Courtnay Konshuh – The Audiences of Three English Medieval Visions: A Response to Fritz Kemmler

The Audiences of Three English Medieval Visions: A Response to Fritz Kemmler

Courtnay Konshuh

Published in Connotations Vol. 20.1 (2010/11)

Medieval visions have the explicit purpose of teaching their audience both the importance of salvation, and also a means by which to achieve this. In his article, Fritz Kemmler looks at three different medieval visions from England, beginning with the seventh−century Vision of Fursey, and two visions from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, St. Patrick's Purgatory and the Visio Thurkilli. The protagonists undergo some sort of transformation, and inevitably, there is a painful restoration before the main message of the vision so that the "salvation of the soul" can be achieved (Kemmler 129). These visions are somewhat exceptional among medieval literature as they can be considered a product of "popular culture" (Dinzelbacher, "Way to the Other World" 70); as the Bible has no explicit descriptions of the otherworld, these visions represent "traditions current among the common people, as they never formed part of the official teaching of the church." The descriptions we find in the visions are, as Kemmler says, manifold; as I will discuss, the authors have deliberately chosen these means to transport their message depending on their goals.

By inspiring a strong emotional response, either the desire to reach the joy and beauty of heaven, or the fear of the pain and suffering of hell and purgatory, visions attempt to move their audience to actively [→page 24] pursue a better life. Visions can do this in a much more direct way than most didactic literature because of the creative license which the authors have when describing the horrors of hell and purgatory. The black⁄white depiction of good versus evil can thus be enhanced by the nuances found in the various versions of hell. Fear has obviously been judged a much stronger motivation than desire, as most of the visions concentrate (some almost exclusively) on a detailed description of hell and its horrors, whereas the depiction of heaven is much more limited.

All the visions concerned place great emphasis on believability and use the elements of pain and transformation as evidence for their claims. Who, however, are they trying to convince? Though the emotions of fear and desire are the same, by telling the vision story in varying styles, with different protagonists and resolutions, the authors have so crafted their stories to reach specific audiences. This response will look at the methods used by vision authors, and show that they have been systematically employed to reach specific audiences. While Bede's story of Fursey and the vision of Owein are both directed at the upper classes, the vision of Thurkill has been specifically crafted to be used for the ordinary people.

Vision of Fursey

The story of Saint Fursey is related by Bede in the year 633 of his Historia Ecclesiastica. The whole Historia is of a didactic nature, but the saints' lives are of course much more so. Bede's intentions are clearly spelled out in his preface:

For if history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it mentions evil things of wicked persons, nevertheless the religious and pious hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and perverse, is the more earnestly excited to perform those things which he knows to be good, and worthy of God.1)

[→page 25] Though this may be an overly optimistic view of humankind, and is a view definitely not shared by the narrators of the visions of Owein and Thurkill, we see that Bede's main goal is to show good actions, with the expectation that a believing audience will then imitate: an exemplum (cf. Kemmler 134). He does not need to evoke a strong emotive response to convince his audience to do good, as he believes they will naturally be "excited to imitate" this good example. Bede only makes use of emotion to convince his audience of the veracity of his story.

At the onset of the short tale, Fursey, a monk from Ireland, is already a man "renowned both for his words and actions, and remarkable for singular virtues."2) As such, Fursey is not a character who will have to repent his sins or be greatly purified; he is rather an "elect human being who is granted the extraordinary favour" (Kemmler 130) of seeing the afterlife. While Fursey is lifted by the angels to see the fires of falsehood, covetousness, discord and iniquity consuming the world, he is attacked by one of the devils. The burn marks he carries to the end of his days as a result are not a symbol of the pain he has endured, but rather evidence that this vision has taken place. As Bede says, "the flesh publicly showed, in a wonderful manner, what the soul had suffered in private."3)

After his first vision (the details of which Bede does not give) Fursey erects a monastery on the land given to him by King Sigebert. He resides there only a short time, and then withdraws to the life of a hermit. After a year, he travels to France and builds another monastery there. Obviously, this is not a practical goal for most of Bede's audience, and he does not intend his readers to go out and build monasteries. Fursey's monasteries and life of seclusion is however a manifestation of the power of Christianity, and it is for this reason that the "emphasis is on the journey" (Kemmler 132) rather than Fursey's accomplishments. Bede first cements the truthfulness of the vision itself and then gives evidence for the power of the Christian church.

A need to adhere to Christian beliefs is never addressed, but rather the factual accuracy of the vision is supported with corroborating [→page 26] evidence. We can see that Bede's target audience is not one that is facing the daily problems of coping with sin, but rather one that needs to be convinced of the necessity of Christian belief in general. Not only is this text a part of Bede's attempt to instill Christian values into a largely pagan England; Bede's target audience is the nobility. By focusing on Fursey's model life of solitude as well as the monasteries that he builds, Bede hopes to convince the upper class of the power of the church both for the individual and for the collective.

