The Vision of Drythelm

On April 5, 2014 by admin


Historian Jacques Le Goff in His Home Office

Jacques Le Goff

[Jacques Le Goff, the medieval historian and editor-in-chief of the journal Annales died last Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Here is a section from his ground-breaking work The Birth of Purgatory.]


The vision of Drythelm, which constitutes the twelfth chapter of Book Five of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, is important for our purposes. The hero of the story, Drythelm, is a pious laymen, the father of a family, who lives in the region of Cunningham, near the Scottish border. One night he becomes gravely ill and dies. At dawn, however, he revives, causing those watching over his body to flee in terror, except for his wife, who, though terrified, is happy. Drythelm then divides his property into three portions, one for his wife, one for his children and one for the poor, and withdraws to a hermitage attached to the isolated monastery of Melrose, located at a bend in River Tweed. There he lives a life of repentance and, when the opportunity presents itself, tells of his adventure.

A person dressed in shining white leads him eastward through a very wide, deep and infinitely long valley, flanked on the left by terrifying flames and on the right by horrible storms of hail and snow. Both slopes of the valley are filled with human souls, constantly tossed back and forth by the winds. Drythelm thinks that he must be in Hell. But his companion reads his mind and tells him that “this is not Hell as you imagine.”  As they continue it becomes increasingly dark and Drythelm can see nothing but the bright shape of his guide. Suddenly, masses of “dusky flame” shoot up out of a great pit and fall back into it. Drythlem finds himself alone. Human souls rise and fall like sparks in the midst of this flame. This spectacle is accompanied by inhuman cries and laughter, and the stench is terrible. Drythlem pays particular attention to the inflicted on five souls, including a clergyman, recognizable by his tonsure, a layman and a woman, (we are in world of binary oppositions: clerk/layman, man/woman—these figures represent all of human society, and the two others remain in a mysterious penumbra.) Devils surround him and threaten him to grab him with glowing tongs, and Drythelm thinks he is lost, but all at once a light appears, like a brilliant star, that grows in size and sends the devils fleeing.


His companion has returned and he now leads Drythelm off in another direction, toward the light. They come to a wall so high and long that his eye cannot take it in and in some incomprehensible way they pass through it and Drythelm finds itself in vast, green meadow, full of flowers, fragrant and bathed in a brilliant light. Men in white are gathered there in happy groups. Drythelm thinks that he has arrived in the Kingdom of Heaven but again his companion reads his mind and tells him, “No this is not the Kingdom of heaven as you imagine.” As Drythelm makes his way across this meadow, he sees an even more brilliant light ahead and hears the sweet sound of people singing; the fragrance he now smells makes the sweetness of the meadow that pleased him earlier seem a trifle. He is hoping to enter the marvellous place he has glimpsed when his guide forces him to turn back. When they reach the place where the white-clad souls were gathered, his companion asks him, “Do you know what all these things are that you have seen?” The answer is no. His companion then continues:

“The valley that you saw, with its horrible burning flames and icy cold is the place, is the place where souls are tried and punished who have delayed to confess and amend their wicked ways [scelera], and who at last had recourse to penitence at the hour of death and so depart this life. Because they confessed and were penitent, although only at death, they will all be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven on the Day of Judgment. But many are helped by the prayers, alms, and by the fasting of the living, and especially by the offering of Masses, and are therefore set free in the Day of Judgement.  The fiery noisome pit that you saw is the mouth of Hell and whosoever falls into it will never be delivered throughout eternity. The flowery place, where you see these fair young people so happy and resplendent, is where souls are received who die having done good but are not so perfect as to merit immediate entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. But at the Day of Judgement, they shall all see Christ and shall enter upon the joys of His heavenly Kingdom. And whoever are perfect in word, deed and thought, enter the Kingdom of heaven as soon as they leave the body. The Kingdom is situated near the place where you heard the sound of sweet singing, with the sweet fragrance and glorious light. You must now return to your body and live among men once more; but if you will weigh your actions with greater care and study to keep your words and ways virtuous and simple, then when you die you too will win a home among these happy spirits that you see. For, when I left you for a while. I did so in order to discover what your future would be.”

These words feel Drythelm with sadness at the thought of having to return to his body, and he eagerly contemplates the beauty and charm of the place he is in and the rest of the company their with him. But while he is wondering how he must ask his guide a question, a before he dares to do so, he finds himself back among the living.

…The text, an important milestone on the Road to Purgatory, does contain the idea of a place set aside for purgation. The nature of the place, moreover, is described in detail. Not only are the souls there punished alternatively by heat and cold, to the point where Drythelm thinks he is in Hell, but we are also told that this place is one of examination and punishment, not of purification in the proper sense of the word. This kind of sin that brings a soul to this place is specified: it is a question of grave sins, scelera. The situation of the soul before death is also specified: the soul that goes to this place is the one that confesses and repents in extremis. We are told further, that the souls here are guaranteed eternal salvation. We are told too, what the various kinds of suffrage are: in ascending order of value, there are prayers, alms, fasts, and above all, eucharistic sacrifices. The ultimate effect of these suffrages is to reduce the duration of purgation, which confirms that the time of purgation, is set between death and resurrection and that the maximum term runs until Judgement Day.

What is lacking is the word “purgation” itself, and more generally, any word derived from “to purge.”
















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