According to historian Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014), the benign development of western civilization in modern times largely benefited from the cultural and institutional construction in the Middle Ages. Humanism is the product of the Middle Ages. The belief in purgatory gave the dead hope of salvation, dispelled the extremist tendency of the dualism of good and evil, and behind its concept and system was an ideological and cultural revolution, which promoted the political economy of Europe to enter the modern society.
The birth of purgatory and the social transformation in Europe
| Peng Xiaoyu (Reading, No.8, 2021)
In Jacques Rogoff (1924-2014), “purgatory” not only refers to the place where guilty people wash their sins after death, but also is a unique social and cultural phenomenon in medieval Europe. Legoff gave a dynamic explanation. He cited the story of a usurer in Liè ge: relatives and friends of the deceased can do good deeds on their behalf and help sinners in purgatory ascend to heaven ahead of time. After his death, the usurer’s wife persisted in charity and penance for fourteen years, helping the deceased get rid of the suffering of purgatory and ascend to heaven ahead of schedule. Legoff believes that monogamy based on the consent of men and women and gender equality was stably established in the Middle Ages, and even after the death of their spouses, people still wanted to do something for each other. Because of the existence or imagination of purgatory, people can actively do good deeds and practice their love and love for their loved ones and everyone. Therefore, in the hearts of people in the Middle Ages, believing in the existence of purgatory represents hope. Frankly speaking, Legoff actually wants to say that “the Middle Ages represent hope” and represents the hope of modern human beings facing the future, because in his view, the cultural traditions of the Middle Ages have cultivated good moral character and criticized and corrected the indifferent modern commercial society.
This attitude also implies a universal principle of respecting and even fearing tradition: instead of denying and abandoning historical heritage rashly and rudely, we should feel the past and the living people behind it with a considerate attitude-this principle can of course be applied to our own attitude towards Chinese civilization and tradition. Lack of critical affirmation of the contribution of Renaissance and Enlightenment to the modern world will easily lead to people’s underestimation of pre-modern society and contempt for historical and cultural traditions. Understanding Legoff’s appreciation of medieval western culture and purgatory as a concept and social practice will not only help us understand medieval humanism as the basis of modern European civilization, but also help us give a more reasonable explanation of the so-called “Needham puzzle”
Purgatory and medieval humanism
Marcuse criticized the technological society in the modern west in the book One-dimensional Man (1964), and thought that the “feudal” culture in pre-modern medieval Europe left a little elegant spirit and culture to the modern west to a certain extent, which made people’s disgust and aversion to businessmen’s profit-seeking and pragmatic interests strongly supported by traditional elements. Legoff explained the same view from the perspective of medieval history research. The Middle Ages he loved not only represented the essence of western culture, but also constituted the most intense part of humanitarian care and considerate care for personal dignity and emotion, and also provided historical experience and reference for the modern world to move towards a bright future full of hope. This attitude reversed the questioning and denial of the medieval status by the Enlightenment and the subsequent western secular culture.
Legoff loves the Middle Ages, and the book The Birth of Purgatory is the crystallization of his love for the Middle Ages. The structure of this book conforms to the routine of European and American scholars studying the history of medieval thought and system. For example, the author traces back to the thoughts and theories of purgatory, the author of the early church, and even to the Jewish tradition. Legoff also tells the concept of purgatory in different stages of the Middle Ages and its influence on religious practice in chronological order, and systematically and deeply studies the situation in the 12th and 13th centuries. Legoff refused to agree with the bourgeois concept system characterized by selfish individualism brought by the Enlightenment in the 18th century and radical secularization in the 19th century, and believed that the benign development of western civilization in modern times largely benefited from the cultural and institutional construction in the Middle Ages. This is also one of the mainstream viewpoints in the study of the late Middle Ages.
The deep sympathy and understanding of medieval culture formed the basis of Legoff’s medieval research. As he said when he recalled his study experience as a teenager, Scott’s novel Ivanhoe fascinated him with medieval life and culture when he was twelve years old. The story of this novel takes place around King Rechard Ⅰ of England (reigned from 189 to 1999) and his entourage Ivanhoe. The quiet and mysterious forest, the lively and amazing knight tournament, the battle to surround and attack the East Castle of Ghiris, and the servants, women, monks and priests around the nobles and knights all made the young Legoff full of reverie about the Middle Ages. The persecution of Rebecca, a beautiful Jewish girl, and her relatives inspired him, as a Catholic, to hate the anti-Semitism prevailing at that time (1930s). Later, he also specifically mentioned a detail, that is, he remembered Elizabeth Taylor, the actor who played Rebecca in the 1952 film Ivanhoe, and made him see that the characters in his mind became dazzling in front of him. The history and reality of Europe are inseparable in his feelings. In his later years, Legoff did not hesitate to point out that historians are certainly not novelists, but their understanding of history can not be separated from his strong feelings about real life, and medieval culture not only continued to modern society, but also profoundly affected the future of the world: “The Middle Ages in my mind came from my long-term thinking about the past, present and future. (Jacques Legoff’s My Pursuit of the Middle Ages, 2005, pp. 1-3, pp. 121-124) Scholars project their feelings and strong emotions about real life into their gaze and exploration of historical and cultural traditions that have lasted for thousands of years, which is an interesting development of Legoff’s “long period” theory.
