Recording the Dead in Early Modern London and Munich

Recording the names of the dead has a long tradition in human societies.1 Lists of the dead come in many different forms: as a call to remember the dead, as a reminder of some kind of sacrifice or traumatic event, or as a means to keep track of mortality patterns. In antiquity, we find early examples of lists of those who died in battle, while in the Middle Ages monastic necrologues recorded when a monk or nun died. In both of these cases, however, only the deaths of a select number of individuals were recorded. It is not until the sixteenth century that, at least in Western contexts, more detailed records allow us to gain a better understanding of who died when, and sometimes also where their bodies were buried.2

From the sixteenth century onwards, clerics began keeping death registers, which were stored directly in churches or passed down from one priest to the next. In German these documents had various names, such as Totenbücher, Totenregister, or Sterbebücher, and were normally combined with records on baptisms, and marriages, then called Pfarrmatrikel or similar. In most cases, the earliest such lists come from around the middle of the sixteenth century, though in other regions it would be another hundred years before these serial sources began to appear. It was normally larger towns that first recorded their dead in this way, but there are also some German-speaking small towns that started keeping such records comparatively early. In the English context they survive in the form of parish registers, which also recorded births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials. Here, the rise of these records was linked to Thomas Cromwell’s 1538 order to the clergy to keep records of their parishes, including records of the dead.

The rise of death registers was a phenomenon that cut across confessional and geographical borders. They were created by important Protestant reformers such as Heinrich Bullinger, but the Council of Trent also enforced the keeping of such records, meaning that they were maintained in both Catholic and Protestant territories.3 As part of my second thesis (Habilitation), I focus on two important early modern urban centres, Munich and London, to analyse, amongst other things, how the reordering of the dead led to new necrogeographies. Lists of the dead played a crucial role in the assertion of authority, in disputes over land, and in the definition of urban and jurisdictional boundaries. The project is concerned with a period when an especially large number of changes become apparent, between the Reformation (c.1550) and the large-scale relocation of cemeteries in the later nineteenth century. Some useful records are digitized and available online either directly through archives or via other websites, usually for research on family history. In the case of Munich, the Pfarrmatrikel are fully accessible online. However, other records are only accessible in the archives and research libraries. In the summer of 2021, a scholarship from the GHIL allowed me to spend time in London for archival research on the recording and placement of the dead in a comparative perspective. My project shows that these sources can give valuable insights into the ways in which the living interacted with the dead.4

Plan of early-modern Munich by Matthäus Merian the Elder (1642). Artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The early lists usually contain sparse information and mostly only record the names of the deceased, the dates on which they died and where they were buried; sometimes also where they were from or what profession they had. Nonetheless, they show an increasing awareness that as towns continued to grow, closer regulation of where people were to be buried was needed. At the same time, the lists were used by preachers, sextons, and church wardens to record who had paid for their burials. In this way, even when cemeteries were not as clearly structured as they are today, these lists at least provided a limited record of who had died and where they were buried. Death registers can be a telling source as they indicate not only the impact epidemics had on towns, but also how towns grew more broadly. They also reveal the shifting importance of cemeteries. In one death register from Zurich, the preacher who kept the book even devised a way of categorizing where individuals were buried. At the very beginning he added a note explaining the meanings of the different abbreviations he used. Clearly, ordering these deaths was important to him, and led him to come up with his own classification system.5 As we know from Munich and London, it is also possible that records were kept in this way because burials in different spaces required different payments, or because the precise recording of burial places was supposed to reduce conflicts about where people could be laid to rest. In this way, the recording was also a way of showing who was part of the urban community and who was not.

Plan of early-modern London (1682). Artwork in the public domain, provided by the Library of Congress.

This exercise of control also emerges when we look at those who were not included in the registers. Men and women performing ‘dishonourable’ functions, as well as the highest-ranking dignitaries, were not buried in the cemeteries covered by these death registers, but interred in separate burial spaces. In Munich, to name just one example, many of the members of the Wittelsbach dynasty were buried in a crypt in the Jesuit church of St. Michael’s, which had been erected by William V of Bavaria.6 These kinds of crypts were often reserved for members of the ruling dynasty, symbolizing their distance from ordinary men and women. Certain professions did not receive honourable burials, for example executioners or prostitutes. However, in the course of the early modern period some of the rules regarding honourable burials also changed. Although recent research on early modern courts stresses that they were part of the town, at least in terms of how deaths were recorded, this was not the case.7 Rulers, kings, and queens were never recorded in the simple death lists, but rather in separate documents, which were also held in different archives. The sheer amount of paperwork involved in a ducal or royal burial was also much greater, of course, as the funeral procession and burial procedure had to be organized in painstaking detail.

