In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Last Wills and Testaments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Methodology
  • Collections of Papers
  • Total Histories of Wills
  • Burials
  • Studies of Individual Wills

Renaissance and Reformation Last Wills and Testaments
Samuel Kline Cohn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0015


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.

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/203467

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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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