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The Birth of Purgatory [Paperback]

Jacques Le Goff , A. Goldhammer
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

22 Nov 1990
In The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff, the brilliant medievalist and renowned Annales historian, is concerned not with theological discussion but with the growth of an idea, with the relation between belief and society, with mental structures, and with the historical role of the imagination. Le Goff argues that the doctrine of Purgatory did not appear in the Latin theology of the West before the late twelfth century, that the word purgatorium did not exist until then. He shows that the growth of a belief in an intermediate place between Heaven and Hell was closely bound up with profound changes in the social and intellectual reality of the Middle Ages. Throughout, Le Goff makes use of a wealth of archival material, much of which he has translated for the first time, inviting readers to examine evidence from the writings of great, obscure, or anonymous theologians.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 440 pages
  • Publisher: Scolar Press; New edition edition (22 Nov 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0859678652
  • ISBN-13: 978-0859678650
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.4 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,525,010 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Jacques Le Goff is the author of "Time, Work, and Culture," also published by the University of Chicago Press. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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MEDIEVAL Purgatory reused motifs that had gained currency in very early times: darkness, fire, torture, the bridge as ordeal and passageway, mountains, rivers, and so on. Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great study of how purgatory came about 31 May 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read this book for my History univeristy course on medieaval death culture and just had to buy it after reaidng it - it provides a very good and detailed description discussion on the creation and gradual adoption of Purgatory in medieval europe.
I found it surprisingly easy to read considering it's an academic text, and interesting throughout (which is high praise indeed -haha)
Well reccomended for anyone seriously interested in medieval religious history.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Specialised Information 27 April 2014
By Jane
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a detailed study for scholars of history, theology and, incidentally, art history. Very thoroughly researched indeed, it provides ample expalantion and reference on a topic which has rather diminshed in importance. I used the chapters up to the Reformation as background to an art history dissertation , for which it was invaluable. It helps to have some theological and medieval historical knowledge before starting to read.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful survey of the theological development of Purgatory 25 Oct 2004
By Robert Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I don't want to quibble with the previous reviewer about what Le Goff's actual aims in writing this book were, or whether he should be penalized for not completely fulfilling his goals. But I will insist that this is a extraordinarily fascinating and highly successful survey of the gradual development of the idea of purgatory from the earliest wonderings about the relation between the Christian dead and the problems of purification of sin and the effects of the prayers of the living on the fate of the dead. Indeed, in all of this he succeeds remarkably. I'm not sure why the previous reviewer would imagine more than this would even be possible. There is a remarkable lack of primary and archival resources to make such a project possible. Even in tracing the theology, there are several centuries for which there is little evidence to assess. My own belief is that Le Goff has succeeded as well as we could ever hope for someone to do so in such a difficult concept.

The account falls into two rather uneven parts. Le Goff spends much time on the prehistory of the idea of purgatory, focusing on such "fathers" of purgatory as Clement of Alexandria, Origin, and especially Augustine. The story is a complex one, and I will not attempt to rehearse it here. The significant thing to point out is that from the period of Augustine there was remarkably little development of the idea of purgatory until the 12th century, when the Scholastics and other theologians resurrected the issues that had troubled Augustine and others and came to a general consensus on them.

