Seminary XLIII: double jeopardy for the Anglo-Saxon soul

It seems that neither I or the redoubtable Magistra et Mater can keep up with London seminar blogging, but at least we’re tesselating: she has a post up about the George Garnett paper at the party for Patrick Wormald’s Festschrift on 30th January that I didn’t get to, and it’s worth a read as usual.

Illumination of a demon at the mouth of Hell, from an allegedly Anglo-Saxon manuscript of the Wonders of the East in the British Library

Meanwhile, I can tell you, as has been much requested though mainly by Theo, about what we think the Anglo-Saxons thought about Purgatory, after Helen Foxhall Forbes, apparently one of a line of academic achievers, presented a paper at the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar entitled, “Gone but not Forgotten: Anglo-Saxon charters, Purgatory and Commemoration of the Dead” on 18th February. I should have met Mrs Forbes before, as we appear to have been sharing a university for three years, but Cambridge doesn’t really work like that and so I’d met her for the first time in London the week before. It became clear then that she was going to have a good deal to say next week, and indeed it was a very sourceful paper we got. She started with a story from Bede about a brother at Wearmouth-Jarrow, who lived “an ignoble life” and refused to reform, but was kept on because he was such a good carpenter. He seems to have had something like a stroke, and while incapacitated saw Hell opening up for him, and recovered just long enough to tell the other brothers he knew he was doomed, and then died again having refused the last rites as pointless. They buried him “in the furthest parts of the monastery”, “no-one dared to offer masses or to sing psalms for him or even to pray for him”, and Bede doesn’t give his name (Historia Ecclesiastica, V.14). The thing is that that of course implies that those things would normally have been done, and Bede has other stories that imply the same thing, the prisoner whose fetters are repeatedly sprung by his priestly brother’s masses for his presumed-freed soul and so on (IV.22).

Ruins of St Paul's Jarrow as they stand today (hidden grave of ungodly carpenter not shown)

Ruins of St Paul's Jarrow as they stand today (hidden grave of ungodly carpenter not shown)

Then come the charters. It is not a lot of news perhaps that Anglo-Saxon charters, like charters in most of Europe, are often made to churches with the rider that the church in question must arrange prayers for the donor’s soul. Sometimes it’s just a grant for the health of one’s soul generally, and my stuff is very usually phrased like that too, “pro remedio animae meae”, but there are a good few cases of more elaborate specifications of Masses and Psalters to be sung and so on. There has occasionally been an attempt to link these with penances, as if one could count up one’s sin and then work it off with enough masses etc., but Mrs Forbes showed fairly convincingly that there was no agreement about the `value’ of a mass in these terms and argued that every such grant must have been extensively negotiated between donor and recipient institution. After all, not every church is Cluny and an onerous prayer obligation, or a specially-installed priest, might take more resources than the bequest allowed if a careful guard wasn’t kept on these things. Mrs Forbes argued, on what is accepted lines for Continental scholars following the work of Barbara Rosenwein and indeed my erstwhile supervisor Matthew Innes, that what really matters is the establishment of a relationship between donor and church, a relationship that may even be more important in life than in death, though people did genuinely want to sort out burial and post-mortem care of the soul too, I’m pretty sure. The relationship is supposed to reach into Heaven too, though, because these donations are phrased as gifts to the saints to whom the churches are dedicated, and this is a genuine idea not just some fancy phrasing; a gift to St-Pierre de Cluny or St Augustine’s Canterbury are supposed to connect you to the saint himself, beyond the veil. This is how we believe the cult of saints worked, after all; as I say, this bit struck me as something that we’ve known for ages but apparently it has not yet really made it through to Anglo-Saxon studies.

