A Strange Medieval Piety


Upon rereading Bainton’s Here I Stand, and in response to those who believe Luther’s excommunication was justified:

During the decade in which Luther was born a pope had declared that the efficacy of indulgences extended to purgatory for the benefit of the living and the dead alike. In the case of the living there was no assurance of avoiding purgatory entirely because God alone knew the extent of the unexpiated guilt and the consequent length of the sentence, but the Church could tell to the year and the day by how much the term could be reduced, whatever it was. And in the case of those already dead and in purgatory, the sum of whose wickedness was complete and known, an immediate release could be offered. Some bulls of indulgence went still further and applied not merely to reduction of penalty but even to the forgiveness of sins. They offered a plenary remission and reconciliation with the Most High.

There were places in which these signal mercies were more accessible than in others. For no theological reason but in the interest of advertising, the Church associated the dispensing of the merits of the saints with visitation upon the relics of the saints. Popes frequently specified precisely how much benefit could be derived from viewing each holy bone. Every relic of the saints in Halle, for example, was endowed by Pope Leo X with an indulgence for the reduction of purgatory by four thousand years. The greatest storehouse for such treasures was Rome. Here in the single crypt of St. Callistus forty popes were buried and 76,000 martyrs. Rome had a piece of Moses’ burning bush and three hundred particles of the Holy Innocents. Rome had the portrait of Christ on the napkin of St. Veronica. Rome had the chains of St. Paul and the scissors with which Emperor Domitian clipped the hair of St. John. The walls of Rome near the Appian gate showed the white spots left by the stones which turned to snowballs when hurled by the mob against St. Peter before his time was come. A church in Rome had the crucifix which leaned over to talk to St. Brigitta. Another had a coin paid to Judas for betraying our Lord. Its value had greatly increased, for now it was able to confer an indulgence of fourteen hundred years. The amount of indulgences to be obtained between the Lateran and St. Peter’s was greater than that afforded by a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Still another church in Rome possessed the twelve-foot beam on which Judas hanged himself. This, however, was not strictly a relic, and doubt was permitted as to its authenticity. In front of the Lateran were the Scala Sancta, twenty-eight stairs, supposedly those which once stood in front of Pilate’s palace. He who crawled up them on hands and knees, repeating a Pater Noster for each one, could thereby release a soul from purgatory. Above all, Rome had the entire bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul. They had been divided to distribute the benefits among the churches. The heads were in the Lateran, and one half of the body of each had been deposited in their respective churches. No city on earth was so plentifully supplied with holy relics, and no city on earth was so richly endowed with spiritual indulgences as Holy Rome.

And from Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, written, mind, to refute the notion that religion, or piety, was in need of radical reform or was in some state of disintegration at the time of the English church’s break with Rome, has this:

English perceptions of the nature of Purgatory in the late Middle Ages were less coherent or at least less carefully nuanced, and altogether grimmer [than that depicted in Dante’s poem La Commedia]. In the first place, there was a general agreement that, at least as far as its activities and staff were concerned, Purgatory was an out-patient department of Hell, rather that the antechamber of Heaven. Purgatory, according to The Ordynarye of Crysten Men, “is one part of hell and the place of right mervaylous payne.” In Purgatory, declared [John] Fisher, “is so great acerbate of pines that no difference is betweene the paynes of hell and them, but only eternity, the paynes of helle be eternal, and the paynes of purgatory have an ende.” There were other similarities to Hell. The collect used in celebrations of the Trental of St Gregory asked for deliverance “out of the hands of evil spirits.” The ministers of punishment in Purgatory, according to Thomas More, are “cruel damned spirites, odious, envious and hateful, despitous enemies.” This conviction was given lurid imaginative expression. In the vision of Sir Owen, the revelation to the Monk of Eynsham, and the “Reuelacyone schewed to ane holy woman,” as well as in the revelations of St. Bridget, devils “ranne ouer all lyke as madde men and were also full cruell and wodde apone tho wrechys.” In addition to mocking and reproaching them, they scourge them, roll them in spiked barrels, boil them till they melt, choke them with scalding pitch, and rend their flesh with irons. . . .

So strong an emphasis on the pains of Purgatory, whatever its pedagogic and corrective intentions, must clearly have developed an impetus of its own. Every week the parish priest bid the people pray “for all the saules that abydes the mercy of god in the paynes of purgatory.” Those pains were a vivid reality to his listeners. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century wills abound in instructions which make clear the testators’ urgent concern that the alms-giving and intercession which would shorten their torments should begin at the earliest possible moment. Wills asks for “Diriges” and doles “as hastily as possible . . . after my departing from this world” or “as sone as I am deade w’toute eny tarrying,” trentals “to be done me from the houre of my dethe unto the tyme of my buriall,” scores of Masses “to be song wher they may be sooest getton.” . . .

The motif of the child whose prayers, good works, and penance secure release for the soul of the unshriven parent was a potent one in late medieval thinking about the cult of the dead, and the popular and influential legend of the Pope Trental, in which St Gregory the Great rescued his sinful and unshriven mother’s soul from Purgatory, or perhaps even Hell, by an elaborate sequence of Masses, fasts, and other mortuary observances, was based on it. But the intercessory powers and obligations of kinship extended wider than the relationship between parent and child. A fifteenth-century chronicle tells of a shipman of Weymouth who goes on pilgrimage to Compostella to have Masses said there for his parents. On his return he is haunted by the ghost of his uncle, who tells him that he has been trying to speak with him for nine years, and who demands that he return as a penniless beggar to Compostella to have Mass said and to distribute alms for him, for “yef thou haddest lete say a masse for me, I had be delivered of the payn that I suffer.” The nephew duly sets out once more for Compostella. One of the attractions of the enormously popular prayers on the passion known as the “Fifteen Oes” of St Brigid was the prefatory rubric, which promised that if anyone said them daily for a year “he shall deliver xv souls out of purgatory of his next kindred, and convert other sinners to gode lyf, and other xv ryghteous men of his kynde shall persever in good lyf.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s