How can you spend less time in purgatory?

This activity attempts to make the idea of purgatory - one of the key ideas of the Middle Ages and beyond - more real and more involving for students.

Purgatory is easy to miss out because those appealing wall paintings found in many books concentrate on the contrasts between Heaven and Hell but students will gain far more understanding of the impact of medieval religion by focussing on Purgatory. This is because the desire to spend less time in Purgatory drove many actions and decisions - from dramatic choices such as going on Crusade or pilgrimage, to a wide range of charitable actions to the weekly observation of prayer and church-going. By asking students to take a role and then choose what they can and will do to avoid purgatory this activity may help students develop a deeper understanding of the centrality of religion and especially the fear of Purgatory (and Hell) in determining medieval people’s actions. Therefore this may well be one of the most valuable activities you can tackle when studying the Middle Ages. It follows therefore that it should be done early in any scheme of work so that you can link back to it later.

I’d like to thank Neil Bates for sparking the beginnings of this idea.

A range of images of Hell and Purgatory can be found on the British Library website HERE …


A WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

For a WORD version of this activity [ click here ]

For resource file [ click here ]


After taking part in this activity students will have developed an understanding of:

a) the importance of ideas of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell for people in the Middle Ages and after and why people were so anxious to spend less time in Purgatory.

b) the actions that people could take to reduce their time in Purgatory

c) the impact of these actions on medieval life e.g. the beneficial impact of charitable sp[ending on public health schemes.

d) why changes to religion might lead to complaint and even rebellion.


1. Roles – sheet to cut up to give out one role per group

2. Choices sheet – list of options for students to choose from.

3. Recording sheet – a table to record what everyone chooses.

The Activity

1. Divide up the front of your classroom into Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, thus creating a sense of them as physical places. Medieval people thought of H, P and H as places as real as their village or town. Hence skeletons have been found buried with sticks and trusses to enable the dead to rise and walk easily around these places.

Use labels to name H, P and H – if so minded put up a big yellow sun over Heaven and a black circle over Hell.

Explain that after death everyone goes to one of these places but to begin with we’re going to focus on Heaven and Hell.

2. Use an illustration of a wall painting of Heaven and Hell to build up a sense of what people believed happened in Heaven and Hell – do this quickly as it’s an introduction to the main part of the activity. 

Begin by asking students to describe what they can see in the scenes in the painting (i.e. what happens in Heaven and Hell). If this is difficult (and the paintings can be difficult to interpret for anyone) then give students a small set of cards, each one containing a description such as:

• People trying and failing to climb out of Hell

• A man counting his money while being held in a fire by two devils with forks

• People’s feet being gnawed by devils.

• Angels encouraging souls to climb up the ladder towards Heaven.

Obviously the descriptions have to be tailored to the picture you use but as a brief activity get students to sort them into scenes they’d expect in Heaven or Hell and then identify where in the picture they can see these scenes.

This should be a brief activity as it’s an introduction to the main activity – don’t get bogged down at this stage.

3. Now move some of your class out to the front of the room and stand them in Purgatory because people believed that nearly everyone went to Purgatory to begin with. How many students you move is up to you – ideally as many as don’t threaten your class control in order to get across the idea that this was everyone’s immediate fate.

Ask students what they think happened to people in Purgatory, the stage between Heaven and Hell? Is it more like Heaven or Hell?

The answer is that it was indistinguishable from Hell – people believed that all the terrible things experienced in Hell were experienced in Purgatory.

You can then send everyone back to their seats or continue with everyone in Purgatory depending on what’s comfortable.

Continue by explaining that unlike Hell you can move out of Purgatory into Heaven. How long you stay in Purgatory (suffering pains greater than you ever experienced in life) depends on what you do while alive. So do you have any ideas how you could reduce your time in Purgatory and get to Heaven sooner? [a speculative question but important to get students thinking about possible actions].

4. Give out the roles provided [download here]. There are 10 roles, ranging from the king to the poor – one role/slip of paper per group. The roles are a mix of the generic, fictional and real people.

Students could have individual roles but this would mean feedback would take a long time so one role per three would be more economical on time and importantly also enable good discussion on what to choose.

5. Once students have their roles, give out the choices sheet offering nine possible things they can do to shorten the time they will spend in purgatory. Give students a defined time-limit to choose which option/s they would choose in their role (they can choose more than one) – so they have to think about what they could afford and what would suit their place in society.


a)  Go through students’ choices – making sure they’ve chosen a suitable option and record their choices (will you ask students to fill in a table? A possible table is attached here).

b) Explore with students why the idea of going to Purgatory was so important in the Middle Ages – how many different kinds of impact did this have?

c) Discuss why Heaven and Hell were painted on church walls. Have students got a better understanding of this than they had earlier?

d) Explore how people might react if there were changes to religion which seemed to make it likely that they would spend more time in Purgatory or even go to Hell. This obviously leads into changes in religion in the 16thC and after.

Some Examples of Choices

Richard Whittington, Mayor of London, left money for a wide variety of public health projects – building to safeguard access to clean water supplies, a public privy with two segregated rows of 64 seats each (one row for men, one for women), rebuilding the notoriously unhealthy Newgate prison with a drinking fountain, better ventilation and more privies, an almshouse for the sick and a maternity ward for ‘fallen’ women about to give birth at St. Thomas’s hospital, Southwark. All this was in addition to more normal bequests, masses for his soul etc.

John Carre, Mayor of York, left money to pay to the several leper houses in York, 50 beds for poor men and women in need of help. Each bed was to have a new coverlet and mattress and two new blankets and sheets. He also left £20 to go to poor married men and women ‘living together’ but in need of help.

Margaret Paston left money to each of the churches in the manors where she held land and to two churches in Norwich where she worshipped and to the leper houses in Norwich and Yarmouth. She also left a few pence for each household on her lands and money to pay for masses for her soul to be said for seven years after her death. Money was also given to the poor who led prayers at her funeral as the prayers of the poor were believed to be most effective in speeding the soul through purgatory. This was in addition to family bequests.

General note – Carole Rawcliffe’s new book Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English towns and cities (2013) provides plentiful examples of citizens leaving money which was spent on improving public health – schemes such as better paving, water supplies, sewers, street cleaning, public privies etc. Professor Rawcliffe paints a detailed and convincing picture of late medieval towns where great efforts were made to avoid plague and improve public health.


A very important point for KS3 planning – this is not just a Y7 medieval topic. It tends to be boxed into Y7 courses on the Middle Ages but it’s at least as relevant for 16th and 17thC history – so don’t lock it in a medieval box.

This Page





The Activity


Examples of Choices