A Not-Particularly-Good Book

Dear Reader,

As some may know, I am enlisted by the forces of destiny as a gladiator in the arena of perpetual academia. As a consequence, it falls upon me to read books at various times having to deal with subjects most people would prefer to ignore. Today, I am reading a rather mediocre book dealing with the subject of purgatory.

This is Jacques Le Goff’s book, The Birth of Purgatory.

I am currently working on a short paper dealing with the subject of purgatory and its development as a concept in history, which led me to this work of literature. Sadly, this book fails to fit the bill as a history of purgatory for a number of reasons.

One of the first and most glaring problems is that the book skips most of the history of purgatory entirely. The book claims, for example, “those who have rightly been called the ‘founders’ of the doctrine of Purgatory were Greek theologians,” (52) and yet entirely skims over most of the Greek fathers. In fact, it only treats two of the Greek fathers, Origen and Clement, within the space of 6 (!) pages. Thus, it brashly runs over all of the development in the doctrine that occurred through people like Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, etc. and runs more or less directly to St. Augustine as the founder of Purgatory (but only in certain aspects).

However, even here it deals with the development in a rash fashion, doing away with Augustine in about 20 pages. Le Goff is primarily concerned with the Middle Ages as the time when Purgatory was developed. I have not finished his treatment of this era, but I cannot but think that it will inevitably suffer from the same cursory treatment the evidence was given in the first half.

Ultimately, I take issue with a basic premise Le Goff employs: Purgatory is a “construction” of the Medievals, a projection of various forms of medieval penal discipline into the concept of the afterlife (c.f. 1, 5). It is to be pointed out that he focuses on purgatory as a social concept, but I don’t think that justifies misrepresentation of the facts. A similar dubious premise that allows him to transition to this “construction” arising in the Middle Ages is at the beginning of his book: “until the end of the twelfth century the noun purgatorium did not exist: the Purgatory had not yet been born” (3). Le Goff loves Dante wrongly, I think, seeing him as inventing Purgatory rather than creating poems about it.

When I finish it, we might get a little more information as to its quality. Until then…I’ll be getting time off Purgatory with each page read.

Yours in Christ,
Br. JD


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  1. #1 by LaurenE on October 25, 2010 - 11:36 pm

    Hey Br. JD — while you’ve a point about this authors’s casual dismissal of the development of Purgatory, I think it is certainly a noteworthy fact that the development of Purgatory is entirely a Western tradition, and not something found in Eastern Orthodox or Catholic churches at all. While I disagree with the term “construction”, I wouldn’t dismiss entirely the point about the church of the Middle Ages having a lot to do with its development both as a theological concept and as a “social” concept. I think his point about it being a “projection of various forms of medieval penal discipline into the concept of the afterlife”, while a bit off, hits at least near to the point.

    However, if he insists that Dante created “purgatory” rather than writing a poem about what was, at that time, a well-developed concept (c.f. the Baptistry in Florence, the mosaics from which were highly influential on Dante’s image of heaven, hell, purgatory, etc), he is clearly an idiot.

    • #2 by stmichael71 on October 26, 2010 - 8:43 am

      I would point out, however, that the Eastern Fathers did have a fair amount to say about purgatory, even though not about the specifically developed concepts of the levels of punishments (mostly poetic) or the “purgatorial fires.” This shows up in the Council of Lyon and Florence. The problem is that a book about the history of purgatory should, in my mind, have a great deal more on both the Latin and Greek pre-history of the idea; both sides had a lot to say. Gregory of Nyssa stands out on the Greek side for holding a theory of purgatorial fire, although this is confused with his whole final reconciliation doctrine. Interestingly enough, while the Easterns don’t have as developed and complex a theory of purgatory as the Westerns, they reference it in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches as an explanation for why we can include prayer for the dead in the Canon; this is how it comes into the theology of John Chrysostom, for example.
      I exaggerate a bit on his read on Dante; he holds a position that purgatory was not a clearly and definitively held doctrine before Dante fixed it into human memory through his “poetic triumph.” It’s a rather odd position, as the evidence for why purgatory was not definitively held prior to Dante was that heretics challenged its existence. However, didn’t the Protestants do so post-Dante as well? I’m sure he knows, but the argument doesn’t really seem to follow logically. It seems an excuse to have a Dante commentary, however much I myself enjoy Dante.

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