Today, 2nd November, is All Souls’ Day. This feast was instituted for the first time in the eleventh century by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (961/2-1049). All Souls’ Day is now rather overlooked in comparison with the festivities surrounding Hallowe’en (31st October), the day before (or ‘Eve’) of All Hallows or All Saints’ Day (1 November); anyone who was out on Saturday night will have seen demons, zombies, witches and ghouls revelling in the streets (they were in Durham, anyway). Yet the story of this feast tells us of a time when the demons were a terrifying prospect for medieval Christians.
Abbot Odilo’s decision to institute the feast of All Souls should be understood within both the broader Christian tradition of prayer for the dead,linked to the feast of All Saints, and within the context of the Cluniac monasteries and their purposes. The Feast of All Saints was celebrated from the eighth century to commemorate and honour the saints, those who were outstandingly holy and virtuous throughout their lives and had died in the love of God. The emphasis was on celebration of the saints’ holiness and virtue, and so a distinction was drawn between prayer at the memorials of the saints, and prayer for the ‘ordinary’ dead, whose fate after death could be rather different.
Amalarius of Metz (c.780-850), a theologian and liturgist, noted the essential difference in this way: ‘For this reason anniversary days are kept for the dead, because we do not know what their situation is in the other life: so just as the anniversary days in honour of the saints are brought to our memory for our benefit, so those of the dead are performed for their benefit and for our devotion, and we believe that they will come to the company of saints at some future time.’ So while the saints were celebrated for their honour and our benefit, the ‘ordinary’ dead were remembered for their own benefit, and prayers for the ‘ordinary’ dead were offered to ensure that at some future time they might be worthy to enter heaven.
Prayers for the dead were important for almost all monastic houses in early medieval western Christendom, but they held a particularly special place at Cluny. Cluny was founded in the early tenth century by Duke William I of Aquitaine (c.886-918) as a Benedictine monastery, but one which sought to maintain a reformed way of life with a much more rigorous interpretation of the Benedictine Rule. The monks’ way of living meant that they were involved in perpetual prayer for the faithful, to the extent that some normal aspects of monastic life, such as manual labour, were abandoned. Unusually, the monastery was placed directly under the authority of the Holy See, which gave it a significant degree of independence from local ecclesiastical structures and secular nobility.
As Barbara Rosenwein and Megan McLaughlin have shown, the complex relationships between Cluny and the many hundreds of men and women who came into contact with the monastery centre around prayer, even when they appear in contexts that seem more mundane, such as property transactions. Those who came into contact with the monastery wanted the prayers of the monks, and to be treated – as the monks were – as servants of God and St Peter, to whom the monastery was founded. The monks at Cluny – like many other monks at this time – kept lists of the living and the dead who were associated with the monastery in some way, and offered prayers on their behalf, commending them to God
Jotsald (died c. 1052-1054), a monk at Cluny who wrote a biography of Abbot Odilo, tells us that the decision to institute of the feast of All Souls was prompted by an account from a pilgrim who visited Cluny on his way back from Jerusalem. He said that he had been forced to take shelter on an island near Sicily on his return journey, where he had been asked by a hermit whether he knew of the monastery of Cluny, and of Abbot Odilo. The hermit described nearby places filled with fire, where the souls of the dead were tormented by terrible and fearful demons; but, said the hermit, the demons lamented and complained that the prayers of religious men and the alms given to the poor liberated the souls from their torments – and especially, the house of Cluny and its abbot.
Some time between 1024 and 1033, Odilo issued a Statute concerning the Dead which formalised and explained the Feast of All Souls, at which ‘all the faithful dead who have lived, from the beginning of the world all the way to the end’ would be commemorated and prayed for, on the day following the Feast of All Saints. The monks’ ‘work’ here was to fight the demons which otherwise imperilled the souls of all the ordinary faithful, not only those who were already known to the monks of Cluny. It is worth noting too that these demons were not metaphorical, they were perceived as a real threat, terrifying and wicked beings with the power to damage the living as well as to torment the dead.
What we see here is something which was central to the idea of purgatory: the living and the dead were connected by bonds of prayer, and the living could alleviate the suffering of the dead through the offerings made for them. Ideas about the fate of the soul developed throughout the early medieval period, but the concern with offering prayers for the departed – and the fact that this had a very real and tangible effect on souls in the afterlife – was an essential part of the idea of purgatory for early medieval thinkers.
All Souls’ Day was not celebrated by the whole Church until the thirteenth century, but it remains part of the liturgical calendar in most western Christian traditions; Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches often say or sing requiem masses for the dead on this day, praying that they will rest in peace (as at Durham Cathedral). What has faded from the modern commemoration of the dead on All Souls’ Day though is the vivid idea of demons who torment souls, and against whom the prayers of the monks were offered up as weapons.
So the next time you see a bedraggled demon holding a pint of beer during a night of Hallowe’en revelling, spare a thought for Odilo and his fellow monks, who saw it as their duty to offer perpetual prayers to free the ‘ordinary’ dead from the clutches of the fearsome powers of evil.
Helen Foxhall Forbes is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at Durham University. She is currently writing a book about purgatory in the early Middle Ages, focusing on the culturally connected region of the British Isles and northwestern continental Europe.