Searching for Paradise in Medieval Europe

Where is paradise, exactly? In the European Middle Ages (c.500–1500), there were several plausible answers: A) A garden, at the far east of China; B) An island in the Atlantic Ocean; C) A chain of planets and stars, beginning with the moon; D) A mountain top, located inverse to Jerusalem on the globe; E) A golden city in a cloud.

Giovanni di Paolo, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise (1445), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Between these answers was an important distinction. “Paradise” had very different connotations to “heaven.” While paradise (paradisus) could signify either a terrestrial or a celestial home for virtuous souls, heaven (caelum) in medieval theology only ever referred to a space (like the chain of stars) that stood apart from earth. The difference in their implications was therefore enormous. While heaven lay beyond the parameters of perception and comprehension, paradise was something that could conceivably be inhabited in the present life. It was a place that chivalrous knights might discover, in the course of their explorations or adventures. It was a holy city, the first buildings of which might already have been built. And it was a territory, for apocalyptic and millennial thinkers especially, that might soon expand to encompass all true Christians everywhere. If heaven was always a fantasy of life after death, paradise was often taken as a blueprint for a coming society on earth.

How far did paradise function as a political paradigm in the medieval world? If we are talking about paradise as an earthly garden, according to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben the answer is a qualified “not much” (Il Regno e il Giardino, pp.68–71). As a place of withdrawal, relaxation, and reflection, the garden worked more as a laboratory for theologians to explore human nature than as a useful testing ground for modes of human society. Agamben does highlight the work of Dante Alighieri (d.1321), whose Eden at the top of Mount Purgatory, he says, was a model of virtue and communal love that implicated a wider political community. But this was a rare exception. As Agamben concludes, the garden of paradise had little influence on politics in the medieval period.

Yet in the form of the heavenly city, paradise was much easier to connect to political life. This was not only because the coming city was often confused with the already existing Jerusalem. As an idealized and sanctified image of urban life, it acted as a space in which fantasies of social renewal could be explored, insulated by the defense that this was not a political program but rather the will of God.

“The New Jerusalem” from the Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, Jean de Bondol, c.1373–1387

What was the society of the heavenly city supposed to look like? Augustine of Hippo (d.430) gave a succinct answer to this question. Paradise, he said, was a city that accommodated and harmonized the lifestyles and customs of diverse citizens under a stable Christian leadership.

“This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.”

Augustine, City of God, 19: 17

This “sojourn” on earth was meant in both a spiritual and literal sense. Linking the heavenly city with its earthly imitators, Augustine’s coming paradise was connected directly with present prescriptions for good governance. If a city practiced peace and inclusivity, then by his implication it could be numbered among the “Cities of God” on earth.

By the 1100s, however, opinion on the diversity of paradise was becoming divided. While some maintained that it would be uniform, with all souls looking and acting the same, others saw it as being defined by further variety and difference. Bishop Otto of Freising (d.1141) was a writer firmly in the uniformity camp. According to Otto, who wrote an epic history of the world that included the future alongside the past and present, paradise would make all humans look nearly alike. On this “new earth,” he said, souls would enjoy “new bodies for a new use, purified, by the removal of every inequality and of all uncleanness, to the likeness of the paradise of God.” He briefly contemplated the possibility that women would become men in this afterlife, before rejecting the idea as a philosophical mistake. Yet he did insist that these “new bodies” would follow a normative ideal. While people would tend towards the same weight and height, those with acne would lose their spots, and Ethiopians would apparently shed their blackness and become white. (The Two Cities, 8: 12).

Despite his uniformity, Otto insisted on the heavenly city’s diversity of wealth. “It cannot be that [souls] all in like manner enjoy equally that eternal blessedness,” he wrote, defying unnamed scholars who, he claimed, had argued otherwise. The “many mansions” promised by God in the Gospel of John were, just like earthly mansions, to be of different sizes and qualities. Otto even suggested that these heavenly inequalities would reflect inequalities on earth. Quoting God’s words to Moses, “See that you make all things after their pattern,” Otto implied that the hierarchy of his contemporary society was made immutable by its resemblance to the feudalism of the angels and saints. (The Two Cities, 8: 29).