According to Legoff’s concept of “the long middle ages”, to trace the origin of modern European culture and system, we must go back to the middle ages or even the late classical period, and in the long process of the birth of modern Europe, the 300 years from the eleventh century to the thirteenth century are crucial. In his view, humanism did not come from the Italian Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries. Humanism is the product of the Middle Ages. This view is very prominent in the book The Birth of Purgatory, and it is the dominant thought of Legoff when discussing the issue of purgatory.
As David Knowles mentioned in 1941, humanism in the 12th century attached great importance to literature, personal feelings and elegant expression of emotions. This emphasis on individuals and personal feelings continued until the 13th century, except for the scholastic scholars at that time, in Francis and Joinville (David Knowles, The Humanity). Francis and Joinville, the late biographers of Louis IX of France, are precisely historical figures that Legoff paid special attention to and studied deeply. Their attitudes, emotions and activities also constitute the main basis for Legoff to understand and explain medieval humanism and its social context. In the 11th and 12th centuries, European theologians, church jurists and missionaries began to emphasize the first chapter of Genesis, section 26: God created man in his own image. Legoff clearly pointed out that the similarity between God and man formed the basis of medieval humanism, which led people to pay attention to human rationality, individuality, secular life and nature, although all these were still regarded as the grace from God. Moreover, at that time, personal values were closely related to the communities to which people belonged. Legoff believes that the significance of the Middle Ages to the construction of modern western society can not be limited to the 11th and 12th centuries, and the previous centuries should not be ignored. Compared with Norris, he emphasized the key position of the 13th century in the birth of European civilization, especially the social impact of urbanization. Paying more attention to the value transfer of human life has a profound shaping effect on all aspects of social, political and economic development and religious life in Europe (Jacques Legoff, The Birth of Europe, 2005, pp. 79-81).
The atonement system related to purgatory, such as the imagination of purgatory and atonement prayer, was recognized by the church and became an integral part of religious etiquette in the late 12th century. Theoretically, the Pope has the power to forgive sinners, but for sinners who suffer in purgatory, this kind of pardon is essentially a prayer beneficial to penitents, and it cannot guarantee their immediate liberation and entry into heaven. The wealth donated by believers to churches or charities for atonement, or the money donated by the families of the deceased, not only helps to build churches and monasteries, but also promotes various relief work and becomes an integral part of church moral education. In this regard, the abuse of church authority has always existed and became very serious in the sixteenth century. The atonement voucher was directly used to increase the financial income of the monarch and the church, which triggered Luther’s protest and religious reform.
As Legoff’s research shows, in the social practice in the 13th century, believers believed in the existence of purgatory, hoping to repent their sins by praying and doing good deeds, so as to shorten the suffering time of themselves and their relatives in purgatory. Behind this religious concept and behavior is a new social pattern represented by medieval humanism, that is, it cherishes and attaches more importance to people and a better life, and at the same time has a deeper concern for human suffering. This new social trend is related to the development of urban industry and commerce to a great extent, and also to the inequality of the simultaneous growth of the rich and the poor. Protestant churches such as Franciscans tried to deal with new social problems with a more positive attitude, and launched unprecedented charity, so that Legoff thought that a new “caring Europe” had emerged.
The concept and system of purgatory constitute an aspect of the humanistic movement in the Middle Ages, such as being used to provide legitimacy for commercial activities and the status of businessmen in twists and turns. It is an innovative contribution of Legoff’s research to be keenly aware of and clearly show this point. He once said that during this period, the legitimacy of commercial profit-making activities was gradually recognized, the social status and political influence of businessmen were also strengthened, and the relationship with feudal nobles was closer. At the same time, businessmen showed a high degree of religious enthusiasm and established the first hospitals and almshouses for the poor in many European towns. Medieval humanism’s recognition of businessmen’s profit-seeking behavior is only a concession, not at the expense of giving up Christian economic and social ethics. Greed is still a felony and will still make businessmen fall into hell. But because of purgatory, they now have more opportunities to enter heaven. For example, the church allows and encourages usurers’ wives in Liege to pray for good deeds, and helps their dead husbands get rid of the suffering in purgatory as soon as possible and gain eternal life in heaven.