The will of the thegn Wulfgar, Sawyer 1533, British Library Cotton Charter viii.16 B

The will of the thegn Wulfgar, Sawyer 1533, British Library Cotton Charter viii.16 B

The mind-bending bit came next, however, because it is much harder to work out what official doctrine on Purgatory was in the Anglo-Saxon Church, in so far as one could have a single ‘official line’ in such an organisation. This is because the theological sources are not interested in it; their topic in that direction, Bede excepted though he has enough to say about it too, is the Last Judgement. But there are a couple of other ‘visions of Hell’, one also in Bede and, er, three others? Mrs Forbes could name them when asked—as she was—but I’ve forgotten. And these have a lake of fire or similar from which souls can hope to escape, though there is also the two Places where they will finally wind up. There is the Last Judgement obviously, but there is also this idea of an intermediate stage, sufferings that can be alleviated in the now, matching with visions of angels and demons fighting for the souls of the departed (an idea which turns up in both Bede and Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, though of course Bede knew a good many people trained in that tradition and had met Adomnán himself). So we have this idea of a double judgement, one at death, which can be eased if it goes the wrong way, but also the Final one which is God’s decision and is beyond human influence. The two of them are for some reason talked about almost separately, and from the theological material you wouldn’t really know anyone considered the first one rather than just the Ultimate one, but all those masses have to be for something, right? What Mrs Forbes was arguing was basically that, that the charters show that lay people and even ordinary churchmen were afraid of Purgatory and would take great steps to be released from it, because it wasn’t the sort of thing about which one could ever be sure.

There were lots of questions. It is simultaneously the greatest and the scariest thing about the IHR seminars that you can have what could be an encouraging chat or a verbal smack-down from the leading lights of the field, even though you’re only a humble postgrad. But if you have something interesting to say people remember you. In this instance many of the questions were being asked of other questioners because the ideas had got everyone interested, so I think Mrs Forbes will probably be remembered in the seminar’s own notional Liber Vitae with approval.

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20 responses to “Seminary XLIII: double jeopardy for the Anglo-Saxon soul

  1. highlyeccentric

    this bit struck me as something that we’ve known for ages but apparently it has not yet really made it through to Anglo-Saxon studies.

    Ahahah. Welcome to Anglo-Saxonism, we’re at least ten years behind the times.

    But there are a couple of other ‘visions of Hell’, one also in Bede and, er, three others?

    Gospel of Nichodemus would be one (unless we’re excluding translations from the Latin?), and Genesis B… I used to know some more, but it’s been a couple of years since I did the devils & demons class.

    So we have this idea of a double judgement, one at death, which can be eased if it goes the wrong way, but also the Final one which is God’s decision and is beyond human influence. The two of them are for some reason talked about almost separately, and from the theological material you wouldn’t really know anyone considered the first one rather than just the Ultimate one, but all those masses have to be for something, right?

    Now, I haven’t read Mrs Forbes’ work (but now I want to!), and as I said it’s been a couple of years since I messed around with this side of Anglo-Saxon theology, but the understanding I came away with when I did was that three major events – the Fall of Satan, the Harrowing of Hell and the Last Judgement – are usually talked about when it comes to Hell. We want to think of them as distinct, because we like linear time, but I came away from that class with the impression that Anglo-Saxons weren’t making a clear distinction: that although, yes, they’re happening at different times in relation to other cosmic events, in some way they’re all the same event.

    I can’t remember WHY I thought this, now. It may have been to do with artistic representations, in which two or more of said events are conflated, but I can’t call any such to mind. It may also have been in literary references – not big sweeping narratives like the Junius MS, although there are distinct references forward and back at each of those points in Junius. I think either things I was reading or the teacher I had may have quoted references from sermons and other poems which conflated two or more of these events.

    ERM. Anyway. This argument would actually have some merit if I could remember any of the evidence. But let’s move on to the point I would be making if I’d provided evidence: that the “intermediate” judgement might fit into this smush, that practitioners of Anglo-Saxon Christianity may not have been keeping all of these cosmic events separate in their heads (certainly, not all of them, all of the time).

    • That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know how easily it works with Purgatory, which pretty much by definition has duration. I mean, the story of Bede where the brother priest praying causes his living brother’s shackles to fall off at mass time, and things like the Visio Karoli where a figure appears to a dreamer appealing for help with his torment suggest that these torments are happening in `real time’ as far as the earthly world is concerned, don’t they? And Admonán’s visions for Columba where he sees angels and demons fighting over souls of the just-departed also imply contemporaneity. But now I’m well out of the Anglo-Saxon cultural range and into their neighbours, and still with the learned ecclesiastics and not the Church donors, so who knows.

