Testimonies of the Living Dead: The Martyrology-Necrology and the Necrology in the Chapter-Book of Mont-Saint-Michel

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 Testimonies of the Living Dead: The Martyrology-Necrology and the Necrology in the Chapter-Book of Mont-Saint-Michel

By Katharine Keats-Rohan

The Durham Liber Vitae and its Context, ed. D. Rollason, A. J. Pipe, Margaret Harvey, Lynda Rollason (Woodbridge, 2004)

Introduction: ‘Dead men tell no tales’, says the proverb, not entirely accurately. Dead men – and women – have plenty to say, although they need specialist help to say it. Even then, as pathologists and other forensic scientists will testify, they may be apt to mutter rather than to speak distinctly. Some of them tell lies. Catching them out in that act demands the sort of forensic skills peculiar to the medievalist, used as he is to retelling the story of the past from innumerable, ill-fitting, and frequently improbable fragments of it, often in the form of texts written in no-longer-living languages. It is easy to forget, or simply to overlook, the eloquence of the dead. As a prosopographer, constantly involved with the reconstruction of the minutiae of individual lives, my concern with my subjects is with their living, not with the fact that they are now long dead. On the face of it, a necrological record indicating the day of the year on which a subject died might be nothing more than the point at which to draw the line. In fact, the place, or even places, in which such records occur yields significant information about the subject’s life, rather than his death. For an obituary notice is every bit as much about and for the living as a record in a liber vitae,the only difference being that in the latter the subjects were often still alive at the moment when their names were recorded. Equally important, the fact that compilations of such records were kept by the same institution preserves information about groups as well as individuals, and about how these groups relate to the recording institution and even to other institutions. The potential of necrologies as witnesses to lost lives is almost limitless.




I might never have discovered the importance of necrological evidence in its fullest sense if I had not begun eight years ago to work on a much-needed edition of the Cartulary of Mont-Saint-Michel. The Cartulary is prefaced by a history of the abbey which has been the basis of all historiography for the past 900 years, although it is patently unsatisfactory. I started to dip into the necrologies in the hope of information concerning the period covered by the cartulary. The results far exceeded expectations. Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most famous of all European monasteries. Its surviving collection of manuscripts, now at Avranches, has frequently been discussed by art historians. Relatively little work has been done on the texts which relate to the abbey’s liturgy or administration, though the surviving manuscripts provide considerable detail about most periods of the abbey’s history from 1050 onwards. In view of this and of the potential noted above, I am preparing editions of texts in two of thesemanuscripts, namely the Cartulary of the Mont from Avranches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 210, and a necrology and a martyrology-necrology from Avranches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 214. I shall attempt here to give at least a brief indication of the relationships between the Mont’s Cartulary and its necrologies, and how both might be used to establish a history of their community. Principally, however,this paper aims to examine the necrologies found in the Mont’s surviving Chapter-Book and how they were used. A number of illustrative texts, taken from the Chapter-Book and a later Ceremonial, have been edited in the Appendix.

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Sharan Newman