Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.09.18 Courtenay, Rituals for the Dead

19.09.18 Courtenay, Rituals for the Dead

Courtenay's recently released book examines liturgical commemorations of the dead at the medieval University of Paris in order to gain insight into the religious activities and community life of students and masters. Because liturgies, prayers, and acts of charity on behalf of the deceased formed an integral and substantial part of regular activities, examining them provides a better understanding of how, where, and with whom members of the university spent their time.

In his introduction, the author sets out two prerequisites for the study: First, he argues that the organizational structure that most determined the experiences of students and masters in the faculty of arts was not the overarching "corporate" entity of the university itself, but rather the smaller, constituent unit of the nation. Once a student had arrived at the University of Paris, his region of origin usually placed him within a particular nation, which in turn influenced his choice of master, the people with whom he lived, and the church in which he worshipped. For most, the nation "was the principal unit of affiliation" (2).

Second, Courtenay makes use of a specific group of sources. Rather than examining "written products of the classroom and disputations" or "what masters and students thought they were doing" (5), the author mines the statutes of the university, the statutes of individual colleges, the surviving Proctors' Book of the English nation, historic tax documents, and the seals of the university, colleges, and masters. A great strength of Courtenay's work--revealed in the book's structure, and perhaps arising from its inception as a series of lectures--is the author's willingness to take multiple, differing approaches towards the topics under investigation.

Chapter 1 considers the subject of funerals and burials--for students, masters, donors, and founders. The university's earliest surviving statutes of 1215 reveal that members from multiple levels of the academic hierarchy participated in funeral and burial rites: one particular statute "provided [even] the poorest student with a full complement of mourners drawn not only from his peers but also from his academic superiors" (9). The chapter also considers the infrastructure associated with these rites--cemeteries and bell towers--and the efforts undertaken by convents and colleges to create and sustain them.

The historical development of liturgical care for the dead (including theological considerations on the efficacy of Masses performed on behalf of the deceased) forms the subject of the second chapter. A particularly in-depth and informative discussion examines the integration of concepts from the "money economy" into understandings of the virtus missae: How did the benefits of the Mass accrue to individual souls? Did the soul of the donor benefit more than others? To what extent could money--when invested in Masses—purchase an improved afterlife? The answers to these questions--the shared assumptions regarding the efficacy of commemorative Masses and other liturgies--influenced the daily activities of students and masters and determined the extent to which commemorations of the dead became a part of the liturgical life of the university.

Chapter 3, "Candles for Our Lady," draws from the extant Proctors' Book of the English nation. Financial records comprising a portion of this document reveal regular expenditures for candles "nostra Domina"; Courtenay makes a convincing case that, rather than being a type of payment to the cathedral of Notre-Dame, these candles were "connected with Marian devotion...used in a service attended by all masters in the nation and most of their a side chapel in the cathedral or at another church," and that the expenditures "took precedence over all others" (40, 43). This chapter also includes a documentation of the churches used by each of the university's nations and a consideration of the ways in which the nations resembled confraternities, in their celebrations of specific feast days and commemorations of the dead.

The book continues with an examination of the university's colleges (Chapter 4). Particularly enlightening is the discussion of the Collège de Hubant (Collège de l'Ave Maria). The statutes of this college detail--in words and illustrations--the liturgical and charitable obligations of the students; they also indicate the extent to which commemorations of the dead occupied the students' time. Additionally, this chapter documents the beginnings of individual colleges. Statutes reveal the expectations that students and masters would regularly join together for Masses and prayers on behalf of the deceased founder and his or her family. The chapter concludes with a summary of the ongoing scholarly discussion concerning the similarities--and perhaps, influences--between medieval colleges and Islamic madrasas. Courtenay integrates his own research into the discussion, noting even more parallels between these types of institutions (without asserting the influence of one upon the other).

Readers will especially appreciate the careful consideration of the role of women in university life found in Chapter 5. Courtenay's comprehensive discussion documents women, not only as founders of colleges, patrons of scholars, and wives of "professors[,]...laypersons who held an office within the university, and...students" (88), but also as participants in trades involving the university. Women appear in medieval tax documents as landlords, tavern keepers, laundresses, and candle makers; as heads of family businesses for carpentry, masonry, and manuscript production; in the wider community of Paris as grammar-school teachers, medical practitioners, and Beguines.

Chapter 6 considers Marian devotion at the University of Paris, as evidenced by seals (of the university's institutions and individual masters), (re-)dedications (of churches, cathedrals, and colleges), and college statutes outlining liturgical observations. Courtenay ends the book with a reflection on the ways in which disparate groups of people (students and masters; wealthy and poor) were brought together as they participated in university life, particularly the commemorations of the dead.

Courtenay's substantial contribution to the field of medieval history--particularly as it concerns the University of Paris--is immediately obvious. A careful reading indicates that he has also created opportunities to bridge the distances to other academic disciplines. As one example, his research intersects with the comprehensive study on the Office of the Dead conducted by musicologist and theologian Knud Ottosen. [1] Courtenay places the liturgies for the dead into the lived experience of students and masters at the medieval University of Paris; Ottosen's work points us to the specific manuscripts that contain the liturgies themselves. Taken together, the work of these scholars paves the way for future studies.

One path available for research involves the liturgies of Sainte-Geneviève and Saint-Victor. Courtenay establishes connections between students and masters and these two institutions: "In the course of the twelfth century...members of the academic community attended services and made confession at two religious communities, that of Saint-Victor and Sainte-Geneviève...The Augustinian canons at Saint-Victor in particular developed a special mission of caring for the souls of scholars who were temporarily in Paris for purposes of study. That connection gradually led to the burial of students and masters in the cemeteries of those monasteries" (11). Ottosen's work documents the manuscripts reflecting the liturgical observances for the dead at Saint-Victor and Sainte-Geneviève. His documentation will make it possible to closely examine these liturgical observances (and their inherent theological understandings) and so gain even more insight into the shared religious experiences of students and masters.

Similarly, Ottosen has catalogued the manuscripts reflecting the liturgies of the diocese of Paris. Courtenay's work makes it clear that these manuscripts might also reflect the liturgies that students and masters participated in together. According to Courtenay, the university statutes of 1215 "reveal the expectation that funerals would be held in different churches and that the liturgical elements would be in accordance with the practice of those churches. In most cases funerals would probably have been held in the church of the parish in which the master or student resided, and burial would have taken place in that church's cemetery" (9).

Thus, Courtenay provides much more than the contribution of a single scholar. His commanding use of source material offers specific, vivid images of daily life at the University of Paris, and thus allows both for a contextualization of prior research and a synthesis of multiple academic areas.

The book succeeds on many levels. Courtenay presents his research in accessible and attractive prose; the University of Notre Dame Press has provided an accessible and attractive format. Endnotes are easy to reference; paper and font are easy on the eyes; clear maps and images facilitate comprehension. The price tag of the paperback version brings it within reach even of those who might not be professionally invested, but are simply curious to envisage life at the medieval University of Paris.



1. Knud Ottosen, The Responsories and Versicles of the Latin Office of the Dead (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1993).