In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Purgatory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Theological Foundation
  • Relationship to Hell
  • Visions of Purgatory and Purgatorial Souls
  • Famous Purgatories

Renaissance and Reformation Purgatory
Kathryn A. Edwards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0083


During the Renaissance and Reformations, purgatory was most commonly seen as one of three places, along with heaven or hell, where a soul could go after death, and it was visualized as much like hell except that a person’s time there was finite. (The debate about whether purgatory was a place or a state was confined to theological treatises.) Arising from the perceived need for humans to experience penitence and to provide satisfaction to God for their sins, theology concerning purgatory’s exact parameters and effects developed throughout the Middle Ages, even after its affirmation at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. By the later Middle Ages purgatory had become central to both piety and eschatology, particularly the intercessory and penitential systems, because most individuals were neither so bad as to descend directly to hell nor so good as to ascend immediately to heaven after their death. Purgatory was thus where most went to remove the stain of sin from their souls and prepare themselves for heaven. With the sufferings of purgatorial souls vividly depicted in sermons, stories, and art of all kinds, the consequences of sin and the need for repentance motivated a piety revolving around good works, that is, the performance of Christian charity. Giving food to the poor, endowing prayers for the dead, or contributing to a church’s maintenance were among the many activities that were seen as reflecting and creating a purified soul. Yet the extent to which such activities minimized a person’s time in purgatory remained nebulous. Acting through a combination of pastoral pressure and greed, the church articulated a theological foundation for quantifying good works’ benefits and provided documents called “indulgences” that enumerated the number of days, hours, and in some cases minutes in purgatory from which specific pious activity freed an individual. Such benefits could even be assigned to others, living or dead. By the early 16th century, abuses in the theology and pious culture that had evolved around purgatory repelled Catholic reformers and triggered some of the earliest “Protestant” writings, like the Ninety-Five Theses. Soon, those who became Protestant rejected purgatory and individual influence over salvation. For these reformers, individuals who died either directly ascended to heaven or descended to hell; there was no eschatological middle ground. Good works would arise naturally from justified souls; they could not be used to constrain God. Catholic reformers concentrated on eliminating the worst abuses and misunderstandings of the penitential system, of which purgatory was a cornerstone. Purgatory, its doctrinal foundation, and pious manifestations would eventually become a central feature distinguishing Catholic and Protestant in early modern Europe.

General Overviews

In western and central Europe purgatory was at the heart of late medieval theology and piety and in Reformation challenges to them, but in Greek orthodoxy its status was more mixed. Despite, or perhaps because of, purgatory’s prominence in Western Christianity, it is most commonly studied as part of other subjects, such as visions of the afterlife, lay and clerical piety, and the penitential and intercessory systems. The classic large-scale, historical treatment of purgatory is Le Goff 1984, although Cuchet has expanded Le Goff’s analysis chronologically (Cuchet 2005) and has collected research examining the historical and historiographical influence of debates concerning purgatory (Cuchet 2012). An example of some of the best recent work that gives purgatory a prominent role in the history of death, piety, and the English Reformation is Marshall 2002. Theologians generally rejected the Roman version of purgatory, but various pious practices echoed those found in the West to benefit purgatorial souls, and pressures on the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century contributed to a willingness to accept more Westernized formulations. Lowery 1983 surveys Orthodox thought on purgatory, especially the late medieval and early modern developments.

  • Cuchet, Guillaume. Le crépuscule du purgatoire. Paris: Armand Colin, 2005.

    Focus is on the 19th and 20th centuries, but it provides a clear summary of the piety and theology about purgatory in the late Middle Ages and about the Reformations’ effects on both. Gives vivid illustrations of the continued importance of early modern ideas and practices.

  • Cuchet, Guillaume, ed. Le Purgatoire: Fortune historique et historiographique d’un dogme. Paris: Éditions de l‘École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2012.

    Leading French scholars analyze purgatorial piety and theology from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and assess the evolution and influence of the study of purgatory on modern historiography.

  • Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

    Classic analysis of purgatory’s origins in late medieval thought and its effects on pious practices. While its dating of purgatory’s rise has been debated, no other work has superseded it. Originally published in French in 1981 as La Naissance du Purgatoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).

  • Lowery, Mark. “The Concept of Purgation after Death in Orthodox Thought.” M.Div. thesis, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1983.

    Broad synthetic treatment of Orthodox ideas about purgatory and the process of postmortem purgation. Emphasis is on the theology of purgation rather than the practices that evolved from or complemented it.

  • Marshall, Peter. Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198207733.001.0001

    Wide-ranging survey of the consequences of England’s religious debates and cultural changes on attitudes toward and treatment of the dead. Particularly valuable for its analysis of popular beliefs about the afterlife and ghosts, two topics often slighted or ignored in studies of death.

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