Introduction The Rule of Exceptional Salvations

  • Frank Grady
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The best-known story of the salvation of a righteous heathen, both in the Middle Ages and in writing about the Middle Ages, is that of the Roman emperor Trajan, supposedly released from the pains of hell several centuries after his death through the prayers of Pope Gregory the Great. Jacobus de Voragine, in his thirteenth-century Golden Legend, tells the story this way:

Once when the Roman emperor Trajan was hurrying off to war with all possible speed, a widow ran up to him in tears and said: “Be good enough, I beg you, to avenge the blood of my son, who was put to death though he was innocent!” Trajan answered that if he came back from the war safe and sound, he would take care of her case. “And if you die in battle,” the widow objected, “who then will see that justice is done?”“Whoever rules after me,” Trajan replied.“And what good will it do you,” the widow argued, “if someone else rights my loss?”“None at all!” the emperor retorted. “Then wouldn’t it be better for you,” the woman persisted, “to do me justice yourself and receive the reward, than to pass it on to someone else?”Trajan, moved with compassion, got down from his horse and saw to it that the blood of the innocent was avenged…

One day many years after that emperor’s death, as Gregory was crossing through Trajan’s forum, the emperor’s kindness came to his mind, and he went to Saint Peter’s basilica and lamented the ruler’s errors with bitter tears. The voice of God responded from above, “I have granted your petition and spared Trajan eternal punishment; but from now on be extremely careful not to pray for a damned soul!” Furthermore, John of Damascus, in one of his sermons, relates that as Gregory was pouring forth prayers for Trajan, he heard a divine voice coming to him, which said:“I have heard your voice and I grant pardon to Trajan.” Of this (as John says in the same sermon) both East and West are witness.

On this subject some have said that Trajan was restored to life, and in this life obtained grace and merited pardon: thus he attained glory and was not finally committed to hell nor definitively sentenced to eternal punishment. There are others who have said that Trajan’s soul was not simply freed from being sentenced to eternal punishment, but that his sentence was suspended for a time, namely, until the day of the Last Judgment. Others have held that Trajan’s punishment was assessed to him sub conditione as to place and mode of torment, the condition being that sooner or later Gregory would pray that through the grace of Christ there would be some change in place or mode. Still others, among them John the Deacon who compiled this legend, say that Gregory did not pray, but wept, and often the Lord in his mercy grants what a man, however desirous he might be, would not presume to ask for, and that Trajan’s soul was not delivered from hell and given a place in heaven, but was simply freed from the tortures of hell. A soul (he says) can be in hell and yet, through God’s mercy, not feel its pains. Then there are those who explain that eternal punishment is twofold, consisting first in the pain of sense and second in the pain of loss, i.e., being deprived of the vision of God. Thus Trajan’s punishment would have been remitted as to the first pain but retained as to the second.1


Roman Emperor Medieval Literature Medieval Study Mystical Vision Authoritative Account 
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  1. 1.
    Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), I. 178–79. For the Latin text, see the edition ofGoogle Scholar
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    This conclusion to the story is ruled as well by a logic of substitution: not only is Gregory’s original emotional anguish (“bitter tears”) replaced by physical pain, but Trajan’s now-remediated suffering (however imagined) is also transferred to Gregory, albeit in earthly form. Of course, Jacobus’s attempt to domesticate the Trajan story is at the same time embarrassed by this substitution; Gregory’s suffering leads us away from Trajan’s on the level of narrative, but it also points back to it, and to the question of justice sub con-ditione. Gregory’s own salvation is of course implied by the mention of time spent in purgatory, but how are we to measure that against time spent in hell? Quoting from Gregory’s letters may have been Jacobus’s own idea; while the link between the intervention and Gregory’s well-known infirmities is established very early in the tradition, none of the earlier accounts that I have seen use the letters to reinforce the connection. See Whatley, “Uses,” p.36n.39. The letters survive in almost a hundred manuscripts; they have recently been newly translated by John R.C. Martyn (The Letters of Gregory the Great, 3 vols., Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004]). The letters quoted in the Golden Legend are 9.232 and 10.14 in Martyn’s edition.Google Scholar
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    Watson, “Desire for the Past,” p. 87. The unpredictability of such empathy, and the emotional power of its claims, are once again nicely captured in the Golden Legend, where “one day” (L: quadam vice ) Gregory is reminded of Trajan’s story and it moves him to tears. Watson writes that “the past will always push through in this emotion-laden way in our accounts of it—isn’t this in fact the very point made over and over again in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?—a story that passes itself on into the future whether or not it is the story we want to be telling” (“Desire,”p. 72). The distance from the Golden Legend to Morrison’s Beloved is not so great as it seems; Watson uses the example in the course of rebutting Kathleen Biddick’s critique (in The Shock of Medievalism) of Caroline Walker Bynum’s “empathetic approach to the past” (p. 60) in Holy Feast and Holy Fast. His essay stresses “the need to think clearly about the way all such study has emotional designs on its object” (p. 61), and he acknowledges Fradenburg’s psychoanalytic work on this topic (see n.27 above) while describing his own efforts as “mystical” (that is, concerned with affect and empathy as experienced and described by medieval mystics). For a more broadly historicist approach to the affective dimension of medieval studies we can turn to Stephanie Trigg’s Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), which takes up “the discourses of affinity…by which Chaucer’s readers write themselves into relationships of intimacy with the poet and his various reading communities” (pp. 4–5). See especially her remarks on the role of “voice,” which implies “the possibility of hearing Chaucer speak across the centuries and across different cultures” and “becomes a inclusive and enabling trope that allows us to contain and restrict difference…” (p. 22). Chaucer has been singled out since the sixteenth century by successive generations of readers and critics as a voice that must be recovered despite difference, distance, and changes in “forme of speche”; he is modern literary criticism’s virtuous pagan, a Trajan figure whose commemoration continually requires us (that is, all us medievalists) to adopt Gregory’s role.Google Scholar
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© Frank Grady 2005

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