Publication Date



prayers, medieval saints, prayers for the dead


According to their hagiographies, medieval saints could cure or let languish the devoted followers of their cults. Humans were at their mercy, and of course by extension at God’s mercy. For the ordinary dead, however, these roles were reversed. In Late Antiquity, Augustine of Hippo’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda reveals the belief that the living had the power to aid their deceased loved ones, as well as the anxieties theologians had about the place of commemoration within a Christian framework. Conversely, in Gregory the Great’s sixth-century Dialogues (book four) a different clerical viewpoint emerges, one much more at ease with the commemoration of the dead and the agency of the living to benefit the dead. A final analysis of an exemplum recorded by Caesarius of Heisterbach (d. 1240) likewise illustrates the continuity of these beliefs into the later middle ages. Through this three-fold analysis and close reading, the desire and perceived duty of medieval religious people to expend time and effort, not on themselves but for the sake of the souls (and the memories) of those suffering in the afterlife manifests as pervasive and integral to a medieval understanding of personal agency in an otherwise chaotic world.