Rituals for the Dead

Religion and Community in the Medieval University of Paris

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William J. Courtenay
Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame
    , December
     214 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Originally delivered as the Conway Lectures at the University of Notre Dame, the six chapters of this short book by William J. Courtenay explore a side of the University of Paris often neglected by historians of this famous medieval institution of learning: the formative role of the Christian religion in the daily rhythms of the masters and students and, in particular, the emphasis placed in surviving documents on the care of the dead and their commemoration in the university community. This exploration of medieval spiritual life is a departure from Courtenay’s career-long research on the social and intellectual history of scholars in 14th-century England and France, but his deep knowledge of the sources for university culture in this period provide a solid foundation for this novel inquiry. The result is a fresh perspective on the devotional activities of masters and students at the University of Paris, especially how “[d]eath transform[ed] an academic community into a religious community for the cult of the dead” (8).

The opening chapters of the book set the stage by offering brisk sketches of the communities of masters and students comprising the University of Paris, especially their organization into units of self-identification based on national origins (known as “nations”) and their obligations in the care of their dead (Introduction and Chapter 1). Indeed, as Courtenay shows, a concern for the spiritual needs of masters and students who died while they were teaching or studying at the University of Paris made up about twenty percent of the content of that institution’s earliest statutes from 1215. These included regulations for the attendance of funerals and burials by members of the community and for participation in vigils for the deceased. While the university statutes say nothing about where masters and students were to be buried, it is safe to presume with Courtenay that the cemetaries of the parish churches where they resided would serve this purpose. By the later 13th century, religious communities competed with these local churches for the bodies of prominent parishioners. There follows in chapter 2 a brief tour of the history of intercessory masses for the dead more generally from its late antique origins to the 13th century. Courtenay ignores recent debates about the origins of Purgatory in early medieval Europe and instead dwells at length on scholastic arguments related to two issues: first, whether there are equal rewards in the afterlife for people of equal merit, irrespective if they were rich and thus capable of endowing masses for themselves or poor and thus unable to do so; and second, whether prayers directed to the salvation of an individual benefited other souls as well. Taken together, these arguments provide “the conceptual framework that surrounded university practice regarding care for the dead that was embodied in the statutes of 1215” (36).

Having provided the institutional and religious context for his study, Courtenay then turns to the University of Paris itself. In chapter 3, he likens the university “nations” to religious confraternities because both kinds of organization practiced acts of devotion and liturgical observances that bound them together as a distinctive group, namely, as a community at prayer inflected by a devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose image adorned not only the great seal of the university (Figure 2), but also the seals of the nations and those of individual masters as well. The devotional activities of medieval colleges, including their care for the dead, are the subject of chapter 4. These colleges were not, as one might expect, part of the university system, but rather charitable foundations where masters and students lived in common.

Courtenay’s discussion draws convincingly on the remarkable evidence of the college statutes from the Collège de Hubant in Paris, which contains a sequence of miniatures that depict the liturgical and charitable obligations of the students (Figures 6-9). Just as the nations shared characteristics with religious confraternities, Courtenay argues, so too did the colleges resemble the devotional industry of collegiate churches. As the statutes assert, each college had its own chaplain appointed to serve in a chapel and outfitted with vestments and objects provided by the founder. This attention to the practical details of the religious life of masters and students is consistent with Courtenay’s estimate that they spent upwards of twenty to thirty percent of their time engaged in devotional activities of various kinds.

The final two chapters depart from the main theme of the book to treat the topic of women and the University of Paris. Chapter 5 provides many examples of women on the periphery of university life in their roles as the wives of masters and students, as patrons to individual scholars, and as founders and donors to colleges. In this latter role, Courtenay reminds us, a few elite women would have benefited from the same prayers and masses celebrated for male founders and donors. Chapter 6 treats the most important woman at the University of Paris: the Virgin Mary. While devotion to the Virgin increased exponentially in the 12th century, university masters were slower to express Marian piety. Textual evidence for this devotion is thin, so Courtenay uses the images of the Virgin on the seals of cathedral and college chapters as a barometer of devotional intensity to argue that Mary played an increasingly important role in the religious life of Parisian scholars “[i]n the course of the thirteenth century and increasingly in the fourteenth” (130).

This is an erudite study by a scholar with an unparalleled understanding of medieval university culture. Its main achievement is to remind us that devotional activites played a central role in medieval university communities, a fact easily overlooked when we apply our presumptions about modern universities to premodern institutions of learning. In doing so, Rituals for the Dead offers a fresh perspective on a long overlooked dimension of the lives of masters and students at the University of Paris.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott G. Bruce is a Professor of History at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
January 14, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William J. Courtenay is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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