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Necrologies, or, as they are more frequently called in France, obituaires, are the registers in which religious communities were accustomed to enter the names of the dead — notably their own deceased members, their associates, and their principal benefactors — with a view to the offering of prayers for their souls. The institutions which maintained such necrologies differed almost as much as the form in which the entries were made. There are necrologies connected with cathedral chapters, others (and those the most numerous) belonging to monasteries and religious houses, others to colleges, such as, e.g. the Sorbonne (in Molinier et Longnon, "Obituaires", I, 737-52) others to collegiate churches, others again to parishes, while, as for the registers themselves, some are drawn up in the form of marginal entries in martyrologies or calendars, others form a book apart, but arranged according to the days of the month, others again are mere disorderly lists of names, which seem to have been written down just as they were sent in, or as occasion arose. Not less diversified are the names by which these registers were known. Perhaps the commonest was martyrologium, because they often took the form of mere additions to the martyrologium, or list of martyrs and saints commemorated on each day. We find also necrologiurn, memoriale mortuorum, or memoriale fratrum, mortuologium, liber obituum, and, more rarely, obituarius, sometimes, owing to its connection with the calendar, calendarium, sometimes, because the monastic rule was commonly bound up in the same book, liber regulae or simply regula, sometimes, from the occasion when it was read aloud, liber capituli (chapter book), sometimes, in reference to the entries of the names of benefactors, liber fundationum, or fiber benefactorum. Also, although Molinier seems to contest this usage ("Les Obituaires francais", p. 22), such a collection of names, consisting largely of benefactors, was occasionally called liber vitae (book of life).

No better description of the purposes served by these lists and of the spirit which animated the whole institution of necrologies can be found than that contained in the preface to the Winchester book of the eleventh century known as the "Hyde Register". In spite of its length, it deserves to be quoted entire "Behold, in the name of God Almighty and of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His most Holy Mother, the ever-stainless Virgin Mary, and also of the twelve holy Apostles by whose teaching the world is rendered glorious in the faith, to whose honour this Minster in distinction to the old monastery hard by, there are set down here in due order the names of brethren and monks, of members of the household also [familiariorum (sic)], or of benefactors living and dead, that by the perishable memorial of this writing they may be written in the page of the heavenly book, by the virtue of whose alms deeds this same family, through Christ's bounty, is fed. And let also the names of all those who have commended themselves to its prayers and its fellowship be recorded here in general, in order that remembrance may be made of them daily in the sacred celebration of the Mass or in the harmonious chanting of psalms. And let the names themselves be presented daily by the subdeacon before the altar at the early or principal Mass, and as far as time shall allow let them be recited by him in the sight of the Most High. And after the oblation has been offered to God by the right hand of the cardinal priest who celebrates the Mass, let the names be laid upon the holy altar during the very mysteries of the sacred Mass and be commended most humbly to God Almighty so that as remembrance is made of them upon earth [sicut eorum memoria agitur in terris — a phrase from the Ordinarium Missae], so in the life to come, by His indulgence who alone knows how they stand or are hereafter to stand in His sight, the glory of those who are of greater merit may be augmented in Heaven and the account of those who are less worthy may be lightened in His secret judgments. Be ye glad and rejoice that your names are written in Heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with God the Eternal Father and the Holy Ghost, there remains all honour power, and glory for ever and ever. Amen."

This account is particularly interesting, because, although the laying of the necrology upon the altar during Mass afterwards fell into disuse, and the names were read in chapter instead of in choir, still the extract clearly shows that the book of obituaries had its origin in the old "diptychs", or tablets, upon which were formerly entered the names which were read out by the priest at the Commemoration of the Living and the Commemoration of the Dead in the Canon of the Mass. So far as can be seen, the recitation of the names of the defunct bishops in the diptychs was later on represented by the reading of the martyrologlum proper, while the commemoration of benefactors and other deceased was retained in the form of a necrology. It will be remembered that in the everyday Requiem Mass (missa quotidiana defunctorum) of our Missals, the priest is first directed to pray "pro defunctis episcopis seu sacerdotibus" next "pro fratribus, propinquis et benefactoribus" and lastly pro omnibus fidelibus defunctis". This corresponds to the classification here, viz. of thee included in the martyrologium, those named in the necrology, and those not specially mentioned at all. The entry of the names of the dead in the register of a monastery or other religious institution, and the consequent participation in the prayers and good works of all its members, was a privilege which, from the eighth century onward, was greatly coveted. Such mutual rights of the inspection of the names of deceased brethren in each other's necrologies was a constant subject of negotiation between different abbeys, etc., and at a somewhat later date it became the custom for monasteries to send messengers with 'mortuary rolls" (rotuli) requesting the promise of prayers which were to be entered on the roll and engaging the senders to pray for the deceased brethren of the monasteries who rendered them this service. (But for this see ROTULI.)

Although the entries in the extant necrologies of monasteries and cathedrals are generally of the briefest possible character, only the day of the month, and not the year, being indicated, still in indirect ways these lists of names have been regarded as of considerable importance both for philological and historical purposes. A large number have been published in Germany, France, England, and other countries.

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1911). Necrologies. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Necrologies." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas. In Memory of Mr. Kurian Poovathumkal.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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