Last Wills and Testaments

Samuel Kline Cohn

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Last Wills and Testaments

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy



The testament has been an essential source for the study of the late Middle Ages and early modern period across a wide variety of disciplines, including legal history, property relations, linguistics, demography, women, marriage, the family, economy and material culture, and religious history, but especially in the study of popular piety, charity, burial choices, funerary practices, and the history of death and mentalities. Early on the testament was studied as a legal document in the evolution of contracts and property settlements, and family law. This tradition has continued and has placed the legal history of the will in larger interdisciplinary contexts using fields such as anthropology and social history, to map, in microscopic detail, marriage customs, rights of inheritance, and the emancipation of children. Particularly where no other records of a quantitative character survive, the testament has been a valuable source for evaluating relative mortalities of various plagues (despite the fact that the poor and children rarely redacted these instruments). Most fundamentally, the post–World War II period has witnessed an explosion of studies using the will to investigate popular piety, charity, death, and mentality—a history of ideas and attitudes that cuts beneath the elites and focuses on those who have left no literary works. The second and third generation of the Annales school of the 1970s, and especially Michel Vovelle (see Testaments as Sources of Popular Piety and Charity: France), fueled this new enthusiasm for the will as the principal source of a new social and cultural history of mentalities. Historians have often used wills for more than one purpose, uncovering demographic trends, burial choices, and changes in piety. Thus, the divisions in this entry are heuristic: titles have been placed in categories depending on their emphasis or their most striking conclusions.

Article.  6947 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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