      As far as I can tell Mrs Forbes, who is only in the final year of her doctorate, doesn’t have anything in print you could read… yet. But I’m sure that she will before long, and then you only need to find the opportunity. Um, yeah.

      • Actually Helen Forbes finished her PhD last summer, and has since then successfully defended and submitted, though the PhD has yet to defeat the inevitable UL-inertia and make it onto the catalogue. That said, she’s very approachable and I’m sure would be willing to pass on an electronic version of it to interested parties. A flavour of her approach can be obtained from her article ‘The Power of Binding and Loosing: the Chains of Sin in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Liturgy’, Quaestio insularis 8 (2007), 51–65.

        • I can confirm the approachability and only apologise for the mistake about her status. I’m also annoyed that I couldn’t find the Quæstio Insularis paper via Google. The page actually doesn’t seem to be in Google: is that intentional, do you know? It seems rather counter-productive if so. But thankyou for vouchsafing the greatest web search aid of all: knowing where to look…

        • I’ve never been involved in Quaestio so don’t quite know how that slipped through myself. I found the Quastio page via a google search, but not by searching for Helen’s name… all rather strange really. I might ask the present CCASNaC organisers next time I’m back in Cambridge.

        • Rory Naismith has experimented and finds that searches on the paper titles on that page work, but the author names not! It’s even weirder than I suspected.

  2. There are at least a couple more visions of the afterlife in Bede (Fursei, HE 3-19, Drythlem HE 5-12, while another man sees the record of his sins in HE 5-13). Google Books includes Eileen Gardiner ‘Medieval visions of heaven and hell: a sourcebook’ which lists some more from other periods. And then, of course, there’s Paul Edward Dutton’s ‘The politics of dreaming in the Carolingian empire’, which has almost everything in it somewhere. The index is hard to use, but entertaining, see e.g. ‘dream symbols of punishments (with subheadings: beatings, boiling metal, boiling water, demons, fire, giants, hooks, laceration, mountains, Northmen, pitch, sulphur or wax, pits, ragged dress, volcano, worms.)

  3. Dear Jonathan,

    You write: ” a gift to St-Pierre de Cluny or St Augustine’s Canterbury are supposed to connect you to the saint himself, beyond the veil. This is how we believe the cult of saints worked, after all; as I say, this bit struck me as something that we’ve known for ages but apparently it has not yet really made it through to Anglo-Saxon studies.”

    I don’t know if that’s entire accurate, though maybe it was because I had Barbara Rosenwein on my dissertation committee, but I was talking about this stuff way back in 1997, and I didn’t just make it up on my own. I did a bit with the use of certain phrases about “ancestors’ souls” and the connection of this piece of conventional rhetoric with the Benedictine Reform in “Anglo-Saxon Wills and the Tradition of Inheritance in the English Benedictine Reform,” Revista de la Sociedad Española de Lengua y Literatura Inglesa Medieval (SELIM) 13 (2000): 5-53.

    Also, Simon Keynes and others have done stuff on similar ideas. So maybe not all Anglo-Saxonists are as far behind the times as HE suggests (the problem is that too many Anglo-Saxonists do just lit crit without enough history).

  4. Thanks for this, Jon. Maybe it’s because I’m currently sharing an office with a Catholic theologian and I’m sensitive to anachronistic talk of ‘Feudalism’, but I’m allergic to referring to ‘Purgatory’ before there is any ‘official doctrine’. Did she address that issue at all?

    • I’ve only read the sections of her PhD using charter materials (and even then only in draft form), but I think the main attempt was to show that such notions were on the ground before there was a clear ‘official doctrine’, and that the approach of Jacques Le Goff rather overlooked much of this evidence. Her PhD title was something along the lines of ‘The development of the notions of penance, purgatory and the afterlife in Anglo-Saxon England’.

      • The ‘notions of…[small-p] purgatory’ circumlocution is certainly better than ‘Purgatory’ and I agree that Le Goff falls into the opposite trap of assuming that something that wasn’t defined didn’t exist.

