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Honoring the Dead in Early Modern Germany

Look at that cover. So metal. So much bling.

The extensive metal fittings on this fifteenth-century German Office of the Dead are what first catch the eye, but this little manuscript is more remarkable for its contents. Used for centuries, perhaps daily, to remember the dead, this manuscript attests to medieval and post-medieval communities sustained beyond the grave.

This manuscript opens with a colophon on fol. 3r that tells us where and when it was made. In 1487 Johannes Ehrlich, Archbishop of Trier, commissioned it for the church of St. Kunibert in Cologne, Germany.

A parchment page with gothic script in oversized red letters.
TM 644, fol. 3r: colophon in big red letters. No missing this one.

It contains all the liturgical texts that the canons (think monks lite) of St Kunibert’s would need to commemorate their deceased community members: the Office of the Dead, the three services the canons would say starting the evening before a funeral; the funeral service itself; and some auxiliary prayers. The opening prayer includes musical notation, a reminder that the canons would have sung these services in community, collectively remembering their brethren in song.

Manuscripts that only include services for the dead are unusual. Any monastery or church owned many books with the scripts for different offices, masses, and prayers, but these books were usually organized by type of service (mass, office, etc) or type of text (hymnal, processional), not occasion. Services for the dead were typically dispersed among different books. The funeral mass would have appeared in a missal, the book that contained the directions for masses (Hughes 157-59); the Office of the Dead frequently appears in breviaries, the book with directions for the daily Office, or in psalters (Hughes 238, 240-41); and the directions for how to conduct a funeral would appear in a customary or ordinal (Krochales and Matter 401, 411). So to have a single manuscript containing only the services and prayers for honoring the dead makes it special.

This manuscript would have been used more frequently than just for funerals. The commemoration of the dead was a major task for medieval monks and canons, and many communities prayed for their deceased members monthly or even daily. Such prayers were thought to help the dead move through Purgatory faster, so late medieval individuals would pray for their deceased loved ones regularly. And this manuscript shows evidence that it was used by the canons. A lot.

The parchment is supple and worn, the lower margins blackened by generations of fingers:

A page with red and black gothic script, and larger letters added in red and blue. The lower right corner is blackened with dirt.
TM 644, fol. 7r, from the Office of the Dead. Note the dirty, worn lower right corner.

Tears have been carefully mended:

The bottom half of a worn parchment page written in red and black gothic script. Musical notation on 4-line staves is also present. There is a tear in the bottom margin of the page that has been sewn up with white thread.
TM 644, fol. 21r. Note the tear that has been stitched up with white thread. Also note the musical notation; the text that follows is an antiphon for Lauds in the Office of the Dead.

The text has been updated in places by a later hand. Here, “benefactores” (benefactors), donors to the church, has been added to the prayer:

And a prayer was added in the sixteenth century for the soul of Provost Andrew, the head of the community:

A parchment page with writing in black gothic letters on the top half only
TM 644, fol. 51v: the end of a prayer for Provost Andrew. You can see how the handwriting is different from the earlier examples.

The most remarkable evidence of regular, continued use is the paper quire added at the end. Its colophon states that it was compiled in 1727 and contains the names of the deceased, often with their burial locations, for whom the contemporary canons would say the Office of the Dead on a regular basis. The rest of the quire is laid out like a ledger: each two-page spread is dedicated to one month, and the pages are ruled in three columns: a column for the death year, another for the death date, and a third for the name, profession, and burial location for the person to be commemorated. While most of these names are those of canons of St Kunibert’s, some are for laypersons (including some women). This collection of names — a necrology — appears to have been copied from an earlier record, because all who died before 1727 have been copied out at the same time. The necrology was clearly kept up, because names and dates were added to the 1760s.

A two-page opening of a book with small writing in columns on the left, and on a third of the page on the right.
TM 644, fols. 60v-61r, August in the necrology. On the left hand side, you can see one Margaret under 1633, while under 1470 “Arnoldi de Campo” is labeled as a layman. On the right, you can see names added in 1746, 1769, and 1761, with space for more.

This book therefore provides a snapshot of continuous ritual practice in a German religious community, extending from the late medieval period through the upheavals of the reformation and counter-reformation. It is a melancholy object, in that it has been separated from the town where it was used, but it is also a hopeful one, preserving in perpetuity the names of St. Kunibert’s most honored dead.

Featured image: the 16th c. cover to the Cologne Office of the Dead

Works Consulted

Courtenay, William J. Rituals for the Dead: Religion and Community in the Medieval University of Paris. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

Hughes, Andrew. Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to their Organization and Terminology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Krochalis, Jeanne E., and E. Ann Matter. “Manuscripts of the Liturgy.” In The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, second ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005, 393-430.

Les Enluminures, TM 644, Cologne Office of the Dead