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Medieval Hell

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuscript Illustration of Hell, c. 1180 AD

 

Much of the popular, modern conception of Hell in both religious and secular circles has its roots not in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, but in the literature and art of the European Middle Ages (a period from approximately 500 AD to 1500 AD). The Bible gives only the vaguest of hints about the fate after death of the "unsaved." Dissatisfied with this silence, Roman Catholic religious leaders, along with artists and writers, embellished these hints over the centuries until they had created a vast, horrific Underworld so vividly detailed that it had incredible power over the minds of most Europeans.

Hellfire sermons

Peasants of the time often had a very bleak life. As odd as it may sound to modern minds, often the only "popular entertainment" from week to week was the Sunday sermon by the parish priest. And the most exciting version of those sermons were the ones describing in minute detail the tortures that allegedly awaited the damned in Hell. It might not be all that unreasonable to draw a parallel between the fascination that the masses had with these stories and the craving for horror films in the 21st century!

From History of Hell, Alice Turner, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993

...during the Middle Ages higher theology had far less effect on the concept of Hell than what can only be called popular enthusiasm.

The vernacular sermon [one given in the common language of the people] was developed fairly early as a way of communicating with parishioners increasingly baffled by the mysteries of the Latin mass. In a village or small town, that weekly sermon might be the chief, even the only entertainment for the populace. "Hellfire" sermons drew crowds for complex reasons and have continued to do so almost until the present.

...Medieval preachers were given aids to help them prepare sermons and take confessions; these included homilies [written versions of short expositions of scriptural passages], anecdotal exempla, pulpit manuals, and books of penances [descriptions of acts that repentant sinners could be required to do to "make up" for various sinful actions]. The dire consequence of sin was a favorite subject in all of them, as it was in the inventive sculptures, reliefs, mosaics, frescoes, and paintings made for churches and cathedrals.

Since we have no records of reaction to these sermons and paraphernalia we must infer their fame from their survival. (p. 90)

 


Vision Literature

A significant source of content for such sermons was what has been called by medieval historians "Vision Literature." Throughout many countries in Europe, peasants, knights, and others insisted that they had been stricken by what might best be called "near death experiences." They fell into a coma, were taken in vision to Hell to see the tortures there as a warning to themselves and others to "mend their ways," and then awakened and felt compelled to share the story of their adventures with others.

... In hundreds of manuscript copies of more than sixty surviving visions, someone is taken by a supernatural guide to the infernal regions, then (sometimes) to Purgatory, and then to Heaven. Though visions were written down by the literate clergy, they were often experienced by quite ordinary people, who certainly believed in them. Their modern equivalents might be reports of UFO abduction. It should be remembered that this was an age of obsessive piety, self-imposed fasting and flagellation, no antibiotics for fevers, and that people were educated to believe in visions. They wanted visions. Some accounts, on the other hand, especially late ones, were undoubtedly concocted by born storytellers for the astonishment of the pious and credulous. (ibid, p. 91)

Flagellation (self-beating), extended periods of going without food, and high fevers from sickness all have the potential to induce hallucinations in the average person. Add to this "obsessive piety"--which would lead to extremely strong emotions of guilt even at the smallest infraction against the teachings of the Church--and it is certainly a recipe for some individuals to experience strange dreams that seemed to them as vivid reality.

The most famous of these popular visions was that said to have been experienced by an Irish knight in the 12th century.

From the Wikipedia.org article Tundale

The Visio Tnugdali (Latin: Vision of Tnugdalus) is a 12th-century religious text reporting the otherworldly vision of the Irish knight Tnugdalus (later also called "Tundalus", "Tondolus" or in English translations, "Tundale").

The Latin text was written down shortly after 1149 by Brother Marcus, an Irish itinerant monk, in the Schottenkloster, Regensburg. He reports having heard Tnugdalus' account from the knight himself and to have done a translation from the Irish language at the Regensburg abbess' request.

The visio tells of the proud and easygoing knight falling unconscious for three days, during which time an angel guides his soul through Heaven and Hell, experiencing some of the torments of the damned. The angel then charges Tnugdalus to well remember what he has seen and to report it to his fellow men. On recovering possession of his body, Tnugdalus converts to a pious life as a result of his experience.

The Visio Tnugdali with its interest in the topography of the afterlife is situated in a broad Irish tradition of phantastical tales about otherworldly voyages, called immram, as well as in a tradition of Christian afterlife visions, itself influenced by pre-Christian notions of the afterlife. Other important texts from this tradition include the Visio Thurkilli, the Visio Godeschalci and the Purgatorium Sancti Patricii.

