BMCR 2015.11.26

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity

, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. xxii, 260. ISBN 9780674967588 $24.95.


In this book, Peter Brown seeks to answer how the relationship between wealth and the striving for salvation that became fundamental in Western Christianity evolved. How, when, and why did Christians come to believe that ‘heaven and earth could be joined by money’ (ix)? How did the nature of this conjunction change over time? And in what ways was it differentiated from earlier or other modes of religious or charitable giving? Brown explores these issues in six substantive chapters. The first lays the scene, looking at the ways in which the dead were remembered in early Christianity. The following two chapters examine Augustine’s conception of the afterlife, and his views on almsgiving in the wake of the Pelagian controversy. The last three chapters are set in Gaul, examining the new penitential monasticism of the fifth century in southern Gaul emanating from Lérins, the afterlife in Gregory of Tours’s writings, and finally the influence of Columbanus on religious life and conceptions of the afterlife.

Early Christian theologians were not greatly concerned with the afterlife of the souls of most Christians; their attention was turned to the glory of the martyrs. While the martyrs went straight to heaven, the souls of the others enjoyed a period of rest ( refrigerium) before proceeding to the Last Judgement; and this was not a painful waiting, but rather something akin to the Roman notion of otium, and an entirely positive thing. Between the end of the third and the end of the sixth centuries, the soul’s afterlife became imbued with an individual history: each soul was thought to progress, after the death of the body, at its own speed, in its own way, towards heaven. The story Brown tells is, therefore, not just one of the changing relationship between money, and religious thought and practice; it is also, equally, the story of what one might call the birth of individuality in the Christian West.

The dead and the living were believed, throughout this period, to be closely linked, each completing the other in some way; but the nature of this connection did not remain static. For early Christian theologians like Cyprian, the giving of alms to the poor was like an investment in prime property, or at least in the hospitality of those who received those alms, in heaven. As Brown rightly points out in chapter one, this intimate, and by no means generally controversial, connection between ‘the joining of God and gold’ (29) causes modern persons a great deal of embarrassment; this, however, says nothing much about the strangeness of the middle ages, and rather more about how modern Western ideology has divorced most of life from the ineffable concerns of the spirit. Almsgiving not just an investment in the future, it was also a means of promoting social cohesion between the rich and the poor, a relationship of charity and patronage that reminded people of the bridging of the far deeper chasm between God and humans. In the earliest years of Christianity, most Christians were not very rich. Almsgiving as a means of social cohesion still concerned small communities with relatively intimate knowledge of their members. Over the course of the fourth century, as Christianity expanded to include much of the Roman world, it also now encompassed the very rich, as well as the very poor, who were now no longer familiar members of a small religious community, but simply the faceless, now Christian poor, who had always been a part of any urban setting. The charity of the rich was increasingly manifested in grandiose forms; and almsgiving to the poor was simply a matter of expiatory action, rather than social bonding.

As the community of the Church came to include more rich people, the questions its leaders faced naturally also included more that concerned wealth and its relation to the fates of those who possessed it. Many of the rich adopted a notion of Christ that seemed to be similar to that of the Roman emperor: someone whose patronage was sought, and who could bestow particular favours on his intimates, an intimacy that, perhaps, could be acquired in turn by favours to His Church of a monetary kind. Yet even endowing magnificent churches was not enough to still the questions regarding the fate of the soul: how long did it wait to be received by God? And in what sort of conditions? If these conditions were harsh, what could be done during life to alleviate the journey of the afterlife? Augustine’s response to these questions, examined in some detail in chapter two, was at once non- committal and prescriptive: he wanted to have little to do with speculations on the soul’s afterlife, but was firm about the fact that burial near a saint’s tomb, for example, was of little benefit. Regular almsgiving, penance, and prayer (which included the remembrance of the dead) during life were what mattered above all. Augustine’s view of the mass of Christians was that they were a community not of the unblemished good, nor of the irredeemably bad, but of the non valde boni, the not altogether good. Such people needed something to wash off the taint of daily sin; and daily almsgiving was a crucial component of that cleansing.

In the latter years of his life, much of Augustine’s energy was devoted to combating the ideas of the Pelagians, and some aspects of this debate are the focus of chapter three of the work under review. For radical Pelagians, unless the rich gave away everything, they could not be saved; so regular and smaller-scale almsgiving of the sort Augustine preached was of little benefit. (For both schools of Christian thought, though, it was understood that sin was a debt, which could be paid off by alms; this went right back to Jewish views on sin and its expiation from the third and second centuries BC.) Pelagians believed that it was possible to wash away sin completely through the exercise of one’s free will. Augustine, using the Lord’s Prayer as an argument, countered by saying that one had to beseech the Lord daily for forgiveness of sin; both expiation and forgiveness were, and needed to be, daily acts. Sin was perpetual; and its corollary was perpetual giving. The rich had no special advantage to gain by giving away more in one stroke; they would still need daily almsgiving to mitigate against the taint of daily sin. Thus they were not advantaged in the eyes of God by their greater capacity to give.

