Death and Judgment in Vices and Virtues

Vices and Virtues, a Middle English dialogue between the soul and Reason, existing uniquely in London, BL MS Stowe 34, was written at the turn of the thirteenth century at the time Jacques Le Goff claims Purgatory was born. It does not contain any mention of Purgatory, but it does refer to purgatorial cleansing and the possibility that the suffrages of the living can aid the dead.  As a social historian, Le Goff is interested in the link between the development of the idea of purgatory and changes in European society at the time; as R. W. Southern points out in an early review in Le Goff’s book on The Birth of Purgatory, ‘Nearly all important theological developments are brought about by pressures, social or otherwise, from outside the theological system, and the doctrine of Purgatory is no exception’ [‘Between Heaven and Hell’, TLS June 1982, p. 651]. While ‘the existence of purgatorial fire’ for the cleansing of those who are ‘not altogether good’ is acknowledged by Augustine, Le Goff insists it is only between 1150 and 1250 that  ‘it became possible to set aside a distinctive location for Purgatory’ and with it a tri-partite afterlife and associates this with the introduction of the noun purgatorium towards the end of the twelfth century [Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (1981; Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1984)]. Southern disputes the emphasis Le Goff places on the appearance of the word ‘purgatory’ and the structural argument he extrapolates, and Le Goff’s thesis has remained contentious. There is not space here to fully debate Le Goff’s thesis, but it is useful as a starting point for the discussion of death and judgment after death found in Vices and Virtues.

Purgatory is established by a ternary system as an alternative to Heaven and Hell: a specific place occupied after death for a specific amount of time to allow the sinful dead to expiate their sins and eventually gain admittance into heaven.  The introduction of the noun ‘Purgatorium’ to designate a specific place of post-mortem penance and purgatorial cleansing through suffering is attested to by two British Latin writers: Aelred of Rievaulx, writing in the mid-twelfth century, uses the adjectival form in the phrase ‘poenae purgatoriae’, whereas Thomas Chobham uses the noun purgatorium in his Summa de arte praedicandi, a work of advice for preachers and those who had a duty of care towards lay people probably written in the second decade of the thirteenth century.  Chobham’s summa was directed towards preachers and what they needed to know in the fulfilment of their pastoral duties, particularly preaching to the laity.  One might expect, therefore, to find an interest in the time between death and the Last Judgment in the vernacular homilies and pastoral literature produced at this time: the unique copy of  Vices and Virtues was written around 1200, though probably copied from a text composed no more than fifty years earlier [Judith Crawford, ‘Vices and Virtues Re-edited from British Library MS Stowe 34’, Ph.D. thesis (unpub.), Sheffield University, 1986]

Vices and Virtues was influenced by Anglo-Saxon writing in Old English and Latin but is best understood as part of a resurgence in vernacular pastoral literature in England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, alongside the Lambeth and Trinity homilies and the West Midlands literature associated with Ancrene Wisse. The Lambeth and Trinity homilies, found in manuscripts from the late twelfth century, reflected current pastoral concerns and exhibited stylistic features which suggest the influence of the ‘modern’ scholastic sermon [Bella Millett, ‘The Pastoral Context of the Lambeth and Trinity Homilies’, in Essays in Manuscript Geography: Vernacular Manuscripts of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century, ed. W. Scase (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 43-64, (p. 50).  See also Phyllis B. Roberts, ‘The ars praedicandi and the medieval sermon’ in Preacher, Sermon and the Audience in the Middle Ages ed. by Carolyn Muessig (Leiden: Brill, 2002) pp. 41-62.].  The title of the published editions of these collections – Old English Homilies – however suggests an older spirituality. Judith Crawford, who edited Vices and Virtues as a thesis in the 1980s, suggests Vices and Virtues ‘forms the major surviving bridge between the late Old English homiletic tradition’ and later works of vernacular spirituality such as those by Hilton and Love.  My concern here is not to trace the influence of Anglo-Saxon spirituality and beliefs on Vices and Virtues, but it is necessary to acknowledge that influence, and read the text alongside other contemporary works of vernacular pastoral literature which share concerns with death and judgment.

Le Goff presents a persuasive grand narrative for the history of Purgatory; such narratives are like rivers, running strongly in one direction, but rivers can have eddies and cross currents. Le Goff does not consider the evidence of English vernacular literature at the time of the ‘birth of Purgatory’, but literature such as Vices and Virtues creates a cross current, and while the evidence of this literature does not contradict Le Goff’s thesis, it does suggest we should not allow ourselves to be swept along with the flow of the grand narrative river but rather to take time to contemplate the eddies. While some passages in Vices and Virtues insist on the absolute distinction between the saved and the damned, paying the penance for sins after death and the purgation of sins are held out as a possibility for penitent sinners allowing therefore post-mortem redemption. The author of Vices and Virtues took his material from many, diverse sources and at the end of the work he thanks God ‘of ðese witte and of ðese wisdome’ [‘for this knowledge and for this wisdom’] which he has gathered ‘of maniȝes manne ȝeswinkes’ [‘from many holy men’s labours’] [Vices and Virtues, Vices and Virtues, being a Soul’s Confession of its Sins with Reason’s Description of the Virtues: A Middle-English Dialogue of about 1200 A.D., ed. F. Holthausen, EETS o.s. 89 (London: Oxford University Press, 2 parts 1888 & 1921 with consecutive pagination; rep., 1967)].  This is not merely a literary trope, the work does show the influence of many earlier writers, but as Judith Crawford points out, ‘no evidence has yet been found of works, either in Latin or English, from which he borrowed heavily’.  The material may seem disparate, but the author, like any good preacher, used what he had to hand – fear of the punishments of hell, dread of judgment, descriptions of rotting corpses, demons and dreams – to persuade his readers of the necessity of living a good life and achieving salvation.  It also exhibits at times a concern with the intervening period between death and judgment, and the possibility of alleviating the penitential suffering of the dead.

The different views of the afterlife, however, are not due to these various sources, but because the work’s didactic purpose entailed stressing the responsibility all must take for their own sins, while not rendering them hopeless and therefore helpless in the face of despair. The binary of  Heaven and Hell is not replaced by a tripartite vision of the afterlife (Hell, Heaven and Purgatory) but the two co-exist in a sophisticated syncretism; one system is temporal, describing the time between death and judgment while the other is eternal, taking place at the end of time when time itself ceases to exist and all the universe collapses into the division between eternal bliss and eternal woe.

I have  uploaded the complete paper (with full bibliographical references) to my academia.edu page. https://independent.academia.edu/CateGunn

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *