If the Annales School of French historical writing has become influential throughout the world, no small part of this is owing to the exuberant and erudite medievalist Jacques Le Goff. As a successor to the celebrated Fernand Braudel, he presided over the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales between 1972 and 1977, and he has long been a guiding spirit of the widely read Annales. At the same time, in an important series of essays and monographs, he has been showing how the study of mentalités—of cultural forms and categories in their social setting—can point medieval history in new directions.

He was attracted to the Middle Ages, he said in a recent collection of his essays, because it was a civilization that lasted a long time and yet was thick with change and the unexpected movement of ideas. He began with a social approach to the merchants and bankers of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, studying them as carriers of secular values, usurious disrupters of medieval notions of just work and reward, yet repentant at death before the fear of Hell. He went on to the university teachers of the thirteenth century, whom he provocatively called “Les Intellectuels” because their work set them apart from the sacred copying and reflection of the monasteries, and the payments they received undermined the old belief that “Knowledge is a gift of God, whence it can not be sold.”

From the study of work he moved to the history of conceptions of time, contrasting the cyclical round of the peasants’ seasons and the Church’s ceremonial calendar with the marked day of merchants’ contracts and artisanal production. Time, like any idea, was not a given, but existed in a precise social space. Medieval culture was not a seamless whole; one must look, he argued, for the differences and exchange between the culture populaire of the unlettered rural masses and the culture savante of the clerks. As Le Goff moved from a social to a more broadly anthropological view of things, he found unexpected new material: the stories or exempla in medieval sermons; the homage kiss, which for a moment made equals of lord and vassal; an old fairy tale in whose motifs the historian could detect reference to medieval population growth and expansion.1

In his new book, The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff draws together several of these concerns—time, work, cultural levels and genres, sources of novelty—and illustrates how he thinks the history of mentalities can be reconstructed over many centuries. The book also bears on the voluminous historical studies (by the late Philippe Ariès among others)2 of a timeless human predicament: how did people prepare for death and how did they imagine what would come afterward? Not surprisingly, much of the history of Christian belief has had less to say about Purgatory than about Hell, whose torments appear on church portals as early as the twelfth century and whose demons cluster around the death-bed in fifteenth-century woodcuts. Purgatory was harder to visualize (should one stress its terrors or its hopes?), and hardly any pictorial descriptions appeared until well after the fourteenth century. Nonetheless Purgatory has been thought to be an ancient discovery which came into its own in Catholic sensibility only between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, even while Protestants were erasing it from their spiritual map.

Le Goff modifies this chronology at both ends. The idea of Purgatory arrived late in Western Christendom, if we mean genuine Purgatory—a third place between Heaven and Hell for a middling category of people—not just a shifting notion of cleansing fires in the afterlife. Once “born” in the twelfth century, however, the idea of Purgatory had enormous importance, embodying new concepts of time and space, reinforcing new claims to power and prestige, reshaping judgments in this world.

Le Goff’s account begins with the various ancient models for the afterlife: Platonic metempsychosis, Virgilian infernal fires, the dark Jewish Sheol and the refreshing bosom of Abraham, where the just could await resurrection. What interests Le Goff here is not finding a “genealogy” for Purgatory; he does not want to present an old-fashioned history of ideas in which belief systems are seen as parts of a family tree. Rather, he writes, these early images “provide information about the historical and logical conditions in which an idea such as that of Purgatory may be born, as well as about what conditions may cut short the development of such an idea.” The ancient concept of time was characteristically a circular one where the universe was seen as an ever-repeating cycle of creation and destruction. This notion accommodated uneasily the linear stretch of time between a person’s death and the end of the world, a necessary concept for Purgatory.

