25 May, 2017 230 Christianity

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the flourishing of the idea of Purgatory from C12th, when it was imagined as a place alongside Hell and Heaven in which the souls of sinners would be purged of those sins by fire. In the West, there were new systems put in place to pray for the souls of the dead, on a greater scale, with opportunities to buy pardons to shorten time in Purgatory. The idea was enriched with visions, some religious and some literary; Dante imagined Purgatory as a mountain in the southern hemisphere, others such as Marie de France told of The Legend of the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, in which the entrance was on Station Island in County Donegal. This idea of purification by fire had appalled the Eastern Orthodox Church and was one of the factors in the split from Rome in 1054, but flourished in the West up to the reformations of C16th when it was again particularly divisive.

Listen on BBC Sounds website


  • Laura Ashe 11 episodes
    Associate Professor of English and fellow of Worcester College at the University of Oxford
  • Matthew Treherne No other episodes
    Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Leeds
  • Helen Foxhall Forbes No other episodes
    Associate Professor of Early Medieval History at Durham University

Reading list

  • The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso
    Dante Alighieri (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick) (Penguin Classics, 2012) Google Books →
  • Hell and its Rivals: Death and Retribution among Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Early Middle Ages
    Alan E. Bernstein (Cornell University Press, 2017) Google Books →
  • Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation
    Paul Binski (Cornell University Press, 1996) Google Books →
  • The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity
    Peter Brown (Harvard University Press, 2015) Google Books →
  • The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire
    Paul Dutton (University of Nebraska Press, 1994) Google Books →
  • Peter of Cornwall's Book of Revelations
    Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (eds.) (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013) Google Books →
  • The Persistence of Purgatory
    Richard K. Fenn (Cambridge University Press, 1995) Google Books →
  • Heaven and Earth in Anglo-Saxon England: Theology and Society in an Age of Faith
    Helen Foxhall Forbes (Ashgate, 2013) Google Books →
  • Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell: A Sourcebook
    Eileen Gardiner (Routledge, 1993) Google Books →
  • Dante: A Very Brief History
    Peter S. Hawkins (Blackwell, 2006)
  • The Birth of Purgatory
    Jacques le Goff (trans. Arthur Goldhammer) (University Of Chicago Press, 1986) Google Books →
  • Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England
    Peter Marshall (Oxford University Press, 2002) Google Books →
  • Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium: The Fate of the Soul in Theology, Liturgy and Art
    Vasileios Marinis (Cambridge University Press, 2017) Google Books →
  • Christian Theology: An Introduction
    Alister E. McGrath (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) Google Books →
  • Heaven's Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity
    Isobel Moreira (Oxford University Press, 2010) Google Books →
  • Dante and the Medieval Other World
    Alison Morgan (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Google Books →
  • Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society
    Jean-Claude Schmitt (trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan) (University of Chicago Press, 1998) Google Books →
  • Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages
    Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman (eds.) (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) Google Books →
  • The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology
    Jerry L. Walls (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 2008) Google Books →
  • Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times
    Carole G. Zaleski (Oxford University Press, 1988) Google Books →

Related episodes

Programme ID: b08qxfrb

Episode page: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08qxfrb

Auto-category: 230.2 (Christianity - Doctrinal Theology - Eschatology)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello. In the Middle Ages, most Christians in the West hoped that when they died, their souls would go straight to purgatory.