​Purgatory and the Parish Church

​Purgatory and the Parish Church
Why is it that churches in even small towns and villages are so magnificent? We asked Dr Samantha Harper, a specialist in medieval churches, to explain. 

At the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, the Catholic Church defined, for the first time, its teaching on Purgatory. Of particular note, it declared that some souls are purified after death, and that such souls benefit from the prayers and pious duties that the living do for them.

Purgatory, as a concept, had existed and influenced Christian life long before this declaration. Jacques Le Goff, in his book The Birth of Purgatory, explained that the word ‘purgatory’ (Latin: purgatorium) as a noun only appeared between 1160 and 1180, suggesting that it was around this time that the idea of Purgatory as a physical place, rather than a state of being, was first aired [1].

It was generally acknowledged that Purgatory was unpleasant, with one day of sickness or tribulation patiently borne whilst we are still on earth being the equivalent of a year of torment in Purgatory [2].

St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions written in the late fifth century, proffered the rather depressing view that very few souls would be saved, and those that were saved would be saints, which offered little hope of an enjoyable afterlife to the average lay person.

However, Purgatory provided a little silver lining – yes, it was a place of torment and anguish, but it was also a place of salvation and purification, a place where the souls of those who repented their earthly sins could escape the rigours of hell and eventually earn their place in Heaven.

A person who led a good life and performed good deeds during their lifetime stored ‘credit’ that would shorten time spent in Purgatory. The 1274 Council, for the first time, not only confirmed the existence of such a place, but the role, and duty, of the living, to aid the dead in the purification of their soul in Purgatory and so achieve salvation. 

Ideas about how prayers might help the souls of the departed on a practical level took time to be formulated and gain traction among the laity throughout Christendom.

Literary works began to be circulated widely about Purgatory.

The most famous of these, Dante’s Divina Commedia, written in the early fourteenth century, drew heavily on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas, a twelfth century Italian philosopher, described Purgatory as a place of torment but also one of peace, where souls are sure of salvation. Consequently, Dante’s Purgatory was paradoxically one of both suffering and hope.

By the fifteenth century a number of tracts on Purgatory, and how one might expedite time spent there, were in circulation in England, including the Gast of Gy, the Vision of Tundale and Revelations of St. Bridget. 

A desire to speed the soul’s path through Purgatory, achieved through the gathering of good deeds in life and prayers of the living for the dead, benefitted the parish churches.

Churches were rebuilt, embellished, and decorated from living parishioners.

Whereas previously only the rich, noble or royalty had the means, and the will, to leave elaborate tombs and personal symbols in churches, now those of comparatively modest means found ways to leave their mark and secure remembrance by living parishioners.

Stone carvings of hereditary symbols and arms were displayed on the inside and outside of churches; memorial brasses begin to appear from the late fourteenth century onwards; stained-glass windows were commissioned funded; and vestments and chalices were provided, perhaps with the arms of the donor. 

John Tame memorial brass
The picture above shows the memorial brass of John Tame and his wife, Alice Twyniho, at St. Mary’s Church in Fairford. Tame largely rebuilt the church and hence his arms are prominent in the décor of the church, both inside and out. He died in 1500 and, though he was a wool merchant by trade, he chose to be depicted in full armour in his memorial brass. He is not thought to have been involved in any major military engagements in his lifetime.

Consequently, if one knows where to look, the fragments and small details of the lives of centuries-gone parishioners can be found in our medieval churches.

Pliny the Younger wrote that as it is given to man to live but a short time on earth, let us leave behind something to bear testament that we lived.

In the parish churches, we can see how their parishioners wished to be remembered, and frequently can find clues about their lives, and how they saw themselves.  

Want to know more? Dr Harper leads our tour of the Medieval churches of the Cotswolds, uncovering the stories of their past benefactors. 

Picture credit
An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory by Ludovico Carracci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (1981, repr. and trans. Chicago, 1984), pp.3-5. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have more recently clarified that Purgatory should be perceived as a state of being, rather than a physical place.
[2] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992), pp.341-2.

Further Reading
Bernard, G.W., The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome (Yale, 2012)
Burgess, C., The Right Ordering of Souls: The Parish of All Saints’ Bristol on the Eve of the Reformation (Woodbridge, 2018)
Cox, J.C. and Ford, Charles, The Parish Churches of England (London, 1935)
Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992)
Harper-Bill, C., Pre-Reformation Church in England, 1400-1530 (Longman, 1989)
Jenkins, Simon, England’s Thousand Best Churches (London, 1999)
Taylor, Richard, How to Read a Church (London, 2003)