        But I think the notion of a) a fire that is purgative not punitive and therefore b) the souls in Purgatory are guaranteed salvation is definitionally key and not necessarily a notion the pro remedio clauses in charters, for example, reflect.

        A simpler explanation is that contemporaries are trying to square the problem of what happens to the soul between death and the LJ. They do that by assuming that sinners go straight to Hell to be punished, but that this damnation will only be made permanent at the LJ. The fires in these visions therefore may not be purgative, but the standard punitive Hell, where you might just stay for ever if you haven’t been prayed into Heaven before the LJ hits. That would be qualitatively different from Purgatory.

        I’ve only looked at the evidence in passing, though, so could easily be barking up completely the wrong tree.

        • I think you hit a good distinction between `purgative’ and `punitive’, actually. However, I’ve been trawling the Internet too long for someone using the acronym LJ for `last Judgement’ not to cause me some dissonance…

          I think also that Helen had some few schema where actually both Hell and Heaven are only available after the End and before then you spend time only in a sort of ante-room. I suspect however that some people must get waved through, the saints on one hand, and Bede’s carpenter on the other, where the destinations are so obvious that there won’t be a need for final Adjudication. One of these schemes also had a kind of neutral `limbo’ in it too. I suppose it’s a sign that they were struggling with uncertainties we can recognise.

          • I found this post because I was looking for a starting place on an index of formulas in Anglo-Saxon charters and diplomas, which is yet another example of how I procrastinate on writing by doing research in areas only tangentially – if at all – related to what I’m supposed to be writing about (in this case, S/soul and B/body).

            Instead of finding that, I found purgatory! Cool. To which extinct conversation I offer my suspicion that Bede made some of the articulations (and changes) he made about “the life of the self after life” precisely because he was particularly invested in the beneficial aspects of alms, prayers, masses for the dead, etc. There are ‘standard punitive hells’ in visions, I guess, emphasis on the scare quotes around “standard” – but even Dryhthelm’s vision seems to suggest a distinction between an interim place of suffering and the “os gehennae” from which there is no escape, both of which exist and function in Dryhthelm’s vision of pre-Final Judgment afterlife (HE, V, ch. 12). And I do think the shift in thinking/articulation about the state and/or location of the soul post-death owes much to notions of relationships “beyond the veil” in which reciprocity existed between the living and the dead and between earth and heaven (and other places). In _In aduentu_ Bede describes some kind of provisional hell which serves a purgative role: those marked for assignment of the elect but who polluted themselves are consumed by flames of a purging fire [flammis ignis purgatorii] and are cleansed (Opera homiletica, I.2).

            Aelfric shared a similar concern and emphasizes this relationship in his translation of Dryhthelm’s vision (emending the Visio Pauli’s articulation of a bunch of little distinct geographical categories/regions of the afterworld and the idea that any intercession that happens to change the soul’s fated destination would be that of Mary or St. Michael or someone else already in heaven). Prayers and masses etc can help you out of interim ickiness even before the Final Judgment for Aelfric; the living – not just the heaven-dwelling saints and angels – can alter the course of the soul “after life” but before The End. Given Aelfric’s rejection of the intercession of Mary, Michael etc, and emphasis on actions of the living bringing amelioration instead, I would think that for him, at least, the “personal” relationships that extend beyond the borders of life and earth would be more important than the “donor relationship with the church in life.” So it may not be that Anglo-Saxon studies haven’t “gotten” to this place, but more that some of the emphasis and terminology is different – maybe the focus is less institutional and the vocabulary a bit different. In other words, saying “this is how the cult of saints worked” might be obscuring some subtle but important distinctions between later Continental models and, say, the programme or model of Aelfric in his homilies. This doesn’t quite get articulated the same way for a lot of reasons, I suspect – studies of “gift-exchange relationships” have tended to focus on secular/temporal/heroic modes; discussions of an interim post-life state are limited given that nobody looks for it, since Le Goff says it wasn’t invented yet (and since when it is noticed it’s often discussed only as proto-purgatory without examining how it’s *not*); scholars keep saying things like “the Anglo-Saxons were interested in Judgment Day, not purgatory” and those terms don’t always get unpacked. But this is all an impression I have rather than anything I’ve really investigated carefully, and I have not looked at Anglo-Saxon charters in relation to this. So maybe I only disagree that the theological sources aren’t interested in post-death, pre-Apocalypse states because I have been looking for signs of angelic intervention and temporal modes of gift exchange for so long that I’m seeing them where they aren’t.

