The End of the Ancient Other World: Death and Afterlife between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.
The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

The End of the Ancient Other World: Death and Afterlife between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

By Peter Brown

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, given at Yale University on October 23 and 24, 1996

Lecture 1: Gloriosus Obitus: Death and Afterlife 400-700 AD

In a small book on The Byzantine Empire, written in 1925, Norman Baynes placed at the head of one chapter a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes.” More than any other scholar, it was Baynes who made Byzantium exciting for us, and, with Byzantium, the thought world of late antique Christianity. But Baynes was a man of his age. The chapter dealt with taxes, not with death. It is only comparatively recently that death has attracted the attention of historians of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As a result of the careful study of the imaginative structures associated with death and with the other world what had once seemed a timeless continuum of Christian dogma has come to be caught in history. Certainly distinguishable constellations of belief, practice, and sentiment, each markedly different from the other, each bearing the imprint of a particular time and place, have emerged, like complex cloud formations detaching themselves from a featureless mist. In an outstanding recent study entitled In hora mortis: Evolution de la pastorale chrétienne de la mort au Ive et Ve siècles, Eric Rebillard has drawn attention to the profound changes that took place, within less than one century, between the age of Ambrose and that of Pope Leo, in the attitudes of Latin Christians to the “hour of death.” He concluded that the time may have come for the historian “to take the final step, to envisage des christianismes dans l’histoire” – to envisage, that is, a succession of distinctive “Christianities” spread out in time.

Lecture 2: The Decline of the Empire of God: From Amnesty to Purgatory

In the first decade of the sixth century, Jacob, future bishop of Batnae in the region of Sarug, south of Edessa, on the road that led westward from Persia toward the Euphrates and Antioch, described the manner in which a parishioner might listen to a sermon:

When the preacher speaks of matters that concern perfection, it leaves him cold; when he tells stories of those who have stood out for their zeal for righteousness, his mind begins to wander. If a sermon starts off on the subject of continence, his head begins to nod; if it goes on to speak of sanctity, he falls asleep. But if the preacher speaks about the forgiveness of sins, then your humble Christian wakes up. This is talk about his own condition; he knows it from the tone. His heart rejoices; he opens his mouth; he waves his hands; he heaps praise on the sermon: for this is on a theme that concerns him.

The Christian churches of late antiquity in all regions were full of such less than perfect persons. It was essential that the peccata levia, the lighter, barely conscious sins of the average Christians, should not be held to exclude them altogether from the hope of heaven. In the Latin world, Augustine of Hippo found himself forced to face this issue, in the early decades of the fifth century, in the course of the Pelagian controversy. The Pelagians seemed to imply that every sin was a conscious act of contempt for God and, consequently, worthy of Hellfire. A newly discovered letter of Augustine, written to none other than Cyril of Alexandria, shows that he had to defend himself against Pelagian accusations of minimizing the dangers of Hell. Of the many grievances brought against Augustine, especially in modern times, softness on the issue of damnation is not the one we would expect!

Click here to read this article from the University of Utah

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