Everything Comes Down to Purgatory

(celebrating the timeless peasant faces of Cornelis Dusart)

Last night was the peasants’ final night in the room beside the one that I share with Matthew Zell.  For the last time, from my bed, I listened to their conversation through the cracks in the wall. 

Fedor and Clovis fretted that they had no work now.  But Ergot, serf of St. Peter’s monastery, was assigned to a demolition project:  razing a cottage so that the Abbot might expand the gardens around his Freiburg house. 

“I was told,” said Ergot, “that this one makes nineteen houses destroyed by the Abbot.  Nineteen.  How many is that?”

“All your fingers,” Fedor said, “and this many more.”

“So many?  My whole village has not so many hearths.”

“That’s why,” Fedor said, “they have to keep us paying for Masses, charging us to die–so that they can expand their gardens, have their big houses, their concubines, their rump roasts and partridges.”

“Shhh,” said Clovis.  “I’ve no wish to walk around the Cathedral in chains for heresy.”

“That’s how they control us,” Fedor said.  “They make us afraid, and then they provide the remedy.”

Clovis frowned.  “Make us afraid?  What are you saying?  What man is not afraid of death?”

“Yeah, but who’s not more afraid after they hear Purgatory described in such a fearsome way as the priests do?  And what can save us from it?  Only them, with their sacraments and their rites.  I heard a man read in a book that there is no Purgatory.”

“No Purgatory!” Clovis said.  “What happens when we die?”

“Heaven or hell straightaway.”

Ergot squeaked.  “There’s not much hope for a poor man without Purgatory, since we can’t afford to have a thousand masses said for our souls like the nobles.  Death is like life.  The poor suffer and the rich go free.”

Just then, in his cot across from mine, Matthew began to snore, the sound overwhelming the murmurings coming through the wall.  So intrigued was I by the peasants’ dialogue, I arose and sneaked barefoot to the door of their room.  I stood in the shadows and yet could see and hear them. 

They were gathered around one candle, which lit their faces.  Fedor was leaned forward.  “No, you miss it.  No Purgatory means no Masses.”

Clovis looked suspicious.  “Who was this man?”

“Nobody.  Just a weaver reading a book he got from a traveling bookseller.” 

“But Purgatory is where you go when you die,” Ergot said. “Unless you’re a saint and shoot straight to heaven like an arrow.  But ordinary people go to Purgatory, where they burn burn burn until they pay for their sins or get released through merits.  Merits come from,” he ticked them off on his fingers:

  • visits to shrines,
  • alms,
  • prayers,
  • works of penance, and
  • purchases of indulgences. 
  • Or after you die, they can say Masses for you.” 

Ergot smiled, as if pleased at having so much knowledge. 

But Fedor reached inside his hosen and vigorously scratched his crotch.  “I think a lot about it.  If there’s no Purgatory, it changes everything.  Look at it.  If there’s no Purgatory,

  • then what good are Masses said for the dead, which you have to pay for? 
  • What good are visits to shrines, where you make an offering? 
  • What good are indulgences, which you buy?   

“No value at all.  None of it is worth a bottomless bucket if there is no Purgatory.  So why should clerics live like Lords, abusing our pious women in the confessional and drinking wine paid for with our sweat?”

Clovis turned his back to Fedor, pulled his ragged cloth coat over himself, and lay down.  Ergot looked confused for a moment and then did the same.

After a few moments, I went back to bed, but I lay there thinking that, whatever might be debated in the Universities, in the mental wanderings of these illiterate peasants, something powerful gathered and waited.  Some authentic, unnamable collective breath was drawn in and held.

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