Could even daily giving wash away all sin and lead one straight to heaven? On this issue Augustine preferred not to commit, although he was cautiously open to the notion of a purging fire in the afterlife. Although Purgatory was itself to have a great afterlife in the Middle Ages, Augustine himself spoke of the notion ‘with the reticence of a scientist who realizes that he made a discovery that might be used to create a devastating secret weapon’ (110). A key component to his thinking on this was his focus on the Last Judgement, and the potential for both great relief, and great punishment: even if the time spent in the flames of a purging fire could be reduced, only continual penance, prayer, and almsgiving, could provide one with some hope for an afterlife in the eternal presence of God. And even a purging fire, however long or short the time spent there, was an enemy of the eternity in God’s presence that was the ultimate goal of Augustine’s thought.

The religious climate in Gaul in the later fifth and early sixth centuries was quite different, and is the subject of chapter four of Brown’s book. Here, there had been significant social disruption already in Augustine’s lifetime, and figures like Salvian of Marseilles and Faustus of Riez preached a much more vigorous form of penance. They asked the rich to divest themselves of their wealth not, as in the case of the newly Christian Roman rich a century before, in a manner that allowed them nevertheless to maintain some form of their identity at the top of the social hierarchy. Rather, they were encouraged to give up everything and appear in public as explicit embodiments of a clear and sharp break between their earlier lives and those they were now to lead, often as monks or bishops. For Faustus, human beings had a small measure of free agency: they were not God’s slaves without any freedom of action, but they could choose to be his servants. They could not, however, choose to be free of sin; all they could do was choose to serve God through penance. This they had to do out of fear of the Last Judgement, and knowledge of their own, individual sinfulness. Thus for Faustus, there was no immaterial soul: each soul was still imbued with sufficient identity to be able to suffer, and it was important to stress this suffering, as only fear of it could bring about true penance. Plausibly enough, Brown traces this heightened sense of fear back to the disruptions of the first half of the fifth century. In the changed climate, bishops were both the leading remnants of the Roman senatorial class, and those responsible for recovering both civic and religious order; in this they were aided by kings who harnessed religious urgency as a means of reinforcing their own powers and authority.

By the end of the century, the social make-up of Gallic/Frankish society had further changed. It was no longer the case that bishops could claim authority because of their Roman aristocratic background or their renunciation of it. There was no longer anything left to renounce. A bishop like Gregory of Tours based his authority, rather, on his role as the representative of a saint. Part of this appeal to the saint was also an increasing conviction in the presence of the saints—of the other world—in this world, and Brown devotes chapter five to examining the manifestation of this other world in the writings of Gregory of Tours, primarily his hagiographical texts. When beset by violence and expropriation, a claim that the property of the Church was the property of a saint, and a saint, moreover, who would have power to protect or punish, gave that property a halo of safety. This was heightened by the fact that saints were protectors not just of the Church, but also, through the Church, of the poor; and the Church’s possessions were still seen as the patrimony of the poor. Gifts to the Church were not just gifts to the religious, but to the poor at large. And it was, in the view of people like Gregory, only through such gifts that people could redeem their souls and ensure they were among the sheep and not the goats at the Last Judgement, the immanence of which was made manifest through both the laments of the poor and the failures of nature: ‘both were the growl of a God whose patience was running out’ (174).

From the middle of the seventh century onwards, the main recipients of the largesse of the rich were no longer what they had been in Gregory’s time. Under the influence of Columbanus, a new form of penitential monasticism caught on in Western Europe, and Brown devotes a substantial chapter (even though it is entitled ‘Epilogue’) to its origins. It is only now that monasteries began to assume, on a large scale, the role of repositories of the spiritual investments of the laity. They were richly endowed so that their donors would be remembered by the prayers of the monks and nuns, whose life of extreme self-abnegation gave their prayers special value. But even these pious souls could not be guaranteed a direct entry into heaven: they too were tested, and this testing was revealed in the new and increasingly popular genre of vision literature describing the middle world of the afterlife that was neither hell nor heaven. The time was now ripe for the evolution of the medieval religion we are familiar with: large, wealthy monasteries praying for the souls of the secular who were their patrons; regular penance and confession; and an afterlife including Purgatory, the barest outlines of which were now manifestly present. What was left behind of the ancient world was a hierarchical image of the afterlife in which those on the top rung in this life remained on top, with a faceless mass below; now, everyone had to fear a terrifying in-between, the dread of which could only be mitigated by penance and prayer. The new Christian afterlife was more democratic; it was also more individualised, with each soul bearing an encrustation of sin and merit that was unique to itself, and would cause an equally unique accounting, penance, and punishment.

Peter Brown’s last book, “Through the Eye of a Needle”: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (BMCR 2013.02.35), was a fascinating study of the relationship between economics and religion, and how religious concerns aided in the great increase in the wealth of the Church in the West, along with its rise to social, political, and of course spiritual dominance. That book was concerned with the relationship between God and money as it is manifest in and affects the world of this life; the book under review, drawing in some respects on the earlier work, now turns to how the religious conception of the afterlife changed in late antiquity, and how the transformations it underwent related to secular wealth and its religious uses. Taken together, these books are essential (and often beautiful) reading for anyone interested in the history of early Christianity, or, more broadly, in the relationships between the worldly and the other-worldly, the spirit and the body, the sacred and the profane.