Tutte le stelle già de l’altro polo
vedea la notte, e ’l nostro tanto basso,
che non surgëa fuor del marin suolo
At night I now could see the other pole
and all its stars; the star of ours had fallen
and never rose above the plain of the ocean
Dante, Divina Commedia, Inferno, 26.127-9
Hervé Le Goff: […] It is widely believed that Purgatory has always existed, but this is not the case at all. It took shape in the second half of the 12th century. Previously, thinking about the afterlife, men imagined only two antagonistic places, Hell and Heaven. Gradually, an intermediate reality began to emerge, the function of which was to allow the purification of souls before entering Paradise. […] From the very beginning, Christianity had imagined the possibility that souls could free themselves from the sins remaining after death. […] The great novelty introduced by Purgatory is the definition of a unique, precise and recognizable place. But the existence of a third place endowed with a status of uniqueness implies various consequences.
Fabio Gambaro: Can you give some examples?
HLG: The birth of Purgatory modifies the jurisdiction exercised over the dead, favoring the practice of indulgences. According to traditional doctrine, living men responded to the church court, but once they died they were judged only by the court of God. With Purgatory, a sort of common court is created in which both God and the church intervene. The souls who pass through it, in fact, continue to depend on God, but they also benefit from the action of the church which distributes indulgences. Purgatory, therefore, reinforced the power of the ecclesiastical structure, which thus, in addition to the living, is also partly responsible for the dead. A situation that the Protestant Reformation later strongly condemned. For the men of the Middle Ages, however, the existence of Purgatory increased the hopes of salvation, since not everything was definitively established at the moment of death. Even for the usurers, who until then were irremediably condemned to Hell, a less gloomy afterlife is beginning to emerge. Of course, living with this hope radically changes the perspective of daily life.
FG: How is the advent of Purgatory explained?
HLG: The passage from an afterlife characterized by two antagonistic places, Hell and Paradise, to an afterlife divided into three kingdoms must be paralleled with the retreat of Manichaeism which took place in medieval society between the mid-twelfth and mid-thirteenth centuries. The medieval world becomes more nuanced. The ancient opposition between rich and poor, powerful and weak, begins to change with the emergence of an intermediate band. In the social hierarchy, between lords and subjects, the category of the bourgeoisie emerges. On the cultural level, other elements that play in favor of the birth of Purgatory are the growing interest in geographical representations as well as the new translations of Euclid, from which the notion of intermediary is derived. More generally, then, the birth of Purgatory is inscribed in that slow process that is usually defined as the descent of values from heaven to earth. From this complex evolution of society the belief in Purgatory was born, a belief that then spread thanks to the preaching of Franciscans and Dominicans.