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the birth of purgatory

2 december 2019

When I was a kid, growing up at least nominally Catholic just after Vatican II, Purgatory was still very much a thing. Indulgences were a thing. I still have mass cards and missals that promise a certain number of days off from Purgatory in recognition of various devotions performed. I sense that Purgatory isn't so much of a thing anymore. It may still be Church doctrine, but it's not a big part of the message. Reflexively, I light a candle for my mother when I enter a church, but I no longer connect the act with shortening her stay in Dante's middle realm. And just as Purgatory isn't all that anymore, there was a time, till almost midway through the Christian era, when Purgatory wasn't yet a big deal, or a deal at all. Jacques Le Goff wrote the definitive study of how Purgatory got its fire in 1981. The story continues to fascinate those interested in what Le Goff calls "invented worlds."

St. Augustine, Le Goff allows, set the stage for much later theorizing of Purgatory. But the Semi-Bad Place was very far down Augustine's list of things to be concerned about. Augustine developed a kind of seat-of-the-pants belief in a fiery torment that could cauterize lesser sins, but he was imprecise about when this would take place (in this life? Right after death? Right before the Last Judgment?) and unforthcoming about where it would take place. Early medieval divines tended to repeat a cursory belief in a postmortem purgative fire, but they weren't heavily invested in the concept, either.

By the time we get to Dante, in the early 14th century, there are three very distinct realms in Christian eschatology: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. But in the 12th century, which Le Goff identifies as the crucial epoch for purgatorial doctrine, the system was still as fluid as it had been since Augustine. When people died, they might be sent straight to Hell or Heaven, but that required pretty unequivocal deserts. Most people placed somewhere on a spectrum of merit. 12th-century ideas tended towards storing their souls, till the Last Judgment, in regions appropriate to their degree: a lower sort of heaven for those not all that great, a higher hell for those not all that bad.

Gradually – though in the long span of Catholic history it now seems a quick transition – those intermediate states of not-quite-grace-or-its-opposite gave way to a more hopeful vision of posthumous punishment with an eye toward eventual salvation. Crucially, the church in this world could intervene decisively in the progress of souls through this "purgatory." Doctrinal elegance converged with serious church business.

Le Goff was a historian of theology, which means sometimes drab excurses into the more exasperating regions of scholasticism. But he was also a leader of the wonderful Annales school of French historians, who stressed the big picture and the grounding of ideas in material and social practices. Le Goff eventually gets around to Thomas Aquinas, who delivered a magisterial and irrefutable (if also posthumous and filtered) theory of Purgatory. But Le Goff does not equate the pronouncements of Aquinas with the whole, or even the core, of the widespread sway of Purgatory in the late Middle Ages.

Le Goff is just as interested, for example, in the exempla that popular preachers used to instill purgatorial doctrine in their flocks. We cannot know directly, at this distance, what a largely illiterate medieval laity thought about purgatory, but we can know the stories that their priests told them. Often these exempla consisted of anecdotes about the souls of the dead, taking a quick jaunt back to earth to tell their friends how their purgation was going. The point of these lugubrious visitations was to encourage the living to pray for the dead. And not just pray for the dead, but to make gifts and bequests to the Church for the dead, and to acknowledge Church authority over the progress of loved ones' souls in the afterlife.

Well, we know how this worked out. The medieval and early-modern Catholic Church leveraged Purgatory into a distinctly temporal money- and power-making device. They did it so well that various successive skeptics (or "heretics") resisted the whole doctrine of Purgatory, resulting ultimately in the success of the Lutheran and other Reformations. Catholics themselves hung onto a kinder, gentler vision of Purgatory through their own Counter-Reformations … but this gets well beyond the scope of Le Goff's book. I bring it up mostly to show how, in Le Goff's terms, Purgatory was far from an esoteric eschatological contention.

Purgatory, as a concept, is a fascinating juncture of emotional responses to death and damnation, hermeneutic efforts to understand contradictory Scripture, philosophical attempts to reason about the necessary contours of the world to come, and tough economic and social decisions. Le Goff notes that the widespread acceptance of Purgatory changed the whole nature of death for Catholic Christians. In the early-medieval church, you sure as hell either mended your ways or accepted the consequences. Later on, after Purgatory took hold, the quality of a deathbed repentance could tip your soul from Gehenna into the bosom of Abraham. This dynamic is wonderfully exhibited in Boccaccio's story of Ser Ciappelletto, in the Decameron, who deflects a well-deserved trip to Hell into the odor of sanctity by some well-timed expiring lies.

Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. [La naissance du Purgatoire, 1981.] Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. 1984. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. BT 842 .L413