiments, Duffy 1992 on the persistence of the mentalities of the pre-Reformation, and Litzenberger 1993 on varieties of piety. English studies tend to be more skeptical about interpreting changes in piety from testamentary evidence (see Burgess 1990 on the importance of pious gifts before the deathbed and Duffy 1992 on the overstatement of the importance of the Reformation). Fewer studies have charted changes in charity and sentiment through the will before and after the Black Death; Rosenthal 1972 is an exception.

  • Burgess, Clive. “Late Medieval Wills and Pious Convention: Testamentary Evidence Reconsidered.” In Profit, Piety, and the Professions in Later Medieval England. Edited by Michael Hicks, 14–33. Gloucester, UK: Sutton, 1990.

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    Questions the reliability of last wills as providing insight into patterns of late medieval charity and piety. Maintains that they acted as “blinkers, emphasizing some aspects of testators’ priorities and excluding others,” and shedding little light on individuals’ preoccupations during life.

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  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

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    Provides critical assessments of works such as those by W. K. Jordan and A.G. Dickens, which use wills to argue for the rapid progress of Protestantism in mid-Tudor-period England. Provides an excellent bibliography on the debate and on works employing wills in studies of 16th- and 17th-century England.

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  • Houlbrooke, Ralph A. Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480–1750. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

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    Utilizes wills and anthropological concepts to chart changes in early modern English death rituals and the impact of the Reformation, covering preparations for death, grief, mourning, funerals, and the commemoration of the dead.

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  • Houlbrooke, Ralph A. “Death, Church, and Family in England between the Late Fifteenth and the Early Eighteenth Centuries.” In Death, Ritual, and Bereavement. Edited by Ralph A. Houlbrooke, 25–42. London: Routledge, 1989.

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    Based on six hundred wills from the archdeaconries of Berkshire and Norwich, Houlbrooke argues that the will gradually became more secularized after the Reformation. He sees a change in expressions of personal affections in the 17th century and attributes the change to the space opened in the will from the “atrophy” of the “spiritual” part of the will.

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  • Jordan, W. K. Philanthropy in England, 1480–1660: A Study of the Changing Pattern of English Social Aspirations. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959.

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    A classic work on English wills and the Reformation. Charts shifts in mentalities from monastic beneficiaries to endowments for education but has been criticized on a number of fronts, especially for its inattention to problems of 16th-century inflation.

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  • Litzenberger, Caroline. “Local Responses to Changes in Religious Policy Based on Evidence from Gloucestershire Wills (1540–1580).” Continuity and Change 8 (1993): 417–439.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0268416000002174Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    From more than three thousand wills proved in Gloucestershire, Litzenberger examines lay piety and the impact of the Reformation. Based on preambles and the range of pious bequests, she divides the testaments into three categories: traditional, neutral, and Protestant. She emphasizes the importance of scribal influence and the hold of the old religion in Gloucestershire until the 1570s.

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  • Rosenthal, Joel T. The Purchase of Paradise: Gift Giving and the Aristocracy, 1307–1485. London: Routledge, 1972.

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    Examines the religious practices and charity of the English aristocracy through wills, seeing a shift in medieval charity from assisting the spiritual welfare of the donor to the material welfare of the recipient.

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Italy

Numerous works on Italian history have utilized wills to study a wide variety of questions dealing with piety and charity. Banker 1988 covers confraternal life and poor relief. Bonanno, et al. 1985 looks at the notary’s influence. Brentano 1976 studies Franciscan piety. Cohn 1992 studies notions of the afterlife. Strocchia 1992 includes burial and funerary customs. Gavitt 1990 covers charity and orphanages. Pastore 1982 examines charity in plague compared to nonplague years.

  • Banker, James R. Death in the Community: Memorialization and Confraternities in an Italian Commune in the Late Middle Ages. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

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    Examines testaments and pious bequests to chart changes in confraternal life, poor relief, and commemoration in Borgo San Sepolcro from the 13th to the end of the 15th century.

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  • Bonanno, Claudio, Metello Bonanno, and Luciana Pellegrini, “I legati ‘pro animo’ ed il problema della salvezza nei testamenti fiorentini della seconda metà del Trecento.” Ricerche storiche 15 (1985): 183–220.

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    Considers the legal formula and the notary’s influence in the drafting of religious bequests and their meaning.

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  • Brentano, Robert. “Death in Gualdo Tadino and in Rome.” Studia gratiana 19 (1976): 79–100.

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    Examines the rise of a new Franciscan piety in the 13th and 14th centuries, with examples from individual wills.

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  • Cohn, Samuel. The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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    Based largely on last wills and testaments, Cohn compares six cities and their confrontation with the plague, including changes in piety, notions of the afterlife, family memory, and the importance of male bloodlines.

