The Birth of Purgatory Paperback – 22 Nov 1990
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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 out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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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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.
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.
The imagery of fire in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, can be thought of as a trial by fire. (p. 8). However, the phrase “yet as by fire” has metaphorical connotations. (p. 43). In fact, when “fire” is used in an early Christian context, it has various connotations of a punitive, expiatory, purifying, and probative character. (pp. 43-44).
The doctrine of purgatory may be thought of having antecedents among earlier thinkers. However, Le Gof contents that purgatory cannot be thought of as an ancient doctrine. (p. 46). In fact, the reader may be struck by the variety of beliefs on the afterlife according to the Church fathers and other early Christian thinkers. For some, what came to be known as purgatory was little more than a temporary hell. To others, ALL hell was essentially “purgatory” insofar as it was temporary for everyone who went there.
According to the author, Augustine found the Bible intentionally imprecise and even contradictory on the nature of the afterlife, because God had intended to give only a general framework of understanding the afterlife, and to leave the details to Himself. (p. 63). According to Augustine, the “purgatorial” events began with earthly trials in this life. (p. 134).
The doctrine of purgatory flowered in late medieval times. Interestingly, according to Le Gof, the Tridentine Fathers did not take Church dogma as specifying either the location of Purgatory or the penalties faced by the soul. (p. 13).
Some commentators have, based on this book, quoted Jerome as one who believed in some form of eternal security. Here is the quote from Jerome, “Furthermore, ‘He who with all his spirit has placed his faith in Christ, even if he die in sin, shall by his faith live forever.’” (p. 61).