The death lists, which normally only included individuals with citizenship (Bürgerrecht), form an interesting counterpoint to any notion of death as a ‘great leveller’ taking everyone regardless of status, gender, or power. Rather, the lists show who was deemed to belong to an urban community by including them on the page, while the urban poor were frequently left out of the death lists as not all of them had full citizenship and some of them did not belong to a guild.8 Instead, they were buried in mass graves, or alongside the corpses of ‘dishonourable’ people. The treatment of travellers who happened to die in a specific town varied significantly. If they were important or wealthy, they might be buried in the urban cemetery. But if the deceased was a vagabond or beggar, a burial without ceremonies and without a record was more common. In some cases, burials in early modern ‘hospitals’ (Spitäler) remained an option.9

Death registers represented a very distinctive form of the urban community. They tend to show what the magistrates wanted the urban community to look like, rather than documenting all the different groups which were actually part of it. They excluded many individuals who were also part of early modern towns, such as the poor, as well as courtly officials, and instead focused on those who were considered citizens. The authorities sought to assert their power over these individuals by recording and regulating how they were buried.

Death registers went hand in hand with other changes in record-keeping, such as the increasing use of wills, or the role paper played in the production of records.10 The records were not fixed and continued to evolve. In the case of London, while previous records existed from the middle of the sixteenth century, the bishops’ transcripts were introduced in 1598 to supplement earlier recording systems, and in 1812 George Rose proposed a general overhaul of the record-keeping system. When looking at serial sources, it is easy to forget how dynamic practices of recording were.

Page from the Bills of Mortality (1800/1801). Text in the public domain, provided by Wikisource.

London also offers a particularly striking example of an alternative to the death registers. In the Bills of Mortality, a different kind of recording took place.11 These were weekly mortality statistics that recorded causes of death and other information. They were kept from 1592 by the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. However, they did not include the whole of London, but only central areas. From 1819, their production went into decline and the last bills were produced in 1858. They were replaced by other forms of record-keeping—namely, the weekly returns of the Registrar General. Unlike other registers, these bills were sold and informed the inhabitants of London about causes of death and the parishes where people died. They provided an easy way for Londoners to know about changes to the population, and they were surprisingly widely read. Nothing similar existed in Munich or, indeed, in most other places. The registers and bills show that there were always multiple ways of dealing with and recording the dead, including different motivations for recording who died when and where. In other words, there was no simple progression towards a modern way of recording the dead; there were always arguments, alternatives, and dead ends. Although similar features might have been recorded for centuries on end in particular places, behind every page stood the changing practices and differing needs for dealing with the dead in the premodern city.

The featured image shows a section of the title page of London’s Dreadful Visitation: Or, a Collection of All the Bills of Mortality for This Present Year (London, 1655). Artwork in the public domain, provided by The Wellcome Trust.

  1. The third part (363–488) of Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, 2015) is devoted to the ‘Names of the Dead’. []
  2. On these longer-term developments, see Philip Booth und Elizabeth Tingle (eds.), A Companion to Death, Burial, and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, c.1300–1700 (Leiden, 2021); Thea Tomaini (ed.), Dealing with The Dead: Mortality and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Leiden, 2018). []
  3. See Archiv der Erzdiözese München-Freising, Pfarrmatrikel (Digitalisat); also Martin Illi, Wohin die Toten gingen: Begräbnis und Kirchhof in der vorindustriellen Stadt (Zurich, 1992). []
  4. On the plague, see e.g. Mark S. R. Jenner, ‘Plague on a Page: Lord Have Mercy Upon Us in Early Modern London’, Seventeenth Century, 27/3 (2012), 255–86; Lukas Engelmann, John Henderson, and Christos Lynteris (eds.), Plague and the City (London, 2019); Vanessa Harding, ‘Reading plague in Seventeeth-century London’, Social History of Medicine 32/2 (2019), 267–286. []
  5. Stadtarchiv Zürich, VIII. C. 30, St. Peter Totenbuch Pfarrbücher / Kopien, Totenbuch 1660 bis 1778. []
  6. Tobias Appl, Die Kirchenpolitik Herzog Wilhelms V. von Bayern: Der Ausbau der bayerischen Hauptstädte zu geistlichen Zentren (Munich, 2011). []
  7. Werner Paravicini and Jörg Wettlaufer (eds.), Der Hof und die Stadt: Konfrontation, Koexistenz und Integration in Spätmittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (Ostfildern, 2006); Peter Csendes and Ferdinand Opll (eds.), Wien: Geschichte einer Stadt, 4 vols. (Vienna, 2001–6), vol. 2: Die frühneuzeitliche Residenz (16. bis 18. Jahrhundert), ed. Anita Traninger and Karl Vocelka (2003). []
  8. Robert Jütte, Arme, Bettler, Beutelschneider: Eine Sozialgeschichte der Armut in der Frühen Neuzeit (Cologne, 2000). []
  9. Martin Scheutz and Alfred Stefan Weiss, Das Spital in der Frühen Neuzeit: Eine Spitallandschaft in Zentraleuropa (Vienna, 2020), esp. 119–23. []
  10. Volker Hess and J. Andrew Mendelsohn, ‘Case and Series: Medical Knowledge and Paper Technology, 1600-1900’, History of Science, 48/3–4 (2010), 287–314. []
  11. Thomas R. Forbes, ‘By What Disease or Casualty: The Changing Face of Death in London’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 31/4 (1976), 395–420. []

Published by

Martin Christ

He is a Research Fellow at the Max Weber Centre, University of Erfurt (KFG ‘Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations’), where he works on urban history, the history of the Reformation, and the history of conversion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search