Most remarkably, even after the Scholastics had developed the concepts and the Church had decided on the actuality of purgatory, purgatory did not achieve the kind of concreteness that it possessed in the centuries that followed and continued well into the 19th century (the idea of purgatory not being a particularly vibrant one today) until Dante wrote the second part of his COMEDY, in which Dante is led through purgatory by Virgil. Incredibly, it was this creative work of fiction and not the theologians or the Church that solidified in the imaginations of medieval Christians the notion of purgatory. Le Goff shows that until the time when Dante wrote the PURGATORY in the early 14th century, there was surprisingly little consensus about the nature of purgatory. After Dante, however, there would be a widespread consensus on the details concerning purgatory. Surely this is one of the few instances in church history where a creative artist bears the primary credit for theological dogma (I should add Catholic dogma, since protestants have never believed in the existence of purgatory). For instance, before Dante there was debate about where purgatory was located. In this world? In a section of hell? As an antechamber of paradise? Dante states that it is a place on earth, in the southern hemisphere, at the precise opposite of Jerusalem. What was the physical constitution of purgatory? Dante depicts it as an extraordinarily high peak (in fact, the highest mountain on earth) on an island, consisting of an ante-purgatory at the base, seven levels or terraces with an earthly paradise at the summit. Theologians had debated how long souls would reside in purgatory, many holding that they would remain until the final judgment. Dante depicts a process of limited duration, possibly extending to the final judgment, but far more likely ending before then. Before Dante, most conceived purgation taking place by fire, but Dante describes a variety of punishments depending on the type of sin, with fire reserved exclusively for the sin of lust. Many had debated whether purgation would take place with the assistance of demons or angels, but Dante clearly depicts benevolent angels aiding souls in their purification. Similarly, many wondered if purgatory could be better conceived as more closely akin to hell or paradise, but Dante unquestionably links it more closely with the latter, in that once one is in purgatory, one is on the path to paradise. Most importantly, prior theologians had conceived purgatory as a place where minor, unimportant sins were purged, and definitely not the major sins. But Dante conceives of purgatory as a place where only the mortal sins are purged, the seven levels dealing with pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust in succession. Minor sins don't even show up on his moral radar.

I think this remarkable book will be of great interest to those working in a number of areas. The appeal to historians of Christian (and especially Catholic, since protestants do not believe in purgatory) thought is obvious, but it will be of great interest to intellectual historians working in the medieval period. I can, however, scarcely over emphasize the importance of this book for readers of Dante, which is what brought me to the book. I read it for the background that it could provide for the intellectual underpinnings of Dante's PURGATORY, and I can't imagine a more perfect book for this purpose. Anyone working through Dante will benefit enormously from reading this excellent volume. I will only add that for such a scholarly study, I found it to be a remarkably fast read. It certainly isn't a page-turner, but I can't imagine a well read individual getting bogged down.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Birth of Purgatory. 30 Oct 2007
By New Age of Barbarism - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
_The Birth of Purgatory_ is an English translation of the work of French medievalist Jacques le Goff on purgatory, published in 1984 by The University of Chicago Press. This study of the development of the idea of Purgatory is not meant to be a theological one but rather a discussion of how the development of the idea of Purgatory relates to belief and culture. While le Goff writes from a secular perspective, he is sufficiently sympathetic to Catholic belief and to the civilization of the medieval world to make this book a particularly important and interesting one for both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. As such, this book offers an excellent study of the birth, growth, and development of the idea of Purgatory as a place from ancient times to the culmination in Dante and church doctrine. The book tends to take a neutral perspective regarding Catholic doctrine and thus can be profitably read as a useful history of the development of Catholic doctrine concerning the afterlife and the role of Purgatory.