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  • Gavitt, Philip. Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1410–1536. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

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    Examines the charitable bequests made to Florence’s principal orphanage and gives a rare glimpse into the property disputes and entanglements between family heirs and charitable institutions. See especially chapter 3, “Wills and Testaments.”

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  • Pastore, Alessandro. “Testamenti in tempo di peste: la pratica notarile a Bologna nel 1630.” Società e Storia 5 (1982): 263–297.

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    Compares the making of wills during plagues with normal times and looks at differences in legacies resulting from the paucity of surviving heirs.

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  • Strocchia, Sharon. Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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    Considers burial and funerary customs, primarily of elites, from a variety of sources, including last wills and testaments.

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France

French historians may be regarded as the pioneers of quantitative research to investigate changes in mentality and religious sentiment through last wills and testaments (especially Vovelle 1973). This rich literature has clustered around two issues: the significance of the Black Death (see Chiffoleau 1980 on the region around Avignon, Lorcin 1972 on the Lyonnais, Reyerson 1978 on Montpellier, and Srouff 1998 on Provence) and the coming of the Enlightenment (see Chaunu 1978 on Paris, Hoffman 1984 on Lyon, Lebrun 1975 on the region of Anjou, Norberg 1985 on Grenoble, and Vovelle 1973 on Provence).

  • Chaunu, Pierre. La mort à Paris: XVIe, XVIIe, et XVIIIe siècles. Paris: Fayard, 1978.

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    A serial examination of Parisian wills, finding an earlier “de-Christianization” and transition to Enlightenment ideology than Vovelle found from wills in Provence.

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  • Chiffoleau, Jacques. La comptabilité de l’au-delà: Les hommes, la mort et la religion dans la région d’Avignon à la fin du Moyen Age (vers 1320–vers 1480). Rome: École française de Rome, 1980.

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    From last wills and testaments in the region of Avignon and literary and religious works across Europe, Chiffoleau argues that the Black Death did not mark an abrupt change in mentalities but accelerated ongoing processes of urbanization and commercialization.

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  • Hoffman, Philip T. Church and Community in the Diocese of Lyon, 1500–1789. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

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    Analyzes the transition in piety and religious belief in the Diocese of Lyon, showing the Counter-Reformation as a long and slow movement, and one not imposed exclusively downward from the church hierarchy.

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  • Lebrun, François. Les hommes et la mort en Anjou aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles: Essai de démographie et de psychologie historiques. Paris: Flammarion, 1975.

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    Charts changes in the character of the testament, pious bequests, and notions of the afterlife from the 16th to the end of the 18th century against the background of plague and other crises of mortality in the region of Anjou.

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  • Lorcin, Marie-Thérèse. “Les clauses religieuses dans les testaments du plat pays lyonnais au XIVe et XVe siècles.” Le Moyen Age 78 (1972): 287–323.

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    Analyzes pious clauses from 4,316 testaments registered by the “Officialité de Lyon” between 1301 and 1545, including burial and charitable choices.

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  • Norberg, Kathryn. Rich and Poor in Grenoble, 1600–1814. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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    Uses last wills and testaments to chart the spread of Counter-Reformation piety and charity across various groups and social classes in the Grenoble region.

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  • Reyerson, K. L., “Changes in Testamentary Practice at Montpellier on the Eve of the Black Death.” Church History 47 (1978): 253–269.

    DOI: 10.2307/3164503Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that testamentary practices and the popularity of Franciscans began with economic difficulties before the Black Death but were accentuated by the plague. However, the work does not examine wills beyond 1348.

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  • Srouff, Louis, “Les Provençaux et la mort dans les testaments (XIIIe–XVe siècle).” In La mort et l’au-delà en France méridionale (XIIe–XVe siècle), 199–222. Cahiers de Fanjeaux 33. Toulouse, France: Privat, 1998.

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    Describes the character of testaments in various cities of southern France, including burial choices, pious legacies, masses, and funerary rituals and expenditures, from the 13th to the 15th century.

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  • Vovelle, Michel. Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle: Les attitudes devant la mort d’après les clauses des testaments. Paris: Plon, 1973.

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    A classic work in the historiography of mentalities and the use of wills for serial history, charting the spread of Counter-Reformation religious sentiment and its decline—or the “de-Christianization” of the Enlightenment.

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Flanders

Historians such as Jean Pierre Deregnaucourt have employed testaments to study the impact of plague on religious sentiments in Flanders (Deregnaucourt 1993).

  • Deregnaucourt, Jean Pierre. Autour de la mort à Douai: Attitudes, pratiques et croyances, 1250/1500. 2 vols. PhD thesis, Université Charles de Gaulle, 1993.

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    Based largely on the rich collection of testaments at Douai, Deregnaucourt’s thesis analyzes the impact of plague and traces changes in burial and funerary practices, beliefs, charity, and attitudes toward death during the late Middle Ages.

