The Cellites and their death charity in the later Middle Ages
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Analysing archival material from their major late medieval urban centres, including Cologne, Frankfurt-am-Main, and Hildesheim, this thesis provides a fresh examination of communities of lay voluntary poor called Cellites. Known for visiting the sick and burying the dead, they were once thought to have existed in conflict with the institutional Church. Tensions indeed persisted through the fifteenth century between proponents of a religious life lived outside of vows, and those who believed such a practice ran contrary to the very nature of religio. However, this thesis argues that Cellites were typically embraced by ecclesiastical and secular authorities because of their material and spiritual usefulness—specifically through the aid they provided body and soul by burying the dead and exhorting the dying. Drawing out the interactions between ecclesiastics, magistrates, and individual Cellite houses contributes to scholarship in two main ways. First, it supports the growing consensus that later medieval religion was far richer than the dichotomies of lay/clerical or secular/religious have allowed us to see. Second, it adds to the lively discussion about the space ‘in between’ heresy and order by demonstrating how the Cellites, rather than being regularised or repressed, carved out an identity for themselves while making their own choices regarding forms of the religious life. The thesis proceeds chronologically in the first two chapters, and thematically in the last two. Examining a legal case from the Council of Constance (1414-18), Chapter One shows how clerics framed Cellite communities as fostering virtue rather than usurping the prerogatives of religious. Chapter Two demonstrates that in the following decades, the ways in which individual houses negotiated their status was shaped by their local contexts, but that corporately the Cellites faced no existential threat; houses chose to adopt the Augustinian Rule in the 1460s-70s not to avoid dissolution but to gain additional privileges. The second portion of the thesis turns to the ways in which the Cellites contributed to the maintenance of a Christian society. Chapter Three argues that clergy and magistrates regarded Cellite burial of the dead as beneficial to the common good because it ensured the poor as well as the rich were treated with dignity. Chapter Four shows that this social benefit was not only physical: secular and ecclesiastical authorities also praised the Cellites for aiding their broader communities spiritually, by providing exhortations at the deathbed about the basics of the faith. Taken together, these chapters push us beyond seeing lay religious as mere subjects of reform, illuminating instead how they could be active participants in it.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2028-05-09
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Restricted until 9th May 2028
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