A Brief History of Purgatory

7 minute read
Heather, the chair of medieval history at King's College London, is the author of Christendom: The Triumph of Religion, AD 300-1300

For the first millennium of Christianity’s existence, western Christians were far from clear about where their souls would go after death. The Biblical evidence indicated that saints and utterly incorrigible sinners were immediately despatched to Heaven and Hell, but also made clear that the rest of humankind—the vast majority—would face a Last Judgment. Where were they in the meantime? The answer to this question was wrapped up in another. How many people were likely to make it to Heaven: lots of believing Christians or a small minority of the more or less perfect?

Much intelligent anxiety was expended on these subjects in the first millennium AD, with no clear results. According to the best guesses of early medieval western Christians, there were effectively two waiting rooms: ‘near Heaven’ for the upwardly mobile and ‘near Hell’ for the less fortunate. But this was no universally accepted doctrine, and opinions varied on the practical implications. early medieval Christians disagreed over whether individuals would recognize which of the waiting rooms they had been assigned to, and whether it remained possible for repentance or the good offices of others to move a soul between the two.

It was only in the twelfth century that the problem found full and final resolution, when Latin Christianity adopted the view that there was only one intermediate destination between Heaven and Hell: the aptly named Purgatory. This brand new doctrine collapsed the two waiting rooms into one, and simultaneously resolved the pressing issue of numbers. It massively expanded the potential number of the eventually blessed, but also taught that most of Heaven’s occupants were destined first for an extended period of suffering in this new combination-destination, literally to purge them of their sins and ready them for the heavenly choir. Fascinating as a case study in the resolution of Biblical inconsistency, purgatory is still more interesting in context, a central component in a revolutionary refashioning of Latin Christianity.

Universities & The Wages of Sin

The new doctrine was largely the work of two generations of theologians teaching in the cathedral schools of Paris in the early decades of the twelfth century: their collective efforts written up by Peter Lombard in his Sentences of c.1150. Purgatory was a brilliantly logical—if not the only possible—reconciliation of several separate, disjointed passages of the Old and New Testaments, powered by the application of newly-rediscovered principles of Aristotelean logic, which had been lost to the west since the fifth century, when first-hand knowledge of many Greek classics had faded away with the unravelling of the Roman imperial system.

Adopting purgatory depended not only on reading Aristotle in full again, but on being willing to apply his principles of logical analysis to outstanding problems of Christian theology. And this, too, would have been pretty much impossible before the twelfth century, when western intellectuals (busy re-establishing much broader Mediterranean-wide cultural contacts: in part a knock-on effect of the Crusades) fell back in love with classical learning: much of it preserved and developed in the interim at the courts of the Islamic world. This intellectual revolution—the twelfth-century Renaissance—initially unfolded at many separate centers of learning, and in its early years students moved around in search of the best teachers of particular subjects. But Paris and Bologna quickly emerged as new models of Latin Christian intellectual excellence: ‘universities’ where everything (or everything Christian intellectuals thought worth knowing) could be studied, within a defined curriculum—the trivium and quadrivium leading on to higher level subjects like theology and law—shaped by a particular reading of the topics and methods of classical education.

The rewriting of some major elements of Christian theology, with Purgatory in a starring role, was one key outcome. Peter Lombard’s Sentences was the first systematic treatise of Christian theology ever composed. Previously, Christian intellectuals taught and wrote about theology by going through the Bible verse by verse and commenting on whatever points a particular passage raised. The Sentences, by contrast (reflecting Parisian teaching methods), dealt with key Christian topics like the Creation, the Incarnation, and Salvation in thematically ordered sections, and would remain the basic theological primer of Latin Christendom down to the seventeenth century. Hence Parisian Purgatory was no isolated teaching, but functioned as the central element in a new overall vision of salvation for the vast majority of humankind who were not actual saints.

Not only was the soul’s likely destination authoritatively identified, but sin itself interrogated with a new intensity: leading eventually to a list of tariffs – first articulated in detail by Alexander of Hales (d. 1245) in his influential commentary on Peter Lombard—setting out exactly how long in Purgatory any particular transgression merited, and making the key distinction between lesser venial sins and their mortal counterparts, which, if unconfessed, would condemn the soul to Hell. The emphasis on sin was balanced by a new doctrine of seven defined sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination) now understood not just as symbols but as acts transmitting divine power, through which—if mobilising by a sinning individual or their loved ones after death—the lethal effects of mortal sin might be commuted and any particular Christian’s stay in Purgatory abbreviated. As such, Purgatory stood at the heart of a new model of approved Christian piety—an economy of Salvation in which the consequences of sin could be partially paid for by sacramental counteraction (above all confession, communion, and deathbed anointing)—which dictated the required nature of individual ritual action and virtuous behaviour at the level of western Christendom’s tens of thousands of constituent parishes from the twelfth century down to the Reformation, and, in many parts of the globe, far beyond.

Binding & Loosing

This dramatic, theologically driven rewriting of the rules of Christian piety was only one element in a much broader religious restructuring that made later medieval Latin Christianity entirely different from everything that had come before it. Essential to the whole process was the simultaneous emergence of a new centralized authority structure—the Papacy—to validate the teachings being developed in Paris. Previously, ultimate religious authority on earth had been vested—after a model developed in the late Roman period—in the hands of Europe’s kings and emperors, and, even if a particular group of intellectuals had come up with a cogent vision of the path to salvation, there would have been no centralized Christian authority structure to provide it with universal validation. Purgatory, sacramental piety, and the appropriate tariffs attached to individual sins could only become so influential because they were duly licensed by a Papacy whose rights to provide authoritative validation won increasing recognition about 1050 and 1200 AD among western Churchmen between, who themselves weaponised the bishopric of Rome to play an entirely new leadership role. The process reached its apogee when western Europe’s regional religious leadership turned up en masse to Rome in 1215 to attend the fourth in a new type of general (oecumenical) council held by Papal remit at the Lateran palace: the largest gathering of Christian leaders ever assembled.

Lateran IV formally endorsed Purgatory and the new patterns of piety constructed around it. But both Purgatory and papal authority were equally new phenomena, and the new-model papacy had to be further mobilised, as the thirteenth century unfolded, to help overcome initial resistance among both laity and clergy at parish level to so much innovation. It took an extraordinarily sustained campaign, combining both positive encouragement and highly repressive discipline, but by 1300, the new economy of salvation, with Purgatory at its heart, had been adopted all the way from Iceland to Sicily, and from Scandinavia to southern Spain: a vast expanse of territory where newly-emergent Papal authority held unchallenged sway. Viewed over the long term, however, even this extraordinary retooling of Latin Christianity in the later Middle Ages, was only the last of three periods of intense religious revolution which were required to turn a small religious sect from the eastern Mediterranean into the defining cultural force of the entire European landmass.

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