The Ransom of the Soul

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity
Peter Brown
Harvard University Press  288pp  £18.95

Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages were worried about what would happen when they died. Would they go straight to heaven or down to hell, and when would their body be resurrected? In East and West alike these anxieties were reinforced by depictions of devils with pitchforks, St Michael separating the virtuous and the damned, and the souls of the blessed in heaven. It was widely agreed that most souls would have to wait for the final Resurrection, but what would happen in the intervening period? Catholic Christianity had a detailed answer: Purgatory, a waiting room where the souls of the dead might be cleansed of their sins, assisted by the prayers, penance and donations of the living.

Jacques Le Goff’s classic, The Birth of Purgatory (1984), argued for the 12th century as the turning point. Peter Brown’s focus is earlier and he has now thrown wealth into the equation. A great historian of late antiquity, he is also the author of the much-praised Through the Eye of a Needle (2012). The towering figure of St Augustine again looms large in The Ransom of the Soul and, like Le Goff, Brown deals with the West. Augustine was cautious about the afterlife but his insistence that human beings are intrinsically sinful fed into the firmer views held by his early medieval successors. Eastern Christians had similar questions about the afterlife and they, too, were exhorted to demonstrate their penitence. But the developed doctrine of Purgatory belonged to the Catholic West.  

This is also a story of post-imperialism. For Brown, the Roman Empire in the West spectacularly fell apart in the fifth century ad, but in the post-Roman barbarian kingdoms the royal families and the influential new nobility provided new targets for warnings about the afterlife.

Brown insists that Augustine and his successors were writing for the better off. Money mattered. Sins became debts to be repaid and richer Christians should help the process through almsgiving, donations and foundations where prayers could be said. The church collectively became stricter and richer. Irish monks led by Columbanus added a dash of exoticism, and by the seventh century ad a new world had dawned in which one could pay one’s way out of one’s sins. 

Peter Brown’s prose is dazzling and his argument novel. The tabulation of penances, the exposure of sins in confession and the corresponding requirement to repay debts thus built up became hallmarks of western medieval Christianity. There was no escape: the roots of the system stretched back as far as the early days of Christianity and, except for martyrs and saints, sin was everyone’s lot. In this ‘arms race’ the richer you were, the more you were expected to pay. 

Averil Cameron is former Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford.

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