Death and Retribution: Medieval Visions of the End of Judas the Traitor

Sinful Clergy burning in Hell (Rood Screen)Death and Retribution: Medieval Visions of the End of Judas the Traitor

Otfried Lieberknecht

Invited lecture, Saint John’s University (Collegeville, MN), 13 May 1997, sponsored by the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, The CSB/SJU Honors Program, the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, and the SJU School of Theology.


Although being described in the Book of Job as “the land of gloom and chaos” (“terra ubi umbra mortis et nullus ordo” Iob 10:22), Hell for Christian tradition was not a region of disorder and chaos, but a realm of well ordered justice. Beginning with the Apocalypse of St. Peter in the second century, and the closely related and highly influential Vision of St. Paul, Christian visions of the Other World developed a topography of Hell where the damned are grouped according to their sins, “bound in bundles” to be burnt (Mt 13:30), and assigned punishments which correspond to their specific sins. In this tradition, Hell makes no exception, but is an essential part of a cosmos on which the words of Wisdom state: “thou hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Sap 11:20). Yet gloom and disorder do reign in Hell, but only, as Gregory the Great explains, in the hearts of the damned, because these don’t recognise the order and suffer eternally the ‘confusio mentis’ which already in their lives had led them to sin and now makes them forever blind for the beatific vision of the Divine (CCSL t.163, p.526s.).


Apart from the diversity of punishments which results from the diversity of sins, it is mainly the specific relation between punishment and sin that constitutes the order of justice in medieval Christian Hell. We are familiar with this principle under the names “lex talionis”, “retaliation”, or “retribution” (cf. Günther 1889, Herdlitczka 1932); and thanks to Dante it is also still widely known under the name “contrap(p)asso” (cf. D’Ovidio 1923), ‘counterpass’ or rather ‘counter-suffering’, which Dante adopted from the Latin terminology of scholastic translations of Aristotle (Eth. Nic. V, 5, 1132b). It describes a form of punishment corresponding to the crime not only in its abstract quantitative degree, but also in its concrete quality, in terms of scholastic philosophy: “equal passion repaid for previous action” (S. th. IIa-IIae, 61, 4, resp.). In its simplest form, the perpetrator has to suffer the same loss or damage which he himself has caused to another, as it used to be illustrated by the biblical formula “an eye for an eye”. Yet criminal praxis as well as Christian visions of the Other World included also a greater variety of forms of retribution, wich can be termed ‘talio analogica’, where the punishment reproduces or reflects other characteristics of the crime: like punishing a part of the body which had been used to commit the deed (example: cutting off a thief’s hand); or punishing the perpetrator with the same instrument which he had used to commit his deed (example: boiling the false coiner in his crucible); or punishing the criminal by the good on which he had directed his criminal impulse (example: punishing venality by molten gold). Particularly important for Christian descriptions of the Other World were also those variants where the material form of the punishment is only metaphorically related to the internal state of mind which had led to the sin: as, for instance, in punishing by fire those who had been inflamed by sinful lust.

Click here to read this lecture given at Saint John’s University