On Early Modern Lit, the Afterlife, and WHOA.

Whether religious or not, every person is expected to have some kind of belief about the afterlife. Even atheists have a belief about the afterlife (their belief is that there isn’t one). Since dying is an inevitable part of life, and we as humans are conscious beings with the ability to picture what lies beyond our own physical existence (both where we might be, and the physical world, continuing without us), thinking about what may (or may not) come after death is unavoidable. Even for those who practice an established religion, views of the afterlife are not absolute or concrete.

Why am I thinking about such a morbid subject on such a beautiful day you may ask? Blame my Early Modern literature professor. Learning about the Medieval Catholic doctrine of Purgatory fired my imagination, artistically and intellectually. Learning about what this doctrine meant to the average English person during England’s Reformation forced me to think about religion, death, and art in a way I hadn’t before.

In a very VERY quick and dirty nutshell, the Medieval Catholic doctrine of Purgatory breaks down to this: after death, some very wicked sinners go straight to Hell. Some very virtuous people (usually saints) go straight to Heaven. And the rest of us not-too-bad but not-too-great people go to Purgatory, where our souls spend some time in torment before we are purged of the sins of our lives and go to Heaven. (To any Catholic readers I am very sorry if I am getting this offensively wrong, I am not Catholic and am only going by what I’ve learned about specifically Medieval Catholicism.) According to Medieval Catholics, the living could lessen a soul’s time in Purgatory through prayers for the dead. That is, even after your death, the living could provide aid and succor to you while you were in Purgatory. This belief in Purgatory and the power of intercessory prayer helped both to map the Afterlife for Medieval Catholics and also, more importantly, allowed those in mourning to maintain a connection to their departed loved one, and even provide help and comfort to them after their death.

There were problems with this, however. Firstly, Purgatory is not mentioned in the Scriptures. For 1200 years a Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, had been used, and sermons had been conducted in Latin. The average English person did not actually know what the Bible said, and had to rely on their priest for translation and interpretation. The invention of the printing press, the translation of the Bible into English, and the increase of literacy among English people (we’re looking at the 16th century here) meant that for the first time people began to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and began to question those Catholic rites and traditions that are not described explicitly in Scripture.

Secondly, the Catholic Church at the time was gaining a reputation for corruption as many 16th-century Catholic clergymen would perform intercessory rites and prayers only for the souls whose bereaved families could afford to pay for them. Those families who could not pay were further grieved by the belief that their loved ones were suffering untold torments in Purgatory and were not being helped. Pressing this image was a good way to squeeze a couple of pennies out of a poor and guilt-ridden family.

Through many political and religious machinations, messy negotiations, and a lot of bloodshed, England undergoes the Reformation and badda-bing, badda-boom, England becomes an officially Protestant nation (again, a very quick and dirty nutshell, and probably without the badda-bing). No more corrupt priests everybody! Woohoo! But oh, that Purgatory thing? You know, that place where you thought that your dear grandmama was receiving help and prayers from you? Doesn’t exist. She’s dead. If she’s not in Heaven, she’s in Hell. Well, have a nice day.

It’s a little shocking, to say the least. In a relatively short period of time an entire nation had to re-imagine their concept of the afterlife. The effect this had on the literature of the period is profound. Take, for example, the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: where does he come from? Within the Catholic religion, ghosts can easily be explained as souls in Purgatory who have not moved on to Heaven. Sounds good. But hold the phone–in Shakespeare’s time, Protestantism was the official religion and therefore Purgatory technically did not exist. So where, exactly, is this Ghost from? If you read or watch the play you’ll find that the Ghost himself is fairly vague on the subject. If the Ghost has nowhere to come from, how is it that it keeps popping up? Where does it disappear to? Does it really exist? How come we can see it? ARE WE ALL LOSING OUR MINDS?

Gripping stuff. Hamlet’s a real page-turner.

Lucifer's Fall - Gustav Dore - based on Paradise Lost

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the author decided not to be vague and described Heaven, Hell, and the Chaos between in vivid detail. The descriptions in Paradise Lost were so influential that even today, the images many people’s minds conjure of Heaven and Hell are actually based on Milton’s epic poem. One of my favourite YA series, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, is inspired by Paradise Lost:

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,  (Milton 2. 910-916)

Phillip Pullman does not seem to view The Fall in the same way as John Milton (so they say, I’ve so far only read two of the twelve books in Paradise Lost, but I can safely say at any rate Pullman’s work does not agree with Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin) but that doesn’t change the fact that Early Modern imagining of the afterlife by artists and intellectuals obviously still influences and inspires Western art and culture.

And that’s AWESOME. It’s hella interesting. When I signed up for a course in Early Modern literature I remember thinking that it would be bone dry, and now my brain is just itching from all the creative possibilities these ideas have presented me. I mean, WHOA.

But back to the afterlife. Maybe after all this excited rambling about Shakespeare and Milton and Purgatory you’re wondering what I believe. On Facebook I list my religion as “I would like to meet a luck dragon” but in all seriousness I identify as agnostic. So far in my young life, most death I have experienced has not been in my immediate family, so I like to believe that the afterlife is whatever the family of the departed person believes it is. Believing that the thing that might bring a grieving family comfort is true brings me comfort. As for what I hope happens to me when I die (hopefully as a funny old lady), well…I hope the people I leave behind remember me fondly. And me? Where will I be? I just don’t know.

But isn’t it interesting to think about? I mean, WHOA.

(SIDE NOTE: Did you know that the term “pandemonium” is a term coined by Milton in Paradise Lost? Pandemonium is the name of the palace the fallen angels build in Hell and means “all demons” the way Pantheon means “all gods”. INTERESTING.)

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About Lauren

Sometimes nifty but never cool, fairly well-travelled with more to explore, Lauren hails from rural Saskatchewan and now resides in a little nest/apartment in East Vancouver with her TC and a bunny called Bunny. Lauren is a cheerful pessimist by day (working a real job!) and a theatre artist, aerial silks enthusiast, and writer by night. She holds a BFA in Theatre Performance from Simon Fraser University. twitter.com/niftynotcool.
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2 Responses to On Early Modern Lit, the Afterlife, and WHOA.

  1. Dave says:

    Great post! The afterlife—well, talking about the afterlife I suppose—is *totally* interesting! Having witnessed people close to me die, I really wish talking about death wasn’t considered morbid (or perhaps I mean taboo)! After all, I think most any discussion about the afterlife is—when you get to the grit of it—discussion about living our lives, and all the big philosophical questions that go along with all that.

    Your post made me suddenly recall David Eagleman’s short stories, “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife”. I guess I kind of admire the way he raises philosophical questions with the “life after death” theme in such elegant bite-sized stories. I imagine “Sum” is a bit more explicit about this than “Paradise Lost” is (I’ve not tried to read that epic-ness of a poem yet, but may give it a try now), but since I’m pretty confident not even Milton has (verifiably) witnessed the afterlife, it could probably be said *any* writing about life after death is necessarily going to have more to say about the author’s views of the living than of the dead.

    Oh, and those stories in “Sum” are conveniently short enough to make great sound bites, and are even better when read by Stephen Fry http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2010/apr/04/stephen-fry-david-eagleman

    Sounds like a really great course to be taking!

    • Lauren says:

      David Eagleman, eh? I’ll have to give that a go once I stop studying for my English final. Thanks for the suggestion!

      As far as Paradise Lost goes, yep, it’s a long intimidating sucker, but if you want a list of reasons why this epic is, well, EPIC, I found a kick ass review on guy.com that certainly convinced me to finish it: http://guy.com/2011/03/10/paradise-lost/

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