Purgatorium December 10, 2012

Some years ago, Jacques Le Goff argued in The Birth of Purgatory that the notion of Purgatory as a place distinct from heaven and hell emerged only in the late twelfth century. Notions of purgation after death appear much earlier, but Le Goff claimed that the linguistic evidence pointed to a later development. Purgatorium replaced purgatorius ignis and purgatoriis locis between 1160 and 1180.

Le Goff’s book ignited a fiery battle among medievalists, but more recently Megan McLaughlin ( Consorting with Saints: Prayer for the Dead in Early Medieval France , 18-19) has defended Le Goff. While admitted that he may have overstated his thesis, she thinks Le Goff “essentially correct.” She adds, “While individual early medieval writers (notably the Venerable Bede) may have described something like Purgatory in their works, there was certainly no shared notion of a single place of purgation in the next world before the twelfth century.” The popularity of the word purgatorium in the twelfth century “reflected the new importance that purgation after death was taking on at this time” as “other images and ideas associated with prayer for the dead . . . were gradually discarded.”

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