Sin, Penance and Purgatory in the Anglo‐Norman Realm: The Evidence of Visions and Ghost Stories

Sin, Penance and Purgatory in the Anglo‐Norman Realm: The Evidence of Visions and Ghost Stories

Watkins, C. S.

Past and Present, Vol.175:1 (2002)


The eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed dramatic changes in the way the next world was understood. Historians of theology, monasticism, the ‘schools’ and the crusades, among others, have all contributed to a complex picture of changing thought within the Church about the ‘last things’ and the geography of the other-world. A crude sketch of these findings might highlight two particular areas of transformation. First, there was a significant reconceptualization of penance, driven by a complex mixture of lay needs and theological imperatives. By the late eleventh century, the daunting ‘fully satisfactory’ penances of the early Middle Ages (designed to expunge entirely the stain of sin) were seen as increasingly impracticable by men and women who lacked the capacity to perform them, and who therefore battened on to alternative strategies for salvation such as crusading or monastic benefaction. From Anselm (d.1109) onwards, penitential theology also cast growing doubt on the idea that any earthly penance could adequately recompense God for human sin.

Under these gathering shadows of sinfulness, ‘contritionist’ thinking about penance cast rays of light. In his Sentences of the 1150s, Peter Lombard expressed the new emerging orthodoxy that the guilt of sin could be separated from the punishment due for it, that the absolution of a sorrowful penitent after confession could snatch his or her soul from the jaws of hell, and that the ‘satisfaction’ still required could be made after death in purging fires of the middle places — which came to be known as purgatory. Under this new penitential regime, even serious sins, once confessed, could be expiated after death. Out of such thinking grew also a renewed emphasis on the power of good deeds done in one’s life and suffrages — intercessory prayers — performed by others after one’s death to speed a soul through postmortem torments. The second area of change, associated with the first, saw the redrawing of maps of the other-world: maps on which purgatory began to appear as a sharply defined, distinct space between heaven and hell. The nature of purgatory’s emergence — whether a sudden birth (marked by the appearance of the noun purgatorium in the 1170s) or a slower evolution (in which the name was simply a ‘handier coin’ struck for the sake of convenience) — has been argued vigorously by historians as eminent as Jacques Le Goff and Sir Richard Southern.



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