Le Goff begins his book by considering "The Third Place" and the role of Purgatory as it developed in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Le Goff argues that a great deal was at stake in this conflict, including the underpinnings of an entire social structure. Le Goff also examines "Before Purgatory", the role of such otherworldly locations as the Hebrew sheol, the Roman Hades and the Elysian Fields. Following this, le Goff considers the role of space in the formation of the concept of Purgatory, the logic and genesis of the idea of Purgatory, and the idea of the intermediate (mentioning the notion of the "refrigerium") and the role of penal imagery including fire. Le Goff also notes the solidarity of the living and the dead in which it becomes possible to pray for souls in Purgatory as well as the theological evidence for Purgatory. The first part of this book is entitled "The Hereafter Before Purgatory". Le Goff begins by considering "Ancient Imaginings", or beliefs about the afterlife in the ancient world that were important precursors to the Christian belief in Purgatory. Le Goff considers beliefs about the afterlife among the Hindus, the Iranians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks and Romans. Le Goff also examines the arguments of Plato for reincarnation and metempsychosis emphasizing the role of Orphism. Le Goff also discusses the role of the pagan poet Vergil (so greatly respected by later Christians including perhaps most famously Dante) and his hero Aeneas who visits the underworld. Le Goff also discusses Gilgamesh in the underworld and ancient belief among the Babylonians. Further, le Goff examines the ancient Hebrew belief in sheol, showing how through Hebraic and Christian apocalyptic literature such belief came to play a prominent role in Christian belief. Le Goff examines several apocryphal texts including the Apocalypse of Paul to show early belief about the afterlife. Le Goff further shows how Judaic belief came to discover an intermediate world. Le Goff then considers whether Purgatory is prefigured in the Bible mentioning such passages as 2 Macc. 12:41 - 46, Matthew 12:31 - 32, Luke 16:19- 26, 1 Corinthians 3:11 - 15, and several other passages used by the Council of Trent to defend the reality of Purgatory. Le Goff also considers the case of Christ's descent into hell, prayers for the dead, and a place of refreshment (the "refrigerium") as they relate to the idea of Purgatory. Finally, le Goff considers "Perpetua's vision" as one of the earliest instances of Purgatory. Following this, le Goff turns to "The Fathers of Purgatory". Le Goff begins by considering Alexandria and two Greek founders of Purgatory, mentioning Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Concerning Origen, le Goff mentions the apokatastasis, a universal optimism about salvation, and concerning Clement, le Goff mentions the role of purgatorial fire. Following this, le Goff turns his attention to Latin Christianity, mentioning some early precursors and disagreement about the hereafter. Next, le Goff examines the thought of Saint Augustine, who he regards as the true father of Purgatory. Le Goff shows controversy in Augustine's thought, the role of prayer for the dead (particularly as concerned his own mother Monica), penalties for souls after death, the role of ghosts (who eventually were taken to reside in Purgatory), and the role of purgatorial fire. Le Goff also examines the role of Purgatory in the thought of Caesarius of Arles and Gregory the Great, mentioning the role of the ghost story and the important political associations undertaken by ghost stories during this time period. Le Goff next turns to "The Early Middle Ages Doctrinal Stagnation and the Riot of Imagination". Le Goff examines early visions of Purgatory as well as the role of ghost stories, including the Augustinian other world in the work of three Spanish writers and "barbarian" other worlds mentioning the role of the other world in Ireland, Gaul, Germany, and Great Britain. Le Goff also examines the role of indifference and traditionalism during the Carolingian period as well as the role of the other world and heresy. Following this, le Goff turns his attention to travels in the other world examining ancient legacies, Bede and medieval visions of the hereafter, "The Vision of Drythelm", and the vision of Wetti. Le Goff also examines the politicization of the otherworld mentioning the vision of Charles the Fat, as well as the liturgy and Purgatory, and the commemoration of the dead mentioning Cluny. The second part of this book is entitled "The Twelfth Century the Birth of Purgatory". Le Goff begins by considering "The Century of the Great Advance", showing how societal developments were mirrored in the growth and development of the idea of Purgatory. Following this, le Goff examines "The Fire of Purgatory The Early Twelfth Century: Certainty and Hesitation". Le Goff examines the role of fire in vernacular literature as well as in four great Parisian theologians and further Parisian developments. Following this, le Goff examines ""Locus Purgatorius" A Place for Purgation". Le Goff here explains the development of Purgatory as a place, mentioning the visions of Bernard, the continuing battle against heresy, various theologians, and the turn of the Thirteenth century when Purgatory took hold. Following this, le Goff examines "Purgatory between Sicily and Ireland". Le Goff examines several monastic visions of Purgatory emphasizing the role of both Sicily and Ireland, as well as ghost stories and "Saint Patrick's Purgatory" (a place underground where the living went to have their sins cleansed in a secret locale). Following this, le Goff turns his attention to "The Logic of Purgatory". Le Goff mentions the continuing development in the concept of sin (the gradations of sin, including venial sins and mortal sins) as well as the role that sin played in determining the status of a soul in the other world. Le Goff also examines the concept of penance, different categories of sinners, the role of the limbos (the Children's Limbo and the Limbo of the Fathers), and several other interesting points as they relate to Purgatory. The third part of this book is entitled "The Triumph of Purgatory". Le Goff begins by considering "The Scholastic Systematization", noting how the role of Purgatory developed in scholastic philosophy. Le Goff also mentions the developing conflict between East and West over such ideas as Purgatory and how they played out in the history of the church. Following this, le Goff turns to "Social Victory: Purgatory and the Cure of Souls". Le Goff mentions the role of time in Purgatory, new voyages to the otherworld, and the role of Purgatory as hope. Le Goff also explains how Purgatory may have played an essential part in the development of capitalism in that the usurer came to be seen as forgiven of his sin in the other world. Next, le Goff considers "The Poetic Triumph: The Divina Commedia". Here, le Goff notes the manner in which Dante incorporated Purgatory into his classic epic poem, thus forever cementing the role it was to play within Catholic theology. Le Goff notes the role that this poem had in forming Catholic belief about the afterlife in particular. Le Goff ends this volume with a chapter entitled "Why Purgatory?" in which he reflects on the social role of Purgatory and the continuing role such belief might have to play to future Catholics. The book ends with four appendices focusing on bibliographical matters and the origin of the word "purgatory".

