Friday, March 6, 2015

Visions of Another World: Medieval Near-Death Experiences

By Mark Patton

The Pagan Greeks and Romans had low expectations of the afterlife, if, indeed, they had any expectation of it at all (Epicureans believed that this life was all there was). "Say not a word in Death's favour," the ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus. "I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house than king of kings among the dead." The Emperor Hadrian, a man who knew that the Senate would declare him a god, nonetheless did not expect to be dining with Jupiter after his death. "My soul, my pleasant soul and witty," he wrote, "the guest and companion of my body, into what place, now, all alone, naked and sad wilt thou be gone? No mirth, no wit, as heretofore, nor jests wilt thou afford me more."

Christianity bought with it new expectations, dependent upon Christ's judgement as to an individual's behaviour during life, but, whilst scripture referred to Heaven and Hell, it gave few details as to what one might expect to find there. The dreams of people at the point of death were frequently interrogated for information about the afterlife: perhaps they really were visions granted by God, for the reassurance of the dying, and the edification of those they left behind?

Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD), in his Dialogues, refers to a virulent plague in which "a certain soldier in this city of ours happened to be struck down. He was drawn out of his body and lay lifeless, but he soon returned, and described what befell him ... He said that there was a bridge, under which ran a black, gloomy river, which breathed forth an intolerably foul-smelling vapour. But across the bridge there were delightful meadows, carpeted with green grass and sweet-smelling flowers. The meadows seemed to be meeting places for people dressed in white ... On the bridge there was a test. If any unjust person wished to cross, he slipped and fell into the dark stinking water. But the just, who were not blocked by guilt, freely and easily made their way across to the regions of delight."

Pope Gregory the Great
Trier, Stadtbibliothek

The Venerable Bede (672-735 AD), in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, records a similar vision experienced by a Northumbrian man named Drythelm. He met a man "of shining countenance and bright apparel" who escorted him through "an enormous valley, one side of which roared with flames, and the other side raged with snow and hail," the damned souls tossed back and forth between them. Hell itself was a bottomless, stinking pit beyond the valley, but Heaven was "a realm of clear light," a bright, flowery meadow, where they met "many companies of happy people." On waking from this vision, and being restored to health, Bede tells us that Drythelm gave away his property, retired to a monastery, and took up a life of "austerity and devotion, fasting and cold baths."

Chair in St Paul's Church, Monwearmouth,
said to have been used by the Venerable Bede.
Photo: Jerrye & Roy Klotz (licensed under CCA).

Saint Adamnan (624-704 AD), the Abbot of Iona, reportedly had a vision in which an angel led him to heaven, where "the glorious one" sat enthroned, surrounded by archangels, saints and virgins. A wall of fire marked the place, then held by devils only, but which would be opened up for the damned on Judgement Day. A high bridge crossed the fiery depths, easy of access for the righteous but impossible for the wicked to cross.

The Abbey of Iona.
Photo: John Naisbitt (licensed under CCA).

The texts in which these accounts appeared were widely copied and shared between monastic houses across Europe. They were referred to in the seminaries where priests were trained, and many of those priests are likely to have drawn on the images in their sermons, reassuring ordinary people of the bounty of Heaven, but warning them also of the fate that awaited the wicked in Hell. They also became evidence in the hands of scholars such as Saint Thomas Aquinas as they drew up the formal doctrines of the Catholic Church.

The Last Judgement,
12th Century fresco in the church of Clayton, Sussex.
Photo: Cupcakekid (licensed under GNU).

With the insight of modern psychology, it seems likely that these images, imprinted on the minds of the faithful, would have replicated themselves, so that a Medieval person who sensed the closeness of death would, in fact, have dreamed similar dreams. The bridge is a common motif (sometimes there were angels and devils on or around it, fighting one another for the crossing souls), which would later be elaborated into the concept of Purgatory.


Mark Patton blogs regularly at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.


  1. So, what you're saying is that in the near-death experiences, mediaeval people would see what they expected to see? Makes sense. These days it's floating above the body or a tunnel with a bright light at the end and possibly family members.

  2. Yes, that's what I suspect, although Dante made it potentially much more scary for those with guilty consciences, and this seems to have been picked up with gusto by Catholic priests and Puritan lecturers alike.

  3. Here in the U.S. a young man recently reneged on his supposed near-death experience. He had been brought up as an extremely right-wing, conservative, fundamentalist Christian and parroted their line. I am glad that his conscience finally took over and he did the right thing. Whatever there is or isn't we will never know until the real moment of death. These experiences are always seen through the filters of our own hopes and beliefs.

  4. What wonderful work, to share this. I appreciate learning as much as I can about History, especially medieval History.
    Thank you,
    Jean Martin'Otterman


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