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Not yet heaven, not quite hell

Umberto Eco, writing in Le Monde (April 3rd) of the great French historian Jacques Le Goff, who died on April 1st, recalls his enthusiastic and colourful descriptions to friends, during the many years he spent writing his biography of St Louis, one of the two very major works that feature in his extensive list of publications, of the common medieval process, known as the mos Teutonicus, whereby the saint-king’s body was boiled up after his death on a crusade in Tunis so that his bones could be brought back hygienically to France. Joviality and a liking for company, and Calvados, seem to have been abiding characteristics of Le Goff, and one imagines his other major work, La Naissance du purgatoire, must also have provided many pleasant anecdotes, of angels, demons and souls in the balance between heaven and hell.

Le Goff’s short work La Bourse et la Vie, somewhat crassly translated as Your Money or your Life, has as its subject the Church’s attitude to usury or money-lending. Le Goff quotes from many exempla, little moral anecdotes prepared for preachers and designed perhaps in equal measure to entertain and intimidate the faithful. Most have to do with the impossibility of the usurer ever making it to heaven, and many indeed feature the stratagems entered into by moneylenders to buy eternal life without restoring, as the Church demanded, the (illegal) interest they had charged for the use of their money. Le Goff notes however that at a certain point in history the message changes subtly: there is talk of “unreasonable” interest (previously any interest was considered unreasonable) and the possibility that the lender might be entitled to some recompense for the risk he is taking with his capital begins to enter into discussions. It is also at about this time (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) that the idea of purgatory as a physical place begins to emerge (it had previously been at most a “state” into which the soul might enter after death). Purgatory now began to be seen as somewhere that usurers might end up, and from which they might be released more quickly by the prayers, or, perhaps more effectually, by the alms-giving of their families. Obviously giving money to the Church was not going to hurt. Later came indulgences.

The great thing about purgatory was that, even though it was staffed by the same, or similar, uncouth demons, and featured scandalous overcrowding, vile oaths, pitchforks, hot coals and sulphurous fumes, if you were sent there you knew you were eventually going to get out and this probably ‑ at least for the glass-half-full sort of chap ‑ would have helped to pass the centuries cheerfully enough. For Le Goff, one of the most important aspects of the “invention” of purgatory is that it was a sign that the Church was moving away from an absolute dogmatism (heaven or hell, nothing else, you choose) to a more nuanced position and a more accepting attitude to the moral complexity of the world, and the person. And through this chink, which allowed, in contrast to the earlier insistence that money could not breed, the legitimacy of the idea of risk and reward for risk, was eventually to creep capitalism. Incidentally, much of the topography of purgatory was drawn from Irish traditions. St Patrick’s Purgatory, in Co Donegal, was a famous location in the late medieval and early modern period and drew pilgrims from many countries. The Visio Tnugdali is a twelfth century Latin text. Tnugdalus or Tundalus was an Irish knight who was shown ‑ or vouchsafed as we used to say – a vision of hell; the work was translated into at least fifteen vernacular languages, having been written down by an Irish monk, Marcus, at the Schottenkloster (Irish church), St James's, in Regensburg on the Danube, around 1149. The original action of the vision takes place the year before and is located in Cork (and hell). One hundred and seventy-two manuscripts of the Tundalus, in various languages, have been discovered. We like to beat ourselves up these days about our lack of an engineering or manufacturing tradition and the consequent lack of high-quality value-added goods for export. But let us remember there was a time when we were Europe’s leading makers of hells and purgatories.