            In any case, I think it’s apparent that the Anglo-Saxon afterlife was a curiously busy and often dynamic place, though I think the search for “official doctrine” on purgatory in Anglo Saxon England would uncover more conflicts, shifts in emphasis, and redactions, than consensus. I wonder if any given author’s interest in the afterlife pre-Last Judgment might be fruitfully measured against his beliefs on just how imminent the Last Judgment is/was. If you are convinced the end is nigh, then it might not be worth your time to articulate such complex structures of pre-Apocalypse reciprocity? But given that the Anglo Saxon model of the afterlife was not a simple threefold one of heaven, hell, and some interim separate state, I suspect that the uglier side of that interim state could be just as complex and sometimes contradictory as the prettier side of that interim state.

            So anyway, I don’t suppose you know where I might start looking for a list or discussion of cartulary formulae in Anglo-Saxon England, huh? (I’m looking for St. Michael/archangels and ‘repatriation’ rather than St. Peter and excommunication this time!)

            • (Wow, no wonder you passed!) There’s a lot here and most of it I’m not qualified to comment on. I do think the issue of time is interesting: if there’s a space after life but before Judgement, when is it? and so on. And you’re quite right that in my Rosenwein-like focus I haven’t paid enough attention to relationships between living and dead, and that’s interesting. It’s not, after all, that Continental sources don’t also stress that, but that the scholarship over there has examined them more closely (and often in Maussian terms as you pin down) while Anglo-Saxon studies has rather gone somewhere else.

              The absolute beginnings of Anglo-Saxon diplomatic, and where its formulas are coming from, is covered by Pierre Chaplais (references down the page here) but I don’t know of other work on the formula library since then. There is, RI-OPAC tells me, a three-volume collected papers of Chaplais called English Medieval Diplomatic Practice (London 1975-82) whose index would certainly be worth checking. No-one has ever known as much about this stuff as Chaplais. There must be something more modern though! I’m pretty sure the sort of handlist you’re hoping for doesn’t exist, but some scholarship at least. If Sean Miller’s site were up and running you could at least plug a few search terms into the diplomatic corpus, but sadly at this time it ain’t. Sorry! I can’t be any more help.

        • Well we have got guaranteed salvation in at least one case: Charlemagne in the Visio Wettini. He may be having horrible things happening to his genitals, but it’s specifically stated (v 464 in Walahfrid’s version) that ‘ipse tamen vitam captabit opimam’. But I can’t remember if there are other people in the same vision who are either punished for the duration or on whom a decision has not yet been made.

  5. Prof. Drout, that’s a very useful reference, thankyou: you publish in some marvellous places. The idea of connecting to a social network as the motive behind donation was definitely being presented as something we didn’t necessarily know, so maybe the issue is that in certain parts of Anglo-Saxon studies there isn’t much attention being paid to what’s going on in other fields. But equally, I should have known about the things you mention perhaps.

    Theo, glad to be of service, though I warn you now I’ve missed many of the subsequent seminars. As to official doctrine, it didn’t really come in, but the thrust of the paper was that élite theology didn’t really include this concept, perhaps because of a similar reticence to give chapter and verse on an undecided controversy, but clearly the Church was doing well out of a popular belief in it all the same.

  6. Off topic question: what’s the MS the allegedly Anglo-Saxon BL “Wonders of the East” that the image is from? Is it Cotton Tiberius B.v, and if so, where’d you get the shot?

    • I no longer know, I’m afraid, since the page I linked the image to no longer features that image; I would guess that I dragged it up on Google Image Search, where it can still be found linked to that page, but I think that my caution in the caption was precisely because I can find no trace of this image on the BL’s Digitised Manuscripts site…

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