The Latin "Tundalus" was swiftly and widely transmitted through copies, with 172 manuscripts having been discovered to date. During the Middle Ages, the text was also a template for Middle Low German and Middle High German adaptations such as the rhyme version of "Tundalus" by Alber of Kloster Windberg (around 1190), or the "Niederrheinischer Tundalus" fragments (around 1180/90). In the early modern age, Marcus' original text was also translated into various vernacular languages and published several times.

 

From a description of the content of one of the versions of the Tundale story (Turner, op.cit., p. 99):

 

Next comes a great bird with an iron beak that eats unchaste nuns and priests and defecates them into a frozen lake where both men and women proceed to give birth to serpents. Tundal has to go through this too, though, thankfully, we don't hear about it in much detail.

 

Illustration of Tundal's bird in details of 15th century painting by Heironymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

 

After a difficult climb comes the Valley of Fires, where fiends seize Tundal with burning forceps, throw him into a furnace until he is red-hot, then hammer him on an anvil with twenty or thirty other sinful souls into one mass, tossing this into the air till the angel rescues him. [And all this is BEFORE he gets down to "Hell proper"!]

The minds of all classes of people, both religious and secular, in the Middle Ages were filled with these grotesque images of an ever-burning place of torture threatened for those who failed to live up to the demands of the religion of the time. In the early 1300s, one of these people, poet Dante Alighieri of Italy, turned the images in his own mind into The Inferno (Italian: L'Inferno), a major section of a vivid poem (The Divine Comedy) that forever enshrined the medieval view of the Afterlife for the generations to come. Considered one of the primary pieces of classic Western literature, it has been translated into numerous languages. Its imagery has inspired over the past seven centuries huge numbers of paintings, book illustrations, statues, poems by other poets, books by other authors, musical compositions, movies--and countless "Hellfire sermons" by both Catholic and Protestant ministers.

For more information on the incredible influence of Dante, see the article Dante's Hell. One of the primary purposes of this Is It True What They Say About Hell? website is to provide documentation which will persuade readers to seriously consider whether the common perspective on Hell taught by most Christian groups comes from the Bible--or from a combination of non-biblical sources, with Dante's Inferno as the centerpiece.

 


Medieval Mystery Plays

Although the entertainment of the peasantry on a weekly basis was largely confined to the Sunday sermon, there was at least once a year in many towns and villages all over Europe an even more exciting diversion, the Mystery Play.  

From the Wikipedia.org article Mystery Play

These vernacular [done in the common language] religious performances were, in some of the larger cities in England such as York, performed and produced by guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. From the guild control they gained the name mystery play or just mysteries, from the Latin mysterium (meaning handicraft and relating to the guilds). Mystery plays should not be confused with Miracle plays, which specifically re-enacted episodes from the lives of the saints; however, it is also to be noted that both of these terms are more commonly used by modern scholars than they were by medieval people, who used a wide variety of terminology to refer to their dramatic performances.

The mystery play developed, in some places, into a series of plays dealing with all the major events in the Christian calendar, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. By the end of the 15th century, the practice of acting these plays in cycles on festival days (such as Corpus Christi, performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi) was established in several parts of Europe.

From a website on the "York Mystery Plays" in England:

Each pageant was allocated a wagon (also called a “pageant”) which was pulled through the streets of the city along a traditional route, stopping at pre-arranged stations in order to perform. Each episode would have been played at each stop, so the audience could stay in one place, and settle in for a day’s entertainment. Sometimes special scaffolding was erected for them to sit on, like an early version of baseball bleachers!

More on mystery plays from Turner, op. cit., p. 90:

There is no question, however, about the popularity of Hell in the medieval theater. Mystery plays, like sermons and artwork, were first seen as a way to teach the Bile to parishioners, but they soon escaped their beginnings. The Hell scenes of these plays, with their devilish pratfalls, firecrackers, and crude toilet doggerel, became beloved popular theater--the only popular theater--and when, after many centuries they were eventually banned, they mutated into forms that persist today.

Medieval plays were not "literary," but an astonishing percentage of the high literary tradition also focused on Hell--in the late Middle Ages, all kinds of Hell, some of it thrillingly attractive. Writers blocked by the frightful picture presented by the Church from the ancient theme of the underworld quest inventively managed to displace Hell with eclectic underworld regions taken from classical and Norse mythology, folklore, feudal fantasy, and poetry, where Hell could strangely merge with Fairyland and allegorical knights would go adventuring.

 


The Hellmouth

From Turner, ibid, pp. 114-118

In the big urban dramas, a union of tradesmen’s guilds shared responsibility for increasingly elaborate productions. Each guild produced a separate playlet in its own venue. The Harrowing of Hell was often assigned to the cooks and bakers for the practical reason that guild members were used to working with fire and could supply huge cauldrons and other devices to be used for “tortures,” plus pots and pans to bang together for sound effects.

