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.
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).
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 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.