St. Patrick's Purgatory

St. Patrick's Purgatory4) has the same clearly defined purpose as Bede's history. The introduction tells us of St. Patrick's attempts to convert the people of Ireland; however, "non of hem wold sikerliche ⁄ Do bi his techeing, ⁄ Bot ʒif he dede þat [sum] man ⁄ Into helle went þan ⁄ To bring hem tiding" (3: 2−6). The issue of believability is paramount for Patrick to be able to help the people "Out of þe fendes bond" (6: 1−3). Likewise, the story of knight Owein seeks to convince its audience of the reality of hell and heaven. The tone of this vision, nonetheless, differs significantly from that of Fursey in many respects; most obviously, the fact that it has been translated into verse entails that it is in many ways more like a romance than a vision.

Owein's vision begins by placing the knight in his desultory political context. Owein lived "Bi Steuenes day, þe king ful riʒt," who, as we know from the Peterborough Chronicle, was a king who especially enjoyed causing his subjects pain.5) Likewise, Owein is a knight "swiþe sinful [...] saunfayle, ⁄ Oʒain his creatour" (30: 5−6). One day, upon realising his manifold sins, Owein decides to change his character. Owein's trip to purgatory does not come unexpectedly as a gift from God, as is the case with Fursey or Thurkill; Owein deliberately chooses the harshest penance possible, and the bishop even begs him to choose "sum oþer penaunce" (36: 5). Despite the bishop's urging, Owein is determined to journey to purgatory, and his experience, [→page 27] which takes place physically rather than in a dream, is therefore much more reminiscent of a knightly quest than a vision. Though Owein's task is simple (he must "haue God in [his] hert, ⁄ And þenk opon his woundes smert" (49: 1−2), and if necessary call out God's name), he must nonetheless endure "pine anouʒ, ⁄ Hard, strong and ful touʒ" (56: 1−2) in order to pass through purgatory.

Unlike most other visionaries, who only witness the torments of hell, or Fursey, who is wounded but rather accidentally, Owein must suffer directly for his sins. Indeed, Owein has amassed a great quantity of sins throughout his time as a knight, and is punished for his lechery and gluttony (74; he is bound in iron chains), for his avarice (87−89; burning on the wheel), and finally for his great pride (90−112; he is thrown into a pit of hot lead). The story climaxes when Owein must cross the bridge to paradise. The bridge is high, narrow, and as sharp as a razor; there is a strong wind blowing, and the devils are throwing stones (121). It would be much easier to turn back, as the devils recommend, but Owein summons all his courage and continues on. After Owein has crossed the bridge, he is shown the riches that await him after the death of his body. The quest is fulfilled, and Owein is rewarded with the bliss of heaven.

Several other aspects of this vision suggest that it was designed to entertain the nobility as much as to be an instructional tale. The frame of the story is very reminiscent of a romance. In his transition from the story of Patrick to Owein, the narrator calls for his audience's attention (cf. Moll 204), "Ʒif ʒe it wil yhere" (28: 6): a typical conceit of a romance. After completing his 'quest' in purgatory, Owein does not win a beautiful woman as a knight normally would, but becomes a monk instead, reversing the ideals of the romance; essentially, however, Owein himself has become a bride of Christ. Further, by focusing on Owein's direct experiences of pain and horror in purgatory (cf. Kemmler 135), the constant references to the corresponding sin lead to an "insistence on the moral impact of the tale which is absent from the stark accounts in [the Latin original]" (Easting lii). As part of the composite Auchinleck manuscript, which contains both religious [→page 28] stories (saints' lives and the life of Adam and Eve) as well as romances (including the well−known Sir Orfeo), this Middle English translation has been adapted to be both more entertaining as well as more didactic than the Latin original.

As with other visions, "[w]hoever is prepared to accept the lesson taught by this text will indeed be restored from the everlasting death of the soul" (Kemmler 136). However, for whom is such a lesson realisable? Most of the audience would not be able to empathise with Owein's situation; few would have had the means to sin as greatly as Owein, as only few had the opportunities offered by Owein's position as a knight. After Patrick's and Fursey's visions, they have monasteries built and then return to a life of mediation and prayer. Similarly, after Owein's return from purgatory, he goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (196) and then takes on a monk's habit for the last seven years of his life. For the nobility, this is a possibility; however, for the lower classes, this tale can only be an exemplum, as they would not have the means to build a monastery, and such brave feats are reserved for the knights of romances. Both the style and content of this work, as well as its very location within the Auchinleck manuscript, clearly show that it was directed towards the nobility.

Visio Thurkilli

The narrator of Thurkill's vision also justifies the need to write moralising texts in his preface; unlike Bede, however, Thurkill's narrator believes that

Human nature […] persists towards disobedience and sin, is inflexible and has become firmly rooted in depravity; as a result, the words of God's sermon pass by their ears and their souls. Neither the threat of punishment nor the possibility of reward lead them to follow God's commandments; indeed, many are so blinded by their sins to God's righteous judgment that they do not believe the words of the saints, and do not improve themselves when they hear the holy teachings.6)

[→page 29] While Fursey's example was to help people emulate the good, Bede thought it unnecessary to give people only positive examples, as negative examples would be instantly recognised. Thurkill's narrator, however, believes that customs have so degraded that this is no longer a possibility. He continues, "it is difficult for them to believe something which they have never seen in the flesh."7) For this reason the text is first framed as a true story, giving us the "intertextual context for the validity of the vision" (Kemmler 137), while the story is then told in a manner more conducive for the common people to follow.