Boisterous Hell scenes inevitably became comic relief to the more solemn goings-on. As time passed, the comedy got lower, with much attention to breaking wind [joking about characters crudely "passing gas"]. …

Hell was everyone’s favorite part of the mystery presentations. A scaffolding achieved by something as simple as a ladder might stand in for Heaven in an early production, but even the earliest plays we know about give careful stage directions for infernal scenes—the twelfth-century Mystère d’Adam specifies chains, clouds of smoke, and the clatter of cauldrons and kettledrums, while the Anglo-Norman Seinte Resureccion of the same period calls for a jail to be built on one side of the stage to represent Limbo, from which Jesus would rescue the patriarchs. Later productions added fireworks, gunpowder, flaming sulfur, cannons, mechanical serpents, and toads.

The most expensive prop in the entire production was the Hellmouth. Artists had already taken to portraying “the jaws of Hell” quite literally, and theatrical designers took this a step further. Carpenters would make a beast’s head out of wood, papier-mâché, fabric, glitter, and whatever else they needed, and set it over a trapdoor. The wide jaws were often hinged and operated with winches and cables so that they could open and close. Smoke, flames, bad smells, and plenty of noise would emerge from within, to the delight of the audience. In one instance, the actual jawbone of a beached whale was employed in the framework.

There would often be fixed locations for the various sets of a dramatic cycle around a cathedral or town square, and in that case the Hellmouth might be so large that actual scenes could be played inside it; one directive specifies that it be nine and a half feet wide. In less lavish productions, the action took place beside the trapdoor Hellmouth, or on a lower scaffolding, curtained off until needed. Sometimes the entire series of playlets was movable. Here is a description of a pageant wagon made for a parade in fifteenth-century Bourges. It was preceded by a group of capering devils darting in and out of the crowd.

After this diablerie came a Hell, 14 feet long and eight wide, in the form of a rock on which was constructed a tower, continually blazing and shooting out flames in which Lucifer appeared, head and body only. He wore a bearskin with a sequin hanging from each hair and a pelt with two masks adorned with various colored materials; he ceaselessly vomited flames and held in his hands various serpents or vipers which moved and spat fire. At the four corners of the rock were four small towers in which could be seen souls undergoing torments. And from the front of the rock there came a great serpent whilstling and spitting fire from throat, nostrils, and eyes. And on every part of the rock there clambered and climbed all kinds of serpents and great toads. It was moved and guided by a certain number of people inside it, who worked the torments in place as they had been instructed.

Most were not so magnificent as this, but old bills and documents make it clear that towns competed fiercely on the elaboration of the Hell front. A late German example included “many ghastly and brightly colored devils. And it cost a great deal of money and work.”

 

From  Encyclopedia of Hell, Miriam Van Scott, Thomas Dunne Books, 1998, Hellmouth entry, p. 160

Lavish productions included smoke, stench, and shrieks that spewed forth from the hellmouth to heighten the excitement. Eventually, scenes involving the gaping grimace became the most popular part of the dramatic presentations, an early form of special effects.

 


Hellish Art

In addition to learning about the gruesome details of Hell from the weekly sermon by the parish priest, and from the periodic lavish productions of local mystery plays, the average European of the Middle Ages no doubt particularly "pictured" Hell mentally in a certain way as a result of being surrounded by artwork in the local church and other public buildings that even more vividly portrayed the Afterlife.

As you view some of the artwork from that period below, don't forget ... there were no X or R ratings for medieval art! It was out for all to see ... the kiddies were expected to be terrified and given nightmares by the vivid imagery, so that from an early age they would want to toe the line of the religion they were "born into."

 

Medieval artists, in paintings, frescoes, carvings, wall reliefs, manuscript illustrations and more spared no effort in being as graphic as possible in their depictions of the tortures of Hell.

1415 manuscript illustration for the Vision of Tundal

Demon torturing a soul in a cauldron, detail from the exterior of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, finished c. 1250 AD

Illustration from a German manuscript, 1175, torture of Jews in Hell

Detail of a painting by Marcovaldo, c. 1250 AD

Detail of a medieval chapel wall painting in La Brigue, France

 

In addition to the fact that this artwork was astonishingly gruesome and sadistic, it often introduced to the fearful a notion that seems particularly strange to modern thought. Some church leaders had long insisted that not only would vast numbers of people suffer eternal torture in an ever-burning Hell--but the saints in Heaven would be able to witness this from their celestial vantage point! Not only would they witness it, but they would take pleasure in that witnessing.

Hellish Quotes:

"That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of punishment of the damned is granted them." Summa iii Suppl. Qu 93, i., St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274 AD)

"Therefore the elect shall go forth…to see the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved, but will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious." Sent. Iv 50, ad fin, Peter Lombard, the Master of Sentences (c. 1100-1160 AD)

“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause." Tertullian (c. 155-230 AD)

And thus many paintings from the medieval period depict a scene in which the saints in Heaven at the top of the painting (sometimes standing and milling about as if watching a parade, sometimes sitting formally in row upon row of what appear to be thrones) gaze serenely down upon the hideous representations at the bottom of the painting of the tortures of the damned. 

