Purgatory and Prison: Punitive Spaces in Old and Middle English Literature
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This dissertation investigates the connection between incarceration and purgative penance as it developed in medieval Christian tradition, with a particular focus on the ways in which that connection is represented in Old and Middle English literature. Both earthly and otherworldly prisons, I argue, were closely linked through their purpose of reform and rehabilitation. Prisons were seen as transformative spaces and punitive measures were a means of correcting and reintegrating transgressive members of the community. Medieval communities felt compelled to assist prisoners with alms, clothing, food, and spiritual guidance. In order to facilitate this aid, prisons were centrally located, punitive sentences were short, and prison boundaries were permeable, allowing inmates easy access to the outside world. Likewise, the community felt an obligation to care for and rehabilitate the transgressive dead in Purgatory through intercessory prayer, alms, and masses until the deceased received absolution and were released into Heaven. Because prisons were seen as morally and spiritually transformative spaces, a similar rhetoric emerged around earthly and otherworldly carceral spaces. Purgatory and—to a certain extent—Limbo were imagined as G-d’s divine prison in Old and Middle English literature; and prisons were often described by medieval writers as a kind of earthly Purgatory. Over time, however, as both religious and secular penal practices evolved, the connection between prison and Purgatory which found such ubiquitous expression in religious as well as medieval literary texts became more attenuated until it was eventually lost.
Torabi, Katayoun (2018). Purgatory and Prison: Punitive Spaces in Old and Middle English Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from