Souls Speaking: Some Thoughts on Thomas More’s Supplication

Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls (1529) is a bit of a change of direction for us. It is not a philosophical or theological treatise on the nature of the soul and its potentialities, but a short(ish) piece of street-fighting polemic, composed in response to the rising threat of heresy in England, and the political wavering that was accompanying Henry VIII’s ongoing campaign for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. More specifically, it was a riposte to a Supplication for the Beggars, a brief and racy anticlerical pamphlet published in Antwerp by the exiled common lawyer, Simon Fish, smuggled back into England, and scattered in the streets in London. Fish’s tract purported to be a supplication to the king from the (true) poor against the false poor, the mendicant friars and other clergy, who were corrupting the morals of the country and leeching its wealth away – especially by their teaching on purgatory which “many men of great literature and judgement” now considered to be “a thing invented by the covetousness of the spirituality”.
More’s Supplication is therefore primarily a defence of the doctrine of purgatory (and secondarily of the reputation of the English clergy) as well as a tub-thumping attack on Fish, William Tyndale, Luther and other contemporary heretics (you can of course mentally put scare quotes around this last word if you wish). In mocking homage to the conceit of Fish’s text, it adopts the form of a first-person Supplication written by another group, the souls of the dead in purgatory (“none so poor as we”). And we might want to bear in mind here Natalie Davis’s axiom that the dead constituted an “age group” in late medieval society. Significantly, the Supplication is addressed, not to the king but “To all good Christian people”.
In many ways, More’s principal concern is not “the soul”, but souls, collective and plural. It is a book about the nature of human community in its broadest sense; about reciprocal human relations, bonds and obligations. “Soul” is used interchangeably to designate the disembodied spirits of the dead and as synecdoche for human person. For More, souls, are, as it were, “good to think with” because they articulate the ideal lineaments of a well-ordered society in which self-awareness leads to thinking beyond the self, and a proper understanding of such keystone concepts as charity, authority and tradition. But they are also, as he very candidly admits, extremely difficult to think with or think about. That paradox (and paradox is a characteristically Morean attribute) might point us towards the utility of “the soul” as an instrument for tracking a series of paradigmatic shifts at a time of profound change and indeed conversion.
Throughout the extract, and the text more broadly, More confronts the problem of incredulity and the associated problem (for the Church) of credibility. At the heart of the heretical critique is the claim that purgatory is unscriptural, so More (in the part of the text you’ll be relieved I didn’t ask you to read) adduces and explicates numerous biblical passages in its favour. Yet his principal argument is social and historical: is it probable, is it at all plausible, that a handful of eccentric heretics could have got the answers right on this, when the entire company of Christendom in all places and centuries, all the “old holy doctors and saints” had believed the contrary? This is a thread (reflecting Vincent of Lerins’ famous definition of truth as quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus held) running though all of More’s religious polemics. He seems rather less at ease with empirical and experiential arguments for the reality of purgatory. Certainly, he disputes the heretics’ claim that all reports of souls returning to the earth are fraudulent. How could one dismiss all the stories “so faithfully reported by so many honest folk, and so substantially written by so many blessed saints”? But, interestingly, More (perhaps letting his humanist colours show) doesn’t rehearse any individual instances of these, and in fact thanks God for his goodness in “keeping such apparitions of his great mercy most commonly from the sight of such as would turn his goodness into their own harm”. If such “proofs” were too copious, then the merit of faith would be lost. There is a parallel here with Reformation debates about eucharistic transformation (or conversion): despite the occasional bleeding host miracle to point to, the usual Catholic line was to berate heretics for their lack of faith, and their demand for sensible proof of transubstantiation.
Belief, faith, probability, but not, in this life, complete certainty – and More even advances something like a version of Pascal’s Wager. Supposing “that purgatory could in no wise be proved”, believing and acting as though it did would undoubtedly be “the far surer way”. Purgatory, and the painful experience of the souls imprisoned there, is at once beyond all reasonable doubt and nonetheless quite difficult to believe in.