Giotto, Last Judgment, 1305

 

 

Given the art samples above, is it unreasonable to conclude that the minds that could concoct this horrendous level of inventive sadism had to be unbelievably jaded? If a teenager sketched drawings like this during a class in school today, he might very well be referred for psychiatric evaluation! And yet these artists, those who commissioned them to create this artwork, and those who viewed it at the time, were evidently fully convinced that the great God of mercy and love had these exact plans in mind for most of His human creation! Although Christian artists seldom depict such scenes today, the influence that these earlier works have had on vast numbers of religious thinkers, leaders, and teachers clear up to the 21st century is immeasurable. Consider these excerpts from a modern commentary from a Reformed Presbyterian website. This is only one of many, many sources of this exact same point of view:

The doctrine of eternal punishment is probably the most unpopular, hated and feared teaching in the entire Bible. The thought of people burning in hell for eternity is most repugnant to the human mind. “It is a doctrine which the natural heart revolts from and struggles against, and to which it submits only under stress of authority. The church believes the doctrine because it must believe it, or renounce faith in the Bible, and give up all the hopes founded upon its promises.” [quotation from Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, New York, 1871]

Before the last judgment, the souls of those who died without Christ suffer in hell without their physical bodies. Their physical bodies are rotting in the earth. ... Immediately before the final judgment both soul and body are reunited during the resurrection of the dead. ...Then both body and soul “shall be cast out from the favorable presence of God, and the glorious fellowship with Christ, His saints, and all His holy angels, into hell, to be punished with unspeakable torments, both of body and soul, with the devil and his angels forever.” [quotation from the Westminster Larger Catechism]

...It is well known that those who die by burning to death suffer tremendous pain. Burning to death is a terrifying and excruciating experience. Throughout history, death by burning was reserved for only the most wicked of criminals. Yet the fire in hell is much worse than earthly fire. Earthly fire consumes the flesh of its victims. When the nerve endings are consumed, the pain ceases. But for those in hell, the pain will not cease, because the fire of hell does not consume. Rather than being consumed by it they are preserved to burn and suffer and be tormented on and on, forever and ever.

... Are you a family person? Is your life centered around your family? Do you love and adore your children? If you do not believe in Jesus Christ and obey His Word, then you will die and go to hell and never see your loved ones ever again. You will be tormented day and night, knowing that your children will go to hell because you did not teach them about Christ; because you refused to take them to a Bible-believing church. Or you will suffer eternal pains of conscience because you indoctrinated your children in a false religion.

 

Is what is said above about an ever-burning place of unimaginable torture for human souls the "Gospel Truth"? Are Christians required to be convinced that all "must believe it, or renounce faith in the Bible, and give up all the hopes founded upon its promises"?

It is the primary purpose of this website to provide for the reader adequate biblical documentation, along with sound commentary and reasoning, to establish that this conclusion is FALSE.

It really is possible to believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, and its promises of the hope of the Salvation available through Jesus Christ are sure, without coming to the conclusion that it is God's intent to consign most of mankind from throughout all history to sadistic, fiendish, Hellish torture for all eternity.

 

 

This site contains a collection of articles, on the topic of Hell and the Afterlife, that may each be used independently for research purposes. But it also is designed as a systematic, sequential overview of the whole topic, which can be read like a book.

For those who would like to take advantage of this perspective of the content, the articles are arranged in the Reading Guide as they would appear as chapters in a book, along with a few reference chapters at the end such as would appear in a book Appendix. 

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PLEASE NOTE:
No single short article can comprehensively cover any aspect of the topic of Hell. If you have questions or concerns regarding the material in this article, be sure to first read through the site FAQ before writing to the author. It may already specifically address the very points you are wondering about.

Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references in this and other articles on the
Is It True What They Say About Hell? website are from the New International Version (NIV).

 

All of the articles on this Is it true what they say about Hell? website were written by Pam Dewey, with the support and sponsorship of Common Ground Christian Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational writings, visit her Oasis website.

All website content © 2007, Pam Dewey and Common Ground Christian Ministries

All rights reserved. Material may be copied for personal use of the site visitor. For permission to copy for any other purposes, please contact the author at

oasis@chartermi.net 

 

All of the articles on this Is it true what they say about Hell? website were written by Pam Dewey, with the support and sponsorship of Common Ground Christian Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational writings, visit her Oasis website.

All website content © 2007, Pam Dewey and Common Ground Christian Ministries

All rights reserved. Material may be copied for personal use of the site visitor. For permission to copy for any other purposes, please contact the author at

oasis7@gmail.com