The Christian View on Ghosts and Purgatory In The Middle Ages

In the middle ages, death was never far away. Lands were often ravaged by famine and war, towns and villages riddled with disease and the lack of medicine led to high rates of mortality.

People in the middle ages led strict religious lives, and it was religion that crafted their view of life after death. 

The Churches View on Life After Death 

During the Middle Ages (c. 476-1500 CE), most people were devoutly religious. The daily lives of Christians was interpreted, influenced and inspired by the Church.

Despite this, ghost stories and sightings were common. Ghosts were often referred to as Revenants, and played an important role in religious life. The church held a common view on ghosts, and the teaching of purgatory was incorporated into theology.

Purgatory was a place between Heaven and Hell, where many souls would go after death. These souls required help from the living in order to get to Heaven. Souls in purgatory required the living to pray, give alms (offerings), or hold mass on their behalf, so their souls could be cleansed and go on to find eternal peace.

Books of Hours were used in churches, where people could write the names of the dead. These books had a prayer cycle, known as the “Office of the Dead,” these prayers were believed to aid those in purgatory. 

Though deliberately trying to contact the dead is prohibited in Christianity, some spirits were given permission to appear to the living, in order to inform their loved ones that they were in need of purification through prayer.

Writers and Theologians on Ghosts

This idea of purgatory has it’s roots deep in Christian theology, as we see with the great theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Though Aquinas writes about purgatory, the infancy of the doctrine stems back to the Saints Augustine and Gregory the Great.

“. . . according to the disposition of Divine providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men . . . It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas (ST Sppl., 69, 3)

The Cistercian Monk Alcher of Clairvaux also briefly touches on the subject of ghosts in his work Liber de spiritu et anima, acknowledging that they appear, but doesn’t offer an explanation as to why.

James of Clusa (d. 1465), also makes the claim that Christian souls need help getting through purgatory, a topic which may be discussed by the faithful, but questions based on curiosity or superstition into the afterlife are not permitted.

Some writers also inform us of ghostly apparitions which have an impact on the living, such as Jacques de Vitry of the 13th century, who wrote about a young Catholic woman that had been tempted into Catharism, by what appeared to be the ghost of her dead mother.

The Swiss theologian Ludwig Lavater in Von Gespaenstern published his book on demonology De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus, in the Netherlands in 1569. Though he rejects the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, he claims that most ghosts are demonic, which appear to the living in order to tempt them into sin. However, he does acknowledge that some spirits may appear to the living from Heaven, in which they come with revelation or advice. He also suggests that some sightings of ghosts are nothing but delusions.

Gervase of Tilibury writes about how a young man died in the French town of Beaucaire in July 1211, but soon after, he appeared to his female cousin, as well as a priest.

The Vision of Purgatory

Though many writers and scholars have explained the doctrine of purgatory, it was Dante Alighieri who envisioned it. Born in 1265, his most famous work is entitled The Divine Comedy, a poem which is split into three parts – inferno, purgatory and paradise.

The poem takes us on a journey through inferno and purgatory, with his guide, Virgil, the great Roman poet. Beatrice, Dante’s muse, guides him in the third and final stage in paradise.

Dante wasn’t the only person to have seen purgatory. 15th century saints, Catherine of Genoa, and Dutch mystic St. Lidwina of Schiedam also claimed to have had visions.

When she was a teenager, St. Lidwina had an ice skating accident that left her incapacitated for the rest of her life. A sinful man was converted by her prayers and encouragement, but he died not long after, unable to do much penance. The saint asked her guardian angel if he was still in purgatory, and she had this vision:

“‘He is there,’ said her angel, ‘and he suffers much. Would you be willing to endure some pain in order to diminish his?’ ‘Certainly,’ she replied, ‘I am ready to suffer anything to assist him.’ Instantly her angel conducted her into a place of frightful torture. ‘Is this, then, hell, my brother?’ asked the holy maiden, seized with horror. ‘No, sister,’ answered the angel, ‘but this part of purgatory is bordering upon hell.’

