Did They Believe in Ghosts in Medieval Times? (Learning from Purgatory)
Today, ghost stories are shared around campfires and bedsteads as sources of entertainment and have little to do with religion. In medieval times, however, these tales of ghosts haunting the living, though they may have been entertaining for some, revolved heavily around religious belief. Purgatory, a waiting terminal between Heaven and Hell, was where these ghosts were thought to reside. Therefore, to reveal how purgatory and other religious beliefs played an important role in forming the attitudes of medieval people, we may want to explore and analyze the common elements in these ghost stories further.
Unlike Heaven and Hell, purgatory was believed to be localized, that is existing among us but unseen. It was even believed that a living person could enter purgatory temporarily, for example via St. Patrick’s Purgatory which was a cave kept under lock-and-key by priests. This localization was why ghosts could visit the living with relative ease. Despite this, ghostly visitations did not cease with the Reformation’s abolishment of purgatory. Elements of Popular Belief explains that “the … belief that the dead came back seeking either their worldly goods or a companion … was a … popular belief [for Catholics and Protestants] right through to the twentieth century” (Scribner, p. 237).
It is hard to overstate how important Christianity was to medieval people. The fear of dying before cleansing yourself of your sins was one of the greatest fears of all; and, of course, the church was the only bathhouse in town offering such soul-cleansing services. To seek this service elsewhere, say a pagan shrine for example, would in itself be considered a sin, for it was a common belief that only through faith in Christ could one’s sins be absolved (John 3:16). As we can see in medieval ghost stories, this belief in Christ did not leave people when they died. Forsooth, in purgatory where demons tortured souls to their heart’s content, belief in Christ and the desire to cleanse one’s soul may have been even greater than it was while living. For the dead believer there may have been a chance to leave purgatory before the day of Christ’s final judgement.
In order to leave purgatory early, the soul would visit the living to ask for help. However, the souls could not visit anyone. A certain ghost in the story of Snowball the tailor revealed why when he said, “Know moreover that I have met you now because today you have not heard mass … for otherwise I should not have had full power of appearing to you” (A.J. Grant). This sheds light on the medieval belief that those who did not attend mass were spiritually weaker than those who did, making them vulnerable to contact with the dead.
When contact was made, the ghost would usually ask the living to hold mass for their sake. Often the number of masses required were quite extensive, depending on how grave the ghost’s sins in life had been. In Snowball the tailor’s case, he was asked “to have the full number of nine times twenty masses celebrated” (A.J. Grant). This shows the medieval belief in the power of mass as a sin-ridding practice, let alone a means for gaining spiritual strength, shedding light on why it was so important to never miss mass at your local church.
There was a belief that some sins required more penance than others, as seen in the story of Walchelin. He, pertaining to the soul of an unnamed murderer, realized “[the man] was being tortured [in purgatory] for spilling the blood of an innocent man only two years before, so that he had not had time to complete the penance for such a terrible misdeed [before he died]” (Joynes, p. 68). Sins of this extent might have required more than just holding mass. Indeed, the ghost of William of Glos disclosed to Walchelin that he had committed the sin of usury, having taken the mill of a poor man who could not pay his debt. William wanted Walchelin to intervene in this affair, begging, “You must give a message to my wife Beatrice … [to] bring me comfort by returning this security to the rightful heir” (Joynes, p.71).
However, just because a ghost beseeched someone to do something did not mean it had to be done. In this way, those in purgatory relied on the mercy of the living to escape their torments. Just so, Walchelin refused William and escaped his ghostly wrath by muttering an orison to St. Mary (Joynes, p.71). This reveals the attitude that perhaps some ghosts deserved to suffer for their sins and others deserved mercy. Clearly, not everyone in the Middle Ages was willing to show mercy to the dead.
Another common theme sheds light on the attitudes of contemporaries. Nearly always, the living visited by the dead became gravely ill following contact. This may have been because the dead that visited the living were sinners and carried some sort of sickening aura. Without purgatory in question, only a sin such as coveting possessions or lusting for a companion would have brought the dead back to the living (Scribner, p.237). Since ghosts carried their sins with them, often symbolized by horrid mutilations in their appearance, this may have been why the people they visited grew ill. It was common for the contacted to become ill for days or even weeks, a period much longer than their average hangover, which debunks another possible claim that these people seeing ghosts were merely hallucinating from excessive drinking.
Verily, the people who experienced these contacts with the dead were adamant that they were not hallucinating. For them the ghosts were physically present, able to touch and hurt them. Often people would be willing to hear these stories and would believe them, revealing how accepted the beliefs in ghosts and purgatory really were. Today, with no notion of purgatory in mind, we often depict ghosts as being translucent, able to walk through walls and glide right through us. This was not the case for medieval contemporaries. Their strong belief in purgatory being a part of this world, neither Heaven nor Hell, is clearly portrayed by the fact that these souls were able to make physical contact with the living without first travelling from somewhere faraway. Therefore, the very nature of medieval ghost stories relies heavily on the belief of purgatory. With this in mind, we can capture an idea of just how influential the belief in purgatory was in day-to-day life.
From exploring the common elements of medieval ghost stories, we have learned the visceral attitude toward hearing mass and the necessary faith in Christ to absolve sins. We have seen the importance given to penance for sins, and how the failure to complete it affected what happened to those in purgatory. In the stories, we come across ghosts who are being tortured and others who are not. This is because some sins required more penance than others. We have speculated over the idea that the contacted fell ill because the ghosts who visited them carried a sickening aura due to their sins. Thanks to the authors of these stories, we have a convenient way to view the attitudes of the past.
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- Robert W. Scribner, “Elements of Popular Belief”, in Handbook of
European History 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation.
Volume I: Structures and Assertions, ed. Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman
and James D. Tracy (1994)
- “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories”, in Yorkshire Archeological Journal (1924),
trans. A. J. Grant.
- Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of
Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies (2001)