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,