Purgatory has given usurers and people from all walks of life who actively join the WTO more initiative to control their own destiny. For example, overeating, swearing, laughing and spreading gossip were all regarded as felony by the church in the Middle Ages. People who commit this crime, because of the existence of purgatory, have the opportunity to clear their sins and enter heaven even after death. In the 12th and 13th centuries, medieval humanism systematically showed an extreme tendency on religious issues, which promoted Christian morality to accept and affirm secular life more openly. The concept and system of purgatory are recognized by the church, the state and the society and regarded as orthodox, which is an important aspect. The mainstream of heresy movement in this period was just “purists” who believed in the extreme dualism of good and evil (possibly influenced by Manichaeism). They strongly condemned the values of secular life, including marriage and family, and of course opposed the concept of purgatory without compromise. The reason why these heresies try to deny the existence of purgatory just proves the social significance of purgatory: in this world, besides those who are perfect enough to go directly to heaven and those who are evil enough to go directly to hell, there are more ordinary people who are imperfect and have no unforgivable evil. Dividing human society into perfect and extremely evil parts almost completely denies the space of human nature, the warmth of tolerance and the room for compromise. Legoff pointed out that this extreme idea of dualism of good and evil was clearly identified as heresy by the mainstream of society at that time, and it was very lucky to be repelled in medieval Europe.
. Not only did the seemingly horrible concept and system of purgatory become a tool to resist extremism in medieval Europe, but the core theme of cultural transformation marked by humanism was also changed in Chapter 9 of the book.
. Legoff affirmed the forgiving attitude of purgatory towards some serious crimes, and therefore talked about the social progress significance of purgatory from three aspects. As we mentioned earlier, the usurer in Liege escaped from purgatory with the help of his wife’s piety and prayer and won eternal life. Legoff believes that in the books that preach and preach Christian morality, the church not only praised monogamous marriage based on love, but also criticized feudal marriage that calculated economic and political interests, showed a tolerant attitude towards businessmen and usurers, and promoted the development of industry and commerce and the origin of modern capitalism. The third social significance of purgatory lies in the prayers and charity work done by the living for the dead in purgatory, which shows that medieval Europe in this period attached importance to and emphasized collective solidarity and mutual assistance, including the love, loyalty and sympathy of family, guild and monastery members.
Legoff also stressed that in the humanistic atmosphere, the persecution of heresy is regrettable, but sometimes it is necessary to suppress extremism. He also believes that the suppression of heresy is rare as a whole, and even Aquinas’ revolutionary and subversive innovation in theological methods has not been hindered. His research on businessmen and bankers shows that in the economic field of the Middle Ages, which was strictly regulated by Christian ethics, he successfully carried out systematic innovation (My Pursuit of the Middle Ages, pp. 45-64). One thing that can be inferred from Legoff’s study of purgatory is that avoiding extremist tendencies and adhering to the tradition of moderate reformism have been the remarkable characteristics of social progress in the Middle Ages since at least the eleventh century, and eventually pushed western society into the runway of modernization.
In the conclusion of “The Wallet and Immortality”, Legoff wrote: usurers are the promoters of modern European capitalism. It was the great fear of hell that made them hesitate on the threshold of capitalism. The hope of escaping from hell through purgatory freed them from their fear and began to publicize Europe in the thirteenth century.
. The so-called “Needham puzzle” is not a well-designed problem. Needham’s investigation of Chinese and western scientific thoughts began in ancient Greece and Zhou Dynasty, and continued to Europe in Ming and Qing Dynasties and early modern times, with a great span, so it is difficult to guarantee the scientific nature of the research. The content is vague “the laws of Chinese and western humanities and nature”, and there is no system involving all aspects of complex social life. One of the key points of Needham’s research on the history of science and technology in China is that he thinks that the distance between Chinese and western science and technology has widened in early modern times, and one of the important reasons is that “China people’s world outlook” is very different from that of westerners-although he admits that this difference has its own advantages and disadvantages (Needham: History of Science and Technology in China, Volume II, Science Press, 2018, pp. 551-619). This kind of thinking can easily lead to a specious conclusion, that is, the structure of eastern civilization has insurmountable internal defects.