Reviews of

The Ransom of the Soul

In Harvard University Press, Late Antiquity, Latin Christianity, Peter BROWN, Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, Purgatory on March 4, 2016 at 4:23 pm


2016.03.04 | Peter Brown. The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge, MA/London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2015). Pp. 262. Hardcover. ISBN: 9780674967588.

Review by Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, King’s College London.

Many thanks to HUP  for providing the review copy.

Peter Brown does not need any introduction as a prominent scholar and historian of the late antiquity. His previous books on, for example, Augustine of Hippo and early Christian views on sexuality and renunciation, are now regarded as classics. Brown’s recent study, as he states (p. Xi), continues the approach from his previous important volume: “Through the Eyes of a Needle”: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012). However the current collection of lectures adds a new dimension to the discussion. It raises the question: what will happen to our souls when we die? Brown as historian offers insightful comments on the development of the notion of purgatory in the Western theological tradition. In brief, the author presents an easily readable (and that is one of the values of the book) original synopsis of the proposed passage of the soul to the afterlife imagined by Latin theologians between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE. The fate of the soul and its salvation (theology) is skilfully combined by Brown with his comments on social history, ecclesiastical, economic and political power and, of course, Church politics. Under Brown’s guidance the reader makes a journey from the early Patristic period, the emergence of Rome as the centre of authority towards the beginning of the Middle Ages. The flow of the narrative is not distracted by the footnotes, while readers may check at any point the supportive sources and modern studies in the notes allocated at the end of the book. It has to be noted that the highly accomplished discussion in each Chapter combines his insightful commentary on the sources with references to recent publications which add additional and welcome observations relevant to Brown’s discussion.

The book is divided into five chapters and concludes with an epilogue. The first Chapter begins with the early Christian interpretation of the famous Synoptic passage (Matt 19.16-22; Mark 10.17-22 and Luke 18.18-23) reporting the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man and Jesus’ suggestion to collect treasures in heaven. Brown highlights the emerging practice of almsgiving on earth (p. 27) as ‘an assurance’ of growing treasures in the life to come. But, as he rightly point out material support of the poor (common to Jews and Christians in later antiquity) not only created a ‘horizontal’ relationship between rich and poor, but also a ‘vertical’ one which connected the donors with God (p. 32). To illustrate the practice of charity, Brown refers to a number of early Christian sources: the Shepherd of Hermas is quoted to exemplify solidarity with the poor in the community of believers, along with the early Christian celebration of refrigerium as a commemoration of the departed and the offering prayers for them as they waited for eternal bliss. With the emergence of the cult of saints in Western Christianity, personal prayers to the saints aimed to attract their attention, their intercessions before God (p. 39) and to be pleasing to God (p. 40). Gradually the notion of communio sanctorum became part of the Christian faith. It highlighted the ongoing relationship between the living and the holy ones, who although dead, are still are alive in God’s realm. With time (in the 4th century) however, a further shift appeared: saints became patrons, not just partners in prayer (p. 43) and people on earth started to beg for their protection. The first Chapter ends with a valuable reflection on the role of Manichaeism in shaping Western Latin imagination and theology, as this interaction provides the background for the introduction of St Augustine of Hippo’s contribution. No doubt, Augustine is one of Brown’s favourite theologians.

The second and third Chapters are dedicated to Augustine. Firstly, Brown assesses Augustine’s response to the already established Christian rituals which commemorated the dead. These practices included almsgiving, prayers and the celebration of the Eucharist. Secondly, in Chapter three, Brown discusses the famous conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, but yet again Brown’s focus is on their different views as to the value of almsgiving in order to reaffirm the salvation of the soul. One of the values of that discussion offered by Brown is highlighting the fact that Augustine’s theory of the afterlife was minimalist (p. 63). The Latin theologian did not develop an imaginative scenario for the journey of the soul after death, neither was he interested in providing his listeners or readers with details of paradise and hell. Augustine’s ongoing dialogue and polemic with various friends and foes constrained the friskiness of the Christian imagination (dreams and visions) about life after death. Chapter three adds a very important dimension to the exploration of Augustine’s thought: his argument with Pelagius in centre of which was sin and the status of human nature. However that debate was settled within the social, economic and theological frame: the poor, wealth and heaven. Both Augustine and Pelagius were dealing with the same socio-economic reality of their followers, both were fully aware of the poor, as well as the rich in their midst, both were highly concerned about salvation. The great value of Brown’s discussion lies in his reconstruction of the main differences in their theologies and anthropologies, which then directly influenced their views on the role of wealth, charitable works and access to heaven.

Chapter four moves the reader from North Africa towards Gaul where we encounter some less familiar faces: Salvian of Marseilles, Honoratus and the monks of Lerins, Faustus of Riez, Caesarius of Arles and others. We not only move to a new geographical location, but also to the fifth and sixth centuries. Brown’s reading of various authors of this period highlights a new and distinctive aspect of afterlife theology: the emphasis on the Last Judgment. Those monastic and ecclesiastical theologians and preachers stirred up the imagination of their audience and readers with a greater and more detailed panorama of God’s judgment and then two prospects of either eternal bliss or the terror of eternal fire. Material prosperity and acts of charity, especially donations to churches and monasteries were depicted as the unique chance for the wealthy to gain hope for the well-being of their souls in the afterlife. Preaching about penance and the punishment of sins became one of the most common motifs in sermons in fifth-century Gaul. This motif also found its way to the Frankish royal announcements and laws (p.145). The logic of the warnings was simple: the sin of one member of the community might bring God’s wrath on the entire kingdom. The king and bishops were thus responsible for patrolling their subjects.

Chapter five discusses further all consequences for the salvation of the soul in this new cultural and theological setting, this time by referring to Gregory of Tours’ Books of Histories and Seven Books of Miracles. In Brown’s view, Gregory of Tours enhanced the previous (Augustine) models of piety, repentance and almsgiving, as he also emphasised the forthcoming Last Judgment (p.158). As in Gregory’s view, according to Brown, the afterlife of souls, unless they are the souls of saints, was filled with danger. This forthcoming perilous journey called for proper actions during the current lifetime, mainly (among the rich) donations to the church (p.166).  As Brown observes, Gregory allocated divine action, especially punishment, within the span of the current life. Any insult to saints and places of pilgrimage would summon imminent retribution. But it was the care for the poor, or rather the lack of it, which would provoke God’s wrath. In Gregory’s outlook, the care of the poor was one of the best ways of caring for the soul of the benefactor. The institutional Latin Church was depicted as the principal channel of that material support but also the reassurance of the salvation of charitable souls. As in Gregory’s vision, the material and spiritual worlds were interconnected through the mediation of the Church where miracles (e.g. healing) were seen as reflections of the proximity of God and his saints. That proximity was almost tangible.

The book concludes with the Epilogue, which highlights the role of western monasticism with its shining examples such as Columbanus who was influenced by Cassian and then shared that inspiration with his monastic milieu.  The monastery “powerhouses of prayer” (p. 196) took care of the souls of their communities; they protected them from this world and helped them to focus on the one to come. As Brown noted, these places in seventh century France were “antechambers to the afterlife” (p. 201). They reinforced the powerful, if not fearsome, paradigm of the spiritual journey for the soul. In the centre of that paradigm was a clear notion of sin and punishment in the world to come, but also a reassurance of reward for those who resisted sin in this transient world. Brown’s study successfully shows the transformation of the idea of the soul’s life in the world to come and the main stages of that process, including human role in ‘saving’ souls.

Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
Visiting Research Fellow, King’s College London    


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