Purgatorial motifs slowly multiplied in early Christian and medieval thought. Augustine was a major source. He affirmed that prayers for his late mother Monica could improve her status in the next world (thus something was happening to her soul: it was not merely being assigned a permanent niche until the Last Judgment). He also held that a purging fire would allow the souls of “the not altogether good” to arrive in Heaven even before the resurrection of the body, while the wicked and the not altogether wicked were punished in Hell. Here too Le Goff shows that ideas are related to historical struggles: the narratives of what would take place in the next world were an alternative to the enthusiastic hopes of Christian millenarians for this world; a purging fire for the few was an alternative to the optimism of those who, following Origen, thought purification and thus Paradise were in everyone’s future. Augustine made people’s chances a little better for the afterlife, but his standards for this one were pessimistic and rigorous. That the author of The City of God did not then go on to describe a purgatory Le Goff explains by his aristocratic revulsion against the vulgar materialism and the excessive concreteness of the apocalyptic tradition.


Some two hundred years later Gregory the Great had no such reservations. His contribution to the development of Purgatory came not from his doctrine but from his rhetoric. A zealous pastor, he had to tell stories that his flock could understand, and stories—exempla—meant details about the location of purifying punishments (Gregory thought it would be in this world, near the scene of one’s sins) and about how long they took. The popular literature of visions and voyages to the next world supplied more particulars—valleys of purging fire and glacial cold; emperors who had successfully finished their purification through the intercession of saints. In the eleventh century, the Cluniac order, urgently petitioned by souls being purged on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily, set up November 2 as a feast day to help the dead, our All Souls’ Day. Hell was an awesome place to visit, but increasingly the purifying fires were generating the interesting plots.

Finally, in the twelfth century, Purgatory was “born,” as Le Goff puts it. By now the reader begins to wonder whether that metaphor does justice to the originality of his argument. Though he gives a date (1170–1180) for the coinage of the noun purgatorium, behind it is a long history of statements, images, and choices, not always connected organically to one another. As he says himself, “historical phenomena do not emerge from the past as a child does from the womb of its mother.” One might prefer to say that in the right conditions Purgatory crystallized.

With the word comes the notion that Purgatory is definitely a place intermediate between Heaven and Hell. Human souls are divided into three categories at death, not into two or four as in competing schemes; the hopeless unrepentant sinners go to Hell, the saintly and martyrs to Heaven, the others to Purgatory. What qualified one for the middle state were venial sins or mortal sins for which one was repentant and had been absolved in this life, but for which one had not worked off the penance. Purged by fire and other torments, every soul there would eventually be received in Heaven. The time could be shortened by the prayers, masses, and alms of the living, and then, once in Paradise, the risen soul could intercede with God for the living and for souls still below in Purgatory. At the resurrection of the body, the former inhabitant of Purgatory could expect to enjoy eternal bliss.

It took a century for these ideas to be clarified. Le Goff describes the process with a rich assortment of texts, linking each refinement of the concept of Purgatory to a social and literary milieu. Purgatory was first given its place by teachers at the new cathedral schools in Paris, at a time when the city was charged with commercial activity and scholastic debate, and by Cistercian monks with their liturgical service for the dead. Its frontiers were defended against heretics who said that nothing could change the destiny of any soul after death. Its formal structure was erected by the great university masters of the thirteenth century. It was preached to the laity in the vivid stories of mendicant friars. Not every feature of Purgatory was described in the same way. Did one gain access to it through a lake in Ireland, as in the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, or was one to think about it less precisely as the upper part of Hell? But the central image of the third place pushed ahead and was affirmed by a papal letter of 1254. It turns out that even a usurer, that much reproached sinner of the medieval city, had a chance for Heaven if he died contrite and passed through Purgatory.