“Looking around on all sides, she saw what resembled an immense prison surrounded with walls of a prodigious height, the blackness of which, together with the monstrous stones, inspired her with horror. Approaching this dismal enclosure, she heard a confused noise of lamenting voices, cries of fury, chains, instruments of torture, violent blows which the executioners discharged upon their victims. This noise was such that all the tumult of the world, in tempest or battle, could bear no comparison to it. ‘What, then, is that horrible place?’ asked St. Lidwina of her good angel. ‘Do you wish me to show it to you?’ ‘No, I beseech you,’ said she, recoiling with terror, ‘the noise I hear is so frightful that I can no longer bear it ; how, then, could I endure the sight of those horrors?’

“Continuing her mysterious route, she saw an angel seated sadly on the curb of a well. ‘Who is that angel?’ she asked of her guide. ‘It is,’ he replied, ‘the angel-guardian of the sinner in whose lot you are interested. His soul is in this well, where it has a special purgatory.’ At these words Lidwina cast an inquiring glance at her angel; she desired to see that soul which was dear to her, and endeavor to release it from that frightful pit. Her angel, who understood her, having taken off the cover of the well, a cloud of flames, together with the most plaintive cries, came forth.” Do you recognize that voice?’ said the angel to her. ‘Alas! yes,’ answered the servant of God. ‘Do you desire to see that soul?’ he continued. On her replying in the affirmative, he called him by his name; and immediately our virgin saw appear at the mouth of the pit a spirit all on fire, resembling incandescent metal, which said to her in a voice scarcely audible, ‘O Lidwina, servant of God, who will give me to contemplate the face of the Most High?’

“The sight of this soul, a prey to the most terrible torment of fire, gave our saint such a shock that the cincture which she wore around her body was rent in twain; and, no longer able to endure the sight, she awoke suddenly from her ecstasy. The persons present, perceiving her fear, asked her its cause. ‘Alas!” she replied, ‘how frightful are the prisons of Purgatory! It was to assist the souls that I consented to descend thither. Without this motive, if the whole world were given to me, I would not undergo the terror which that horrible spectacle inspired.’

“Some days later, the same angel whom she had seen so dejected appeared to her with a joyful countenance; he told her that the soul of his protégé had left the pit and passed into the ordinary purgatory. This partial alleviation did not suffice the charity of Lidwina; she continued to pray for the poor patient, and to apply to him the merits of her sufferings, until she saw the gates of heaven opened to him.” (Purgatory, by Fr. F. X. Schouppe, SJ, 16–19)

Saint Catherine of Genoa dedicated her life to caring for the sick, primarily those who had been struck down by the plague. She had this experience of purgatory:

“No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in purgatory as much pain as in hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection accepting purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a soul in its love.

“I seem to see that the pain which souls in purgatory endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is what they have willfully done against his so great goodness, is greater than any other pain they feel in purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance which stays them from drawing near to God.”

The View of Ghosts In The Bible

In pagan times, ghosts were said to be the disembodied spirits of the dead. However, during the rise of Christianity, ghosts were also said to be common, but not all were from God. Some spirits were seen as demonic entities, sent by the Devil to tempt people into sin. 

John 4:1-3 warns believers that not every spirit is from God. Though the Bible often uses the word “ghost”, it doesn’t use the world to describe disembodied spirits, the way we do today, but instead, the word is used as a way of saying “to die”. In Genesis 25:8 for example: Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people.

Mark 15:39 And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

People often told of stories relating to the spirits of the dead, but the church actively encouraged people not delve into meddling with the paranormal, and instead, call upon God when dealing with spirits.

The church would also mediate, when it came to dealing with issues like possession. Possessions, are said to be caused only by demonic entities, and not by the spirits of the dead.

Changes In Later Christian Views

After Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, a lot of Catholic teachings and traditions were also banned. The idea of purgatory was one such teaching.

In the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563, the Church of England rejected the ‘Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as a thing ‘vainly invented’. The protestant view of the doctrine, was that it had been invented by the church as a way of obtaining more money from believers.

In 1564 The bishop of London, Edmund Grindal, claimed that purgatory was preserved by feigned apparitions and other fables.

This seemed to pave the way for more interest in the subject, and inspired a lot of fictional works of the era. The Elizabethan Period witnessed one of literature’s most famous ghosts, in the play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

Though millions of people today have taken up an interest in the paranormal, the belief in ghosts stems back thousands of years.