The Power of Hell



In the Middle Ages, people believed that bad people went to hell when they died.  These sources shows what they imagined hell to be like (and remember that medieval people believed that the afterlife would be everlasting – that if they ended up in hell, this was what their lives would be like for ever and ever after.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that to get to heaven they had to go to church.  They believed that only the priest could forgive their sins.  This made the Church, and the priest, very powerful and important in their lives – for example, everyone had to give the Church one tenth (a 'tithe') of everything they produced. 

This Chapter will help you appreciate the medieval horror of hell ... and its importance for the power of the Church.


Study these Sources, then answer the question sheet by clicking on the 'Time to Work' icon at the top of the page.


The following websites will help you research further:


Medieval ideas about hell:

• Simple and clear slideshare from Mr Humphreys


• A very detailed webpage on medieval hell - very long and difficult, but worth it for the pictures


1  A Vision of Hell

A painting of hell, from the Duc de Berry's Les Très Riches Heures (1416).  I wonder how literally paintings like this were meant to be taken; there is no doubt that medieval painters enjoyed painting hell because it gave their imaginations a chance to run riot!  However, I am sure that many ordinary medieval people, seeing paintings like these on the wall of their churches, simply accepted that this was awaited them in the afterlife if they did not get the forgiveness of the Church.


2  Another Vision of Hell

This vision of hell was written by an abbess (head of a nunnery) called Hildegard of Bingen, in her book The Book of the Rewards of Life (1171).

I saw a great swamp.  A black cloud of smoke hung over it and a mass of little worms swarmed all over it.  In the swamp were the souls of those who had enjoyed foolish fun when they were alive.

And I saw a great fire, black, red and white, and in it horrible fiery vipers spitting flame; the vipers tortured the souls of those who had been nasty to others.

And I saw a great fire burning in the blackness, and there were dragons in it.  Nearby was an icy river.  The liars were punished here.  To escape the heat, they went into the river.  Then, because of the cold, they returned to the fire, and the dragons tormented them.

And I saw the thickest darkness.  In it were those people who had not obeyed their bishop.  They lay on a fiery pavement and were bitten by sharp-toothed worms.

And I saw high in the air a hail of ice and fire falling ... and I saw demons with fiery whips beating here and there.