From this material Le Goff goes on to the real challenge of the history of mentalities: to elucidate “the historical and logical conditions” in which the new idea is formed and accepted and to spell out its meanings and consequences. His method is to suggest that what was new in the idea of Purgatory is related to other contemporary processes. The replacement of an other world divided into two parts by one divided into three occurs not long after the emergence of the three orders—those who pray, those who fight, and those who work—as widely accepted categories of social description. Georges Duby’s book on the subject attributes the division of society into three functional orders to a newly revived monarchy, which claimed that it could keep the orders from ganging up on each other.3 Le Goff attributes the insertion of a place between Heaven and Hell both to the Church’s supple policy of Christian rule in the wake of the Gregorian reform and to the appearance of an intermediate community in France, namely the city-dwellers who stood between peasants and lords. Purgatory is not a bourgeois projection, but thinking in threes is easier when burghers are around.

So, too, the mapping of Purgatory took place at a time when medieval cartographers and travelers had more to say about the known world. The visions may even have corresponded to political trends: “No longer made up of tiny receptacles set side by side, like seigneurial monads, [Purgatory] consisted rather of vast territories, kingdoms as Dante would one day call them.” As for the linear time so important to Purgatorial entrances and exits, Le Goff relates it to the flowering of other narrative genres as well as to the new vogue for genealogy in feudal and princely families. Purgatory could also reinforce family ties, as children prayed for dead parents whose souls, they hoped, would one day intercede for them.

There were also new ways of thinking about sins and of limiting their cost, both central to the invention of Purgatory. Here many trends converge. The spread of judicial institutions and the development of canon law stimulated expectation for more equitable sentences in the afterlife. The spread of numeracy in the cities encouraged a calculating attitude toward those sentences. Why shouldn’t they be proportional to the gravity of sins and the frequency of prayers? Meanwhile the Church’s new insistence on the importance of the sacrament of confession—annual confession was made obligatory by a papal decree of 1215—stimulated much reflection on penitence and its fruits. The general mood was both pragmatic and slightly optimistic. The year 1000 had come and gone and no disordering millennium was in sight. Urban civilization was here to stay. Purgatory could accommodate all kinds of people so long as they were truly repentant, including moneylenders and others in the necessary if dishonest trades of this world.

This is a cornucopia of interpretation. Jacques Le Goff has taken an idea from the confines of theology and “popular religion” and shown brilliantly that it is at the crossroads of cultural development. Some of his views are frankly speculative and have already inspired specialized studies to test them. Le Goff has said that one of the pleasures of being a historian of the Middle Ages is that there is enough evidence left for solid scholarship, but not so much as to clip the wings of imagination.

What can be asked here is whether such arguments about mentalities can be made with more rigor. How do we establish persuasive connections between similar cultural processes in a society? Can the mentalities argument be made with enough structure so that a clear picture emerges of historical causes acting over time? In short, how do we resolve the tension between the anthropological and historical modes of analysis? These are problems faced by anyone doing cultural history, and it is useful to consider them in the work of a master.

On the one hand, Le Goff’s argument that “thinking in threes” was a strong trend both in theology and society is supported by converging evidence and metaphors from political and religious pronouncements and by the record of social change, especially the appearance of the burghers. On the other hand, he simply asserts the connection between medieval cartography and Purgatory—pointing to the increasing “realism” of both representations—but does not develop it. Is accuracy what is really at stake in visualizing Purgatory as a space or in debating its location?

The claim, moreover, that there is a link between judicial practice and Purgatorial justice rests only on a general affinity between new rules of “tolerance” or indulgence in the canon-law books and angelic fairness in determining the time of a soul’s stay in Purgatory. Can one find a more precise link, one that could have stirred the imagination of more people? The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were precisely the period when, in both secular and canon law, proof of guilt or innocence by ordeals was being banned in favor of proof established by witnesses, confessions, and torture. Both were well-known processes; indeed, the ordeal was a public religious ritual. Both ordeal and torture used the body (or God acting through the body) to establish guilt or innocence. If the wound from holding a hot iron healed well, the accused was “purged”; if the accused passed through torture without confessing, he or she was “purged of the indices of guilt.” The newer procedures are more reminiscent of Purgatory in their effort to sort out the guilty from the innocent more rationally—to give the innocent more chances to be cleared—and in their assumption that enduring pain for a certain length of time is a means of cleansing oneself. Judicial torture was soon named Gehenna, but it was a Hell from which there was an escape.4