The protagonist is immediately introduced as a normal peasant, living a humble but satisfied life: "he was used to working the fields; as far as his humble means allowed, he liked to give alms and shelter others."8) It is not within his means to live as piously as Fursey or Owein; however, it is also not possible for him to sin as extravagantly as Owein. Thurkill's greatest sin is that he withheld a part of the tithes which he should have paid his lord.9) This may be a fairly minor sin, but it is nonetheless a realistic sin which a relatively pious commoner could have committed. Likewise, the penance which he must undertake for this sin is much simpler: he must endure the foul stench emitting from the entryway to purgatory twice (Thurkill 32), after which he may ask the priest for absolution (Thurkill 28). Indeed, he must tell the village the whole story, not merely undertake the penance for his own sins: for Thurkill, just as for Owein and Fursey, the gift of seeing the otherworld comes with responsibility. Though Thurkill is at first reticent, for he is a rather simple peasant (Thurkill 20), with God's help, even the most simple can follow the path of the good.

The author of Thurkill's vision was "a very good story−teller who knew exactly how to handle the expectations of his intended audience" (Kemmler 139), as can be seen both in his treatment of his main character as well as in his treatment of purgatory and the sins punished there. In the great theatre of hell, the first sinners are punished according to their sins (beginning with pride, the worst of the seven deadly sins); however, people "of all estates"10) are present in [→page 30] the theatre, and many are being punished for sins that directly affect the lower classes. Not only do we find liars, thieves, bad farmers, millers and salesmen being tormented, but also priests, knights and judges.11) One of the first sinners Thurkill meets is a noble from the king's court, whose worst crime was, among many others, that he had been "hard and cruel to his subjects and had brought great trouble to them by making unreasonable demands and unnecessary legal proceedings."12) Later, we find other nobles cooking in pots for having placed unreasonable demands upon their subjects and using violence when these demands were not met.13) All the injustices that peasants face will be rectified in purgatory. This has the double effect of Schadenfreude for the lower class audience, and also counsels them not to attempt to correct injustices themselves, for example by withholding tithes.

It is curious why this, the most explicit of the medieval visions, but also the most adaptable to various capacities for sin, should not have survived in a vernacular translation. It is possible that it is "too far advanced in the development of the genre" (Kemmler 140) and was very probably too licentious. On the other hand, a story in Latin could easily be expounded upon by priests of various dialects in a manner similar to sermons, whereas a story in a Middle English dialect would only be accessible to a certain number of the public.

As Kemmler mentions, the abrupt ending of the Visio Thurkilli leaves no room for the visionary to turn to "a life of penance or seclusion after his dreadful vision" (140). Indeed, this is not necessary; this author believes that fear is a much greater motivator than desire, but this is not an appropriate goal for his intended audience. Thurkill, like the other peasants for whom this vision is intended, would not have had the means to turn to a life of penance and seclusion. Thurkill will rather carry on living as piously as a man of his status may. The audience should now also recognise that it is not beyond their means to live such a pious life themselves.[→page 31]


Each of these texts tells a similar story: Fear the pain and torment of purgatory and hell, and be so reformed to a better life; however, each tale also shows a very clear idea of audience and authorial intention. The motifs of transformation and especially pain are used differently in each work to achieve this end. Like the twelfth−century Chaldon mural,14) which as Fritz Kemmler mentions, includes the typical elements of a vision of the otherworld (the bridge between heaven and hell, devils pulling sinners from the bridge and torturing them in various manners, but also angels waiting with open arms to receive the good), the audience has been clearly chosen. Just as the Chaldon mural was intended to inspire peasants attending church to repent, and thus depicts dishonest tradespeople as sinners,15) so too does the Visio Thurkilli primarily depict the suffering of peasants. Unlike the vision of Owein, a popular verse tale, or the idealised Fursey, which set goals of piety that could not be achieved by anyone other than the nobility, Thurkill's vision, as well as the Chaldon mural, can be easily understood by the lower class and allow for deeds of penitence which even the lowliest farmer could achieve.

University of York

Works Cited

Beda Venerabilis. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. Betram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. Die Jenseitsbrücke im Mittelalter. Wien: Verband der Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Österreichs, 1973.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. Vision und Visionsliteratur im Mittelalter. Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1981.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “The Way to the Other World in Medieval Literature and Art.” Folklore 97.1 (1986): 70−87.

[33] Easting, Robert, ed. Introduction. St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Two Versions of Owayne Miles and The Vision of William Stranton Together with the Long Text of the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii. EETS OS 298. Oxford: OUP, 1991. xvii−xciii.

Moll, Richard J. Before Malory: Reading Arthur in Later Medieval England. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003.

Rosewell, Roger. Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Two Versions of Owayne Miles and The Vision of William of Stranton Together with the Long Text of the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii. Ed. Robert Easting. Oxford: OUP, 1991.

Die Vision des Bauern Thurkill. Ed. Paul Schmidt. Leipzig: Teubner, 1987.