Trading with the Dead

Originally published in Review of Law & Economics

Late medieval Englishmen provided for their wellbeing in the hereafter by purchasing intercession for their souls. They traded valuable landed endowments for the promise of posthumous Masses and prayers whose daily observance contractual counterparties agreed to underwrite for decades, centuries, even eternally. Intercessory foundations so contracted were called chantries. Chantry contracts constituted trades with the dead in the sense that the promisees were deceased when the promisors were supposed to perform. I study the special problems that chantry contract promisees faced in enforcing their rights from the grave and analyze the devices they used for that purpose. Chantry founders wary of their fates in the afterlife showed equal concern for the challenges their contracts would encounter in this life long after they were gone. Founders met those challenges by leveraging the economics of incentives to develop a strategy of chantry contract self-enforcement: profit the living, present and future, for monitoring the contractual performance of promisors and promisors’ agents, and for punishing them should they breach. Chantry founders’ strategy was successful, enabling trade with the dead.

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