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Durham University

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Fires of Hope and Love: Purgatory in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Medieval research group.


This project examines purgatory in relation to theological and societal concerns in the culturally-interconnected area of the Insular world (Britain, Ireland) and northwestern continental Europe (modern-day France, Low Countries, Germany) in the early Middle Ages (c.650-1050). Purgatory’s connections with theological and liturgical thought, and with social practices, offer an important lens through which to explore the sophistication and significance of developing theology and contemporary intellectual culture, and how this related to social and regional contexts.


The project aims to investigate how changing thought about purgatory both affected and was shaped by ideas about, and responses to, topics such as sin, salvation, wealth and economic practices, and relationships between the living and the dead, contextualising these within cultural networks which connected people across northwestern Europe and enabled scholarly debate and the transmission of ideas.


Existing scholarship on purgatory is problematic and sometimes confused: Jacques LeGoff’s controversial but highly influential La naissance du Purgatoire (Paris,1981) claimed that purgatory was ‘born’ only in the late-twelfth century, whereas others argue that it developed from classical thought (Merkt, Das Fegefeuer (Darmstadt,2005)), or existed from early-Christian times Moreira, Heaven’s Purge (Oxford,2010)). I examine the function ( purgatory works) and eschatological timescale of postmortem activity represented in textual, material and visual evidence to explore what purgatory was and how it was understood in the early Middle Ages.

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Foxhall Forbes, Helen (2010). “Diuiduntur in quattuor” the Interim and Judgement in Anglo-Saxon England. The Journal of Theological Studies 61(2): 659-684.
  • Foxhall Forbes, Helen (2008). 'The chains of sin in Anglo-Saxon literature and liturgy'. Quaestio Insularis 7: 51-65.

Chapter in book

  • Foxhall Forbes, Helen (2018). Apocalypse, Eschatology and the Interim in England and Byzantium in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. In Apocalypse and Reform from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Gabriele, Matthew & Palmer, James T. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 139-166.
  • Foxhall Forbes, Helen (2016). O domine libera anima meam! Visualizing Purgatory in Anglo-Saxon England. In The Anglo-Saxons and the Visual Imagination. Niles, J.D., Klein, Stacy S. & Wilcox, J. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 6.


From the Department of History