A rotulus is a roll designed for writing on, in which a long narrow strip of writing material (perhaps parchment), written on one side, was wound like a blind about its wooden staff.
Rotuli persisted for:
• certain legal records (from which is still derived the title of the judicial functionary known as the "Master of the Rolls")
• manuscripts, such as those used for the chanting of the Exultet;
• and especially the documents employed in sending round the names of the deceased belonging to monasteries and other associations which were banded together to pray mutually for each other's dead.
These "mortuary rolls" (in French "rouleaux des morts") were called in Latin "rotuli". They consisted of strips of parchment, sometimes of prodigious length, at the head of which was entered the notification of the death of a particular person deceased or sometimes of a group of such persons. The roll was then carried by a special messenger ("gerulus", "rotularius", "rollifer", "tomiger", "breviator", were some of the various titles given him) from monastery to monastery, and at each an entry was made upon the roll attesting the fact that the notice had been received and that the requisite suffrages would be said.
By degrees a custom grew up in many places of making these entries in verse with complementary amplifications often occupying many lines. These records, some of which are still in existence, preserve specimens of ornate verse composition. They afford materials both for the study of palaeography and also for a comparative judgment of the standard of scholarship prevalent in these different centres of learning.
The use of these mortuary rolls flourished most in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Some are of prodigious size. That of the Abbess Matilda of Caen, the daughter of William the Conqueror, was 72 feet long and eight or ten inches wide, but this no doubt was exceptional.