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11 metres long and 18cm wide, made from pieces of parchment sewn together to form a long strip, which is then rolled up.
It is made from pieces of parchment sewn together to form a long strip, which is then rolled up. It is 11 metres long and 18 cm wide. A roll could be carried around easily by someone travelling by horseback, or on foot, and more pieces could be added as they were needed. The parchment was taken to over 370 different monasteries, abbeys and priories across England, Wales, and southern Scotland, and at each place it visited, a prayer was written on it.
The Priory of Lillechurch started the roll, to tell other religious houses that their Prioress, Amphelissa, had died, and to ask the monks and nuns at priories and monasteries across the country to pray for her soul.
Time spent in purgatory could be reduced by those who were still living, praying for the departed soul.
The Priory of Lillechurch started the roll to tell other religious houses that their Prioress, Amphelissa, had died, and to ask the monks and nuns at priories and monasteries across the country to pray for her soul. A messenger carried the pieces of parchment from one religious community to the next and collected their promises to pray for Amphelissa, which were recorded (in Latin) on the roll.
Medieval Christians believed that even the most virtuous person would have committed sins, and these needed to be cleansed by time in purgatory before the soul could go to heaven. Time spent in purgatory could be reduced by those who were still living, praying for the departed soul. Rich people often left money in their wills for prayers and masses to be said for them, and chantries to be built.
Following the Reformation, Protestant churches generally rejected the idea of purgatory, so prayers for the souls of those who had died were no longer routinely said in English parish churches in the way that they had been in medieval times. Many chantry chapels were destroyed or used for other purposes. Henry VIII also dissolved the monasteries when he established the Church of England, so there were no longer communities of monks or nuns praying together.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
Today people living across the country can be notified of a death, by a printed notice in a newspaper, or possibly via a family or organizsation’s facebook page. In medieval times, a messenger travelled on horseback or foot to each location, telling them the news face-to-face. He also probably gathered news from the religious houses he visited, passing on messages between them.
The mortuary roll is significant in showing changes in beliefs about what happens to the soul after death, and the role of prayer. It also illustrates how many religious houses there were across the country in the 13th century.
Although scattered, monasteries were not isolated communities, as messages could still be passed on between them. Monks and nuns could all join together in praying for the same person, even if they were hundreds of miles apart, forming a spiritual community.
Religion through time in the UK: Religion in the Middle Ages
Article by Alice Bovey on the British Library website about ideas of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, and how they can be seen in medieval manuscripts, including another mortuary roll, which is at the British Library. Lots of images.