That paradox is underlined by More’s selection of a self-consciously literary and fictive form as the vehicle for his argument. Though he occasionally forgets, and speaks in his own person, it is supposedly the souls in purgatory who are speaking or writing to us. This is both metaphor, and something more than metaphor: there was of course a long tradition of using poetic and fictive forms to convey religious truth, particularly about purgatory and the afterlife (Dante!), which need not mean (as Stephen Greenblatt argues in Hamlet in Purgatory) that purgatory texts were always shot through with “the specter of disbelief, the suspicion that the whole thing is an illusion, a trick, a fiction”. But More’s intense seriousness is both artful and playful. How literally are we supposed to take him, when he describes demons (for More, though not for all Catholic writers, the guardians of purgatory) taking the souls out on day trips to observe unobserved the thoughtlessness and forgetfulness of surviving kinsfolk, and the dead’s wasted accumulations of worldly wealth? Or the idea that new arrivals in purgatory will experience deep embarrassment, beholding with “what heaviness of heart and what a sorrowful shame” the faces of old friends they had forgotten to pray for while they were living?
Later post-Reformation writers would sometimes wistfully reflect that it was a natural human impulse to remember and pray for the souls of the dead. But for More it would seem that the prime natural human impulse is towards negligence and forgetfulness, and that there is a continual struggle to constitute and reconstitute society (in various senses of the term) in the face of this reversion to type. Children “pipe, sing and dance, and no more think on their father’s soul than on their old shoes”; widows “ soon waxen wanton, and forgetting us their old husbands”, only occasionally – a typical More touch, this – blurting out “God have mercy on my first husband’s soul” in order to spite their second one. It is all the pre-eminent case of “that old said saw, out of sight, out of mind”.
The invisibility and inaudibility of dead souls justifies – necessitates – the poetic and anthropomorphising mode of discourse (if it makes sense to talk about anthropomorphising a disembodied soul). For who, More rhetorically asks, could see a person trapped in a fire and not try to rescue them? More – himself a master of the arts of ridicule – is aware of the dangers here. Heretics might well “make a game and jest” of all this talk of heads, hands, feet “and such our other gross bodily members”. These are, of course, metaphors: “it were impossible to make any man upon earth perfectly to conceive in his imagination and fantasy, what manner of substance we be”. The souls adopt what would later be called an “accomodationist” strategy, shaping their descriptions of the next world to fit the limits of human imagination in this one – something found in scripture itself, for example in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
More thus ratchets up the emotional pressure – “remember what kin ye and we be together; what familiar friendship hath ere this been between us… dear friends remember how nature and Christendom bindeth you to remember us” – while drawing attention to the imaginary (or imaginative) status of his portrayal of the current state of the dead. It is something of a high-wire act. The seductive relative simplicity – theological, practical, psychological – of Luther’s claim that the souls of the dead “sleep” insensate until doomsday is likely part of the reason why More so vehemently rejects it. In More’s conceptual universe, prayer and alms-giving to relieve the souls of the dead is the highest form of charity precisely because it is so counter-intuitive. “For as to poor folk, a natural man will give alms either for pity of some piteous sight, or for weariness of their importune crying.” But those who donate for the relief of “us poor souls passed the world, whom he that giveth alms neither sees nor hears” do so purely on the basis of faith – a faith that the dead remain within the bounds of human community, with a right to request and expect the considerations and benefits such membership confers.
I began by stating that Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls is not the place to look for close discussion of the soul’s form and substance. But the ontological status of the soul, and the imaginative echoes, the poetic licensing, of that ontological status, reverberates through the text and through the wider course of the European Reformation. The location of the soul, its capacity for sentience, its ability to undergo change and development, the possibility for it to communicate with other departed souls or with the living – these were not abstruse metaphysical questions of interest only to scholastic philosophers. They determined the status and purpose of a professional priesthood, the allocation of substantial economic resources, the perception of kinship networks, and the cultural meanings of a host of ritual practices and material objects. Some scholars suggest that medieval Catholicism’s (and Thomas More’s) understanding of the relationship between living and dead souls erased the distinction between past and present, and that only with the abolition of purgatory and the cessation of intercessory prayer could the past become the past and modernity proper commence. It was all a bit more complicated than that. But there is nonetheless something intriguingly liminal about the form, content, and context of the work in which More’s supplicant and speaking souls present their case to a forgetful present.