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German-Speaking Regions

Historians of German-speaking regions, such as R. Po-chia Hsia, have used testaments to study the impact of the Reformation and to compare religious sentiments between Reformation and Counter-Reformation regions (Hsia 1983).

  • Hsia, R. Po-chia. “Civic Wills as Sources for the Study of Piety in Münster, 1530–1618.” Sixteenth Century Journal 14 (1983): 321–348.

    DOI: 10.2307/2540192Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Through an analysis of commendation formulas, pious legacies, contributions for poor relief, and masses from 1,235 wills, Hsia charts change in religious sentiment between Protestant and Counter-Reformation ideals.

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Spain

Historians of Spain have used testaments to analyze charitable customs of Jews (Burns 1996), notions of purgatory (Eire 1995), religious and burial customs (Günzberg Moll 2002), and poor relief (Flynn 1989).

  • Burns, Robert, S. J. Jews in the Notarial Culture: Latinate Wills in Mediterranean Spain, 1250–1350. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

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    An analysis of fifty Latinate wills of Jews in Spain, examining problems of enforcement of Jewish wills in Christian courts, women’s rights of inheritance, and charity.

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  • Eire, Carlos. From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    Samples a large number of wills from Madrid to investigate charity, social relations, ritual, and death, emphasizing the hold of purgatory on property holders during the Counter-Reformation in Spain.

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  • Flynn, Maureen. Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400–1700. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

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    Among other sources, Flynn examines wills to chart changes in poor relief and spiritual solidarities in Spain from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period.

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  • Günzberg Moll, Jordi. Vida quotidiana a la ciutat de Barcelona Durant la pesta negra (1348). Episodis de la història 329. Barcelona, Spain: Rafael Dalmau, 2002.

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    Examines the surviving last wills and testaments of Barcelona to investigate changes in testamentary, religious, and burial customs immediately after the Black Death.

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Burials

In employing testaments to study piety and mentality, historians have often turned to burial choices and funerary practices. But certain works, such as Deregnaucourt 1983 on Douai, Harding 1992 on London, and Harding 2002 comparing London and Paris, have been focused more intently on questions of burial.

  • Deregnaucourt, Jean-Pierre. “L’élection de sépulture d’après les testaments douaisiens (1295–1500).” Revue du Nord 65.257 (1983): 343–352.

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    Examines the choice of burial places by social class and gender, from the rich collection of chirograph testaments at Douai, showing the decline in lineage graves in the 15th century.

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  • Harding, Vanessa. “Burial Choice and Burial Location in Later Medieval London.” In Death in Towns: Urban Responses to the Dying and the Dead, 100–1600. Edited by Steven Bassett, 119–135. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1992.

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    Focuses on the testaments from Commissary Court of London from the late 14th to the mid-16th century to examine burial choices in churches or churchyards, next to blood kin or spouses.

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  • Harding, Vanessa. The Dead and the Living in Paris and London, 1500–1670. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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    Uses testamentary evidence but depends more on the early modern presence of voluminous parish records to compare burial places, rituals, liturgy, conflicts, and attitudes toward death in London and Paris in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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Studies of Individual Wills

Some studies have been devoted to the testaments of well-known individuals in history such as Francesco Petrarca (Mommsen 1957) or the last kings of Navarre (Anthony and Courteault 1940), but other studies (Lombardo 1969 on a Sicilian testament, Taylor 1993 on testaments from Catalonia, Rigoli 1822 on the testament of a Florentine merchant) have focused on unknown individuals, selected for reasons such as the study of regional dialects.

  • Anthony, R., and H. Courteault, eds. Les testaments des derniers rois de Navarre. Toulouse, France: E. Privat, 1940.

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    Provides transcriptions, with commentary and notes, of the wills of François Phébus (1483), Madeleine de France (1493), Catherine de Foix (1504), Jean D’Albret (1516), and Anne D’Albret (1532).

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  • Lombardo, Antonino. “Un testamento e altri documenti in volgare siciliano del secolo XIV a Venezia.” Bollettino del Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani 10 (1969): 46–83.

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    Examines a single testament for linguistic ends, uncovering aspects of 14th-century Sicily.

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  • Mommsen, Theodore, ed. Petrarch’s Testament. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1957.

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    Transcription, translation, and commentary on Petrarch’s last will.

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  • Rigoli, Luigi, ed. Testamento di Lemmo Balduccio. Florence, Italy: Nella Stamperia Magheri, 1822.

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    A transcription of and commentary on the will of a Florentine merchant at the end of the 14th century who founded the Florentine hospital of San Matteo.

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  • Taylor, Nathaniel L. “Medieval Catalonian Wills: Family Charter Evidence in the Archives.” Primary Sources and Original Works 2 (1993): 103–134.

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    Text and translation of an otherwise unknown woman named Sinner.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399301-0015

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