This book offers a fascinating account of the birth, growth, and development of the doctrine of Purgatory and the idea of Purgatory as a place. It is of particular interest to those who have a historical interest in the Catholic religion and the development of its doctrines, particularly as these relate to the society that developed in the Middle Ages. The book is thoroughly researched and is certain to remain a classic study of the birth and the role of Purgatory in the development of the Catholic Church and medieval society.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book about an Obscure Topic 11 May 2005
By Teddy W. Booth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Le Goff's book explores the role of Purgatory in Medieval Europe. He traces its development and use in Medieval Christianity from ghost stories to Biblical precedents. Overall, an excellent treatment of a medieval phenomenon and its far reaching effects.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A concept whose time has arrived 22 April 2010
By JOHN A. BROUSSARD - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Europe at the turn of the 13th Century was on the cusp of a new era. Population was booming. Aristotle was rediscovered. Scholasticism was emerging. The Crusades were bringing back novelties and new ideas from the killing fields of the Near East. And Spain with its Moslem rulers was a haven for the new learning. All these factors combined to solidify a concept that had been aborning for almost a thousand years--the notion of a place where the souls of the not quite bad and the not quite good could be purged of their sins in the fires of Purgatory. Theologians and canonists had wrestled with the problem of what to do with this vast majority of mankind after departing from this earth. Now the solution was at hand. And the Eternal Church welcomed the idea and profited enormously from the fact that the living could now help the souls in Purgatory to gain access to Heaven. Le Goff has painstakingly accumulated the evidence for the evolution of this novel idea,from the first hints of it by Augustine and some other early church fathers to its final acceptance by the pope. All in all, a masterful accomplishment, thoroughly documented with a revealing look into how this concept finally became part and parcel of the belief systems of millions upon millions of the Catholic faithful.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful Analysis of Purgatory's Origins in Catholic Doctrine 17 May 2009
By CRT - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Purgatory, as a noun and as a doctrine, did not exist until the late 12th century (LeGoff pinpoints the date of its formal birth as 1170). The idea of purgatory, however, existed in Christian thought, and particularly in popular imagination, from the second century. Le Goff's magisterial study shows how the idea and imagination developed respectively into church doctrine, and into one of the world's great literary works, The Divine Comedy. Moreover, he shows the relationship between theology and popular religion, and the changes in the intellectual, social, and economic changes that took place from the time of late antiquity to the dawn of the high middle ages. The various concepts that were held from time to time, and those who held them are described in considerable detail, but never to the point of stultification.

LeGoff argues convincingly that the logic of purgatory rested on some very basic assumptions or beliefs, (1) immortality and resurrection, which can be achieved within the span of a single individual (not perpetual reincarnation or metempsychosis) (2) the dead are judged at the time of death and at the end of time. (3) Although guilty by nature through original sin, men are judged for the sins they themselves are responsible for committing. (4) Sin is not binary--there are degrees of culpability, such that lesser sins can be expurgated. (5) Even after death, there is a nexus between the quick and the dead. The living can intercede, by suffrages--prayers and good works--on behalf of the dead to reduce the time or severity of purgation. (This belief, combined with degrees of sins, was later refined into the elaborate bookkeeping of indulgences). (6) Although the soul is immaterial, it can take on the aspect of corporeality in order to benefit from purgation, or to be eternally punished.

When one finishes this book, his overwhelming impression is that the idea of purgatory as it finally evolved in church doctrine was an inexorable result of popular religion structured by a posteriori philosophical and theological reasoning. This is a very exciting book to read in that it is complete. LeGoff comes to closure on all of the outstanding issues, providing on the way a rich lode of historical, theological, and social detail.
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