Whether sketched out or fully argued, Jacques Le Goff’s account of the interplay between Purgatory and other features of twelfth- and thirteenth-century society is always stimulating. Ironically, the very multiplicity of the connections he makes threatens to obscure the long-term historical forces that his book would lead us to believe were at work. The central actors were the Church and the laity, and the stake was spiritual rule. From the beginning, clergy and laity collaborated on the construction of Purgatory (indeed, the Soviet scholar Aron Gurevich has argued that Le Goff should have given more weight to the popular contribution to visions of the other world).5 From Augustine on, the movement toward a third place offered a middle way, defusing the radical claims both of millenarians and of heretics. Whatever gratification and hope it brought to the living, whatever concessions it made to the cities and bankers of this world, Purgatory was the kingdom of the post-Gregorian clergy, a kingdom that was given its charter as the papal monarchy reached its height, during the most brilliant moment of clerical expansion. The clergy defined Purgatory and they were its worldly gatekeepers. They were kept busy by it, praying for its souls. They competed with and ultimately vanquished other visitors to the dead, such as village specialists who saw their neighbors’ deceased kin during the night. Small wonder that medieval heretics refused to believe in the third place and that sixteenth-century Protestants demolished it, representing priests as ghouls.

Le Goff ends his story with two early-fourteenth-century events that signified a clerical and a lay triumph over the next world: the pope’s shortening of penalties of souls already in Purgatory and Dante’s composition of the Purgatorio, whose text is much enriched by the material in this book. Of course, Purgatory had a busy afterlife in the next centuries, with the multiplication of masses for the dead, the establishment of confraternities dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, and the promotion of the sale of indulgences. It seems likely that most Catholics came to believe that Purgatory was the place where they were headed: masses for the dead cost only a few sous, and though the wealthy or the cautious paid in their wills for masses that would be celebrated on their behalf until the end of time, many people calculated that several years were probably enough. If death was the great leveler, as in the danse macabre, then Purgatory was the broad avenue of upward mobility.

For those who preferred relying on divine Providence to anxious planning for the next life, the Protestant insistence that the dead were beyond our help came as a relief. The religion of only two places, of Heaven and Hell, was also the religion of the priesthood of all believers, one that called for a stern sense of responsibility in this world as against the second, third, and fourth chances offered by Mother Church. Calvinist teaching encouraged pessimism about the afterlife, since the elect were few, the manifest usurer could count on Hell, and even the seemly businessman might be inwardly burning with sin. Nonetheless, many Protestants of the early generations of reform may have thought Heaven their destination. A peaceful and pious comportment in dying was taken as a good sign; the winged-soul effigies on New England gravestones suggest that children liked to think of their parents in Paradise.

Later on, as Protestant societies settled more clearly into the elect and the reprobate, the eternal fires burned more brightly in sermons and presumably in people’s lives. Some troubled pastors began to regret the loss of a third place, while by the eighteenth century (as the late D.P. Walker showed in The Decline of Hell6 ), Protestant mystics, philosophers, and sectaries had returned to Origen’s idea of a single place. After a suitable period of torment, still needed as a deterrent to evildoers in this world, everyone might proceed to salvation. A few decades later, the painters of Catholic Provence were representing Purgatory as the scene of the euphoric deliverance of souls; the flames were beginning to slip from sight.

These various happy endings may seem modest to contemporary Western readers, caught up as we are in the “decline of death,” or at least of natural death. But as Jacques Le Goff’s book has demonstrated for the birth of Purgatory, each one can be treated as an imaginative system closely connected with structures of power, class, and control; each is part of a process by which broad social moods were created and cultural categories changed. His book, well translated by Arthur Goldhammer, not only elucidates their early history, but shows how they can be used to penetrate the dense texture of the past.

This Issue

July 18, 1985