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Item 25, The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls: Introduction


1 On the practices at Cluny, see Iogna-Prat, “Dead in the Celestial Bookkeeping of the Cluniac Monks.”

2 For an overview of some of these activities, see Rosenthal, Purchase of Paradise.

3 See McGuire, “Purgatory, the Communion of the Saints, and Medieval Change,” pp. 70–71.

4 For the legend of All Saints Day, see GL 2.272–80. This text includes the vision of the warden of St. Peter’s and the founding of All Souls Day. The material in the Legenda aurea’s entry for All Souls Day has no direct bearing on the Middle English text presented here. Similarly abridged translations of the Legenda aurea’s discussion of All Saints Day appear in the South English Legendary and the “expanded” Northern Homily Cycle as it is preserved in British Library MS Harley 4196. Neither of these two texts are likely to have been the direct source for the text presented here, though Harley 4196’s text resembles Ashmole 61’s in many, but not all, crucial details.

5 This is not to suggest that such innovations were unusual. Changes in the liturgical year would have been noticeable to any attentive churchgoer, as the Church introduced many new feasts and abandoned others in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet nearly every innovation included a legend justifying its introduction; see Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts. For example, see the various legends surrounding the invention of the Psalter of the Virgin, a predecessor of the Rosary; the Middle English versions of this legend are described in MWME,–37.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The holy day of All Saints (All Hallows) dates back to the practices of the early Church, but it was not universally observed until the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III fixed November 1 as the day dedicated to the worship of all saints. The rapid expansion of Christi­anity meant that new saints were canonized every year, some with only small, regional cults, and the Church sought a means of reordering the liturgical calendar to include the thousands of saints who had no (or little) recognition on any other day. It remains one of the most im­portant days in the Catholic Church’s liturgical year.

Now celebrated on November 2, the observance of All Souls was slower to develop. Though various local traditions, particularly in monasteries, devoted a day for the com­memoration of the community’s dead, historians generally credit the popular spread of All Souls Day to the influential French monastery of Cluny and its abbot Odilo (d. 1048). Under Odilo, Cluny carefully recorded the names of lay benefactors and prayed for their souls after their deaths, encouraging a long-held belief that the welfare of the dead could be improved by the intercession of the living.1 In the later Middle Ages, All Souls Day provided a climax for activities that went on continually through the year, the Office for the Dead and memorial Masses.2 But these other memorial rites were usually on behalf of individuals — family members, monastic brethren, etc. — whereas All Souls Day empha­sized the com­munity of the universal Church. The readings for that day included a passage from Augustine insisting that the dead be remembered collectively rather than indi­vidually, and All Souls Day demonstrated that the proper answer to the uncertainty of the afterlife was the solidarity and organization provided by the Church.3

The primary source for the text presented here is the discussion of All Saints Day in the Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) of Jacobus de Voragine, though it is likely that a vernacular version of this text served as an intermediate source for this Middle English text.4 All three of the surviving Middle English analogues radically abridge Jacobus’s lengthy list of justi­fications for All Saints Day, and the text presented here goes the furthest in eliminating most of the non-narrative material.

This text belongs to a loose genre of “foundation legends,” narratives that explain how and why some practice of the Church came into being. Though the vision reaffirms the Church’s contemporary devotional practices, it nevertheless recognizes that both All Saints and All Souls Days were at one time innovations.5 The implicit suggestion that the Church is subject to historical change appears in a text that in other respects emphasizes the transcendent authority of the Church, particularly the papacy. In this version of events, Pope Boniface establishes both feast days by simple decree; in reality the papacy more often responded to, rather than initiated, devotional innovations, and the papacy’s attempts to impose liturgical changes were rarely accepted without some resistance. Whereas some versions of this legend feature two heavenly processions, one led by John the Baptist dressed in camel skins and the other led by St. Peter, this text only mentions the latter, giving the traditional figure of papal authority pride of place in the heavenly hierarchy.

The text presupposes a great deal about how the afterlife operates. Just what happened to souls after the death of the body had been the subject of debate from the earliest days of Christianity; the Bible offered metaphors but little in the way of precise description. But by the time The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls was written (probably the early fifteenth cen­tury), the terrain of the afterlife had been thoroughly charted by theo­logians, vision­aries, and poets. Though Dante’s Divine Comedy is the most famous exploration of the three-part world of hell, purgatory, and heaven, it was not the most influential. Texts like the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, the Vision of St. Paul, the Vision of the Monk of Eynsham, the Vision of Tundal (Tnugdal), and the popular St. Patrick’s Purgatory circulated widely in Latin and many vernacular languages. While the Church did not always officially endorse the views of the afterlife presented in these works, they were largely accepted, and some (es­pecially Gregory’s Dialogues) became crucial texts in the establishment of the doctrine of purgatory.

Though the purgatorial punishments and heavenly rewards described by this text are derived from a patchwork of these familiar sources with relatively little innovation, the emphasis given to the congruity of this world and the next is notable. The worship of All Saints Day on earth is mirrored by a similar day of worship in heaven. The prayers of those on earth have a direct bearing on the punishments of souls in purgatory, and the gener­osity of the rich on earth corresponds to the generosity they earn in the afterlife. In all of these ways the text emphasizes the importance of worldly action, both the corporate action of the Church and the behavior of individuals, in determining the workings of the afterlife. A few decades after the compilation of Ashmole 61, the Henrician Reformation radi­cally altered the complex purgatorial economy that involved pardons, indulgences, memorial Masses, chantry priests, and the parish guilds that paid for their services. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, though theologically uncomplicated, shows just how sophisticated and thorough that system was at its fifteenth-century height.

Manuscript Context

The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls initiates a series of closely connected religious texts in Ashmole 61, a sequence only interrupted by The Dietary (item 31). Within this group, the text may share its closest connections to the Stimulus Consciencie Minor (item 33), another consider­ation of the pains of purgatory and the joys of heaven. The lives of both Saints Eustace and Margaret (items 1 and 37) close with reminders of their power as intercessors in heaven, a power clearly on display in this text. The Sinner’s Lament and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire (items 35a and 35b) demonstrate the painful limits of memorial prayer, which can only benefit souls in purgatory, not those in hell.

Though not obviously a “family” story in the way that Sir Cleges (item 24) is, the lesson of All Souls was that family members must offer prayers and Masses for their departed members. The household virtues of industriousness and solidarity were as essential in the economy of purgatory as they were in the economy of this world, and perhaps this text served to remind a family of its mutual duties.


Ashmole 61 preserves the unique text of this version of the legend, and the possibility that Rate composed it himself cannot be discounted. If so, he may have based his version on that of the Northern Homily Cycle, which resembles this text in its basic content (but not its wording). But the strained syntax of many lines suggests that Rate has engaged in his usual manner of revision, rewriting as he copied. A few lines seem to be missing, and the texts lacks a few details that appear in other Middle English versions of the legend; these may be the result of Rate’s customary abridgment.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl. “Nachträge zu den Legenden.” Pp. 435–40. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1685

Easting, Robert. Visions of the Other World in Middle English. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

See also Gurevich, Harrison, Horstmann (1881), Iogna-Prat, LeGoff (1984), Matsuda (1997), McGuire, and Russell in the bibliography.

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