The Ransom of the Soul: 
Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity

by peter brown

harvard, 288 pages, $24.95

In the opening pages of this book, Peter Brown declares that he will “compare two ages—the world of the early church in the late second and third centuries and the early medieval world of the seventh century”—in order to outline a great shift that will alter the course of Western Christendom. That shift involved an evolution in how Christians thought of the ­afterlife. In the early Church, writers like Cyprian and Tertullian described the sudden transition from martyr’s death to the beatific vision. Centuries later, a new account emerged, one of an extended journey undertaken by ordinary Christians that could (and should) be aided by almsgiving to the poor.

The title of the book gives away this central thesis. It is drawn from a verse in the Book of Proverbs (13:8): Redemptio animae viri divitiae suae, “The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth.” In the late fifth and sixth centuries, this provided the template for how one ought to prepare for the world to come. The story of Bishop Leodegar of Autun reflects the spirit of that age. When he drew up his will in 675–76, he took seriously the advice of King Solomon. “‘Out of love of God and for the remission of sins,’ Leodegar donated to the church of St. Nazarius (the cathedral church of Autun) a sizeable tract of land—some four fully equipped villas—to maintain a poor house for forty paupers at the gate of the cathedral. This expensive foundation was an appropriately lavish ‘ransom’ for the soul of a powerful bishop.”

As Brown takes care to note, the strategy adopted by this bishop was not his own invention. Drawing on my own recent work (both Sin and Charity), Brown notes that its roots go back to Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. In a world in which sins were understood as financial debts, it made sense to fund a “treasury in heaven” in order to bring one’s penance to conclusion. One major contribution of Brown’s monograph is to show that many of the practices that would come to define the medieval doctrine of purgatory had deep biblical and patristic roots. Standing at the base of all of this was an abiding respect for alms given to the poor. “What was distinctive,” Brown observes, “was the manner in which relations with the dead echoed closely the metaphors associated with the notion of ‘treasure in heaven’ accumulated through alms to the poor.” The importance of the religious virtue or almsgiving must not be underestimated if one wants to understand Christian piety of this period.

But the road from Cyprian to Leodegar was not without bumps along the way. The principal focus of the middle of Brown’s narrative is the thought of St. Augustine. In his writings, several new and important themes come into view. First, unlike Cyprian’s singular focus on the place of the martyr in paradise, Augustine was concerned about the ordinary Christian. This followed from his division of the Church into three groups (also followed by Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi): the altogether good and bad (valde boni and valde mali), and the not altogether good (non valde boni). The former two categories were small in number, whereas the third comprised the overwhelming number of people in the Church. Because it was the latter who could benefit from prayer, almsgiving, and Eucharist for their advancement toward the beatific vision, they were the subject of most of Augustine’s interest.

Second, though Augustine affirmed the central significance of almsgiving, he was careful to warn his parishioners that there was no easy, guaranteed strategy for reaching heaven. God’s grace could not be bought and sold. Almsgiving was crucial but not a “magic bullet” that compelled God. Finally—and this will come as a surprise to many, as it did to me—almsgiving figured prominently in the debate with ­Pelagius. Given his optimistic take on human nature, Pelagius often ­exhorted his charges to dispense with their wealth in one fell swoop instead of engaging in a lifetime of almsgiving. Having so disposed of their sins, they could move from perfection to perfection.

For Augustine, on the other hand, sin was not a punctiliar event that could be dealt with so summarily. “The pious Christian was a human hedgehog,” Brown contends. “He or she was covered from head to foot with tiny, sharp spines of daily, barely conscious peccata minutissima—with ‘tiny little sins.’ It was to expunge these tiny sins that the Christian should pray every day Dimitte nobis debita nostra: ‘Forgive us our sins.’ One should note how, in the Latin of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘sins’ were usually termed debita—‘debts.’” ­Augustine’s pastoral advice was as logical as it was obvious: Give alms every day in order to contend with the deep and unremovable (in this life) stain of original sin. Conform your life to mercy and you would have good reason to hope that God would show mercy on you.

Augustine’s exegesis of the passage about the rich young man is an excellent example of what the early Church meant by the formula lex orandi, lex credendi—how we pray informs what we believe. Augustine reasoned that Pelagius’s literal understanding of the story of the rich young man—“give all you have to the poor”—could not be right. Because we pray daily that our “debts be forgiven,” we must enact the terms of that prayer (almsgiving) on a daily basis as well. If Christians renounced all their wealth at once, they wouldn’t be able to fulfill the mandate of the Our Father, which was to be prayed daily.

Several momentous changes led to fuller developments in the Middle Ages. First was the development of monasteries located in the midst of ordinary, settled human communities. These magnificent institutions (some of which had endowments of 20,000 hectares of the richest farmland in Europe) did not come, however, without a cost. They were funded by wealthy patrons, who had now made these clerical edifices the object of their religious giving rather than the poor. “Monks and Nuns,” Brown reports, “replaced the poor as the intercessors par excellence.”

A second change of note was Christians’ interest in documenting the journey that souls must traverse to reach their heavenly destination. Though previous writers, including Augustine, spoke of the value of almsgiving in assisting the dead along their way, the details concerning the journey of the departed soul were not a matter of interest. Brown illustrates this with the story of Barontus, one of those non valde boni—not altogether good—who was graced with a near-death experience that changed his life. Though he was not a particularly chaste man, at issue were not his sexual sins but his financial ones. As the story goes, Barontus had withheld twelve gold pieces when he entered the monastic order. In his dream, he was instructed by St. Peter to redeem his sins by giving one coin every month to a poor man. “With this solemn ritual,” Brown concludes, “the primal Christian gesture of almsgiving for the expiation of the soul was delineated with crystalline clarity.”

Brown ends his volume with a few pages looking forward to the age of Dante. In the ancient world of pagan Rome, generosity was usually seen as going from the citizen to the polis. Instead of the bond of citizen to polis, the Church placed the linkage of the living to the dead. One’s obligations to one’s ancestors in the faith became the “object of regular prayers and [the] donations of millions.” With these pieces in place, the full-fledged doctrine of purgatory, which Jacques Le Goff influentially declared a late medieval invention, made its much earlier entrance.   

Gary A. Anderson is Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.