Fra Angelico (attributed), The Dominican Blessed (detail), c.1420, National Gallery, London

At the other end of the spectrum was the white canon, Anselm of Havelberg (d.1158). If Anselm was a theologian of anything in particular, then it was diversity. He had been a follower of the radical reformer Norbert of Xanten (d.1134), and took it as his great cause to preach fluidity and change in the Church. God was “multiform” in the distribution of his gifts (multiplex in multifaria donorum suorum), he insisted, and the Holy Spirit was “divided and articulated” among a great variety of “different members” (diversa membra diversis). Most of all, Anselm argued that this diversity of being would multiply in the coming city of paradise, a space that would come to earth in the imminent “seventh stage of the Church.” Hosting a “variety” of blessed souls, the earthly paradise would reflect “not mutability in God,” but rather “the fragility of the human race and the changing of times from generation to generation.” (Anticimenon, 1: 13).

Another question that occupied theologians in the central decades of the 1100s was the social organization of paradise. If it was to be a city, would it function like one? And if so, would it replicate the business pace and velocity of cities on earth? Again, theologians were divided. Taking a more traditional approach was the monk Bernard of Cluny (fl.1140s), whose De contemptu mundi featured a partly satirical snapshot of a wanderer’s preview of heaven. His pilgrim described paradise as a city “without business,” and “without aspiration,” where the only occupation was singing (Tota negotia, cantica dulcia dulce tonare). Bernard’s heavenly city existed “without time” (urbs sine tempore), as a privileged place of perpetual rest for angels, martyrs, saints, and the elite souls who had deserved to enjoy their company.

Civitas Dei Mosaic, c.800, Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany

Quite different from this was the view offered by Honorius of Autun, the eccentric preacher and theologian. A famous popularizer of high theology, Honorius wrote handbooks on the basics of the faith that were widely circulated throughout Europe in the third and fourth decades of the 1100s. His most lengthy account of the heavenly city appears in his Elucidarium, a text framed (like Plato’s works) as a dialogue between a Master and his Disciple. After the Disciple enquires about the nature of heavenly beatitude,Honorius’s Master distinguishes between the earthly garden of paradise and what he calls the “kingdom of heaven.” While this kingdom offers a sensual overload, with delightful sounds and fragrances, he gives it the unmistakable quality of a modern cityscape. It contains a thronging “multitude of handsome men and women” (multitudinem virorum ac mulierum speciosarum), all appreciating “splendid buildings” (praeclara aedificia), he says. More curiously, his heaven seems to function with capital and possessions. In this city, the Master explains, the blessed souls will “possess lots of money, and a range of items” (multam pecuniam et variam supellectilem possidere). Presumably, his heavenly city worked as an economy, trading the endless cycle of pleasures — the garments, incenses, pigments and spices, and the entertainments and shows — that Honorius describes in so much detail.

In terms of framing social relations on earth, all these images of paradise may seem to offer contrasting perspectives. Within the tension between Otto of Freising and Anselm of Havelberg over the diversity of paradise, we can detect an important difference over how to integrate ordinary people into the hierarchy of an ideal city. And between the heavenly cityscapes of Bernard of Cluny and Honorius of Autun, we see a disagreement over the mechanics of redistributing wealth in paradise. 

Yet we should not dismiss Otto’s coming paradise so quickly. Although it might culminate in a physically and biologically non-diverse heaven, his city of paradise would first arrive to transform the social and material conditions of the present life.

“The city, therefore, is said to come down out of heaven because, by a mysterious ordering of the divine plan, that incomparable crown is to come to the notice of the elect not only by knowledge but also by experience.”

Otto of Freising, The Two Cities, 8: 26

Instead of a dramatic superimposition of community, Otto’s paradise would come through a gradual unfolding into — and transformation of — earthly society. It would manifest through a pattern of new community, one that would dawn on the faithful as they began to experience it. Otto further explains this mysterious process with the image, drawn from Revelation, comparing the heavenly city to the bride of Christ. Like that bride, he said, “creation” (or the world around us) would be “fashioned anew” through the process of building the city of God.

The Effects of Good City Government, Fresco, Siena, c.1338-9.

What might any of these points of view have to do with “democratic” forms of living? In the case of Otto of Freising, paradise may seem closer to an autocracy. With God at its apex, it maintains many of the feudal hierarchies that characterized the social structure of twelfth-century Europe. On closer inspection, however, Otto’s description of the heavenly city’s gradual unfolding implies a radical democratization. Cutting across social boundaries, it is exclusively built through the action of empowered citizens, of all classes, who become agents in the forging of the new kingdom.

“Some of these, dwelling in cities, in castles, in villages and in the countryside, impart to their neighbours by word and by example the rule of right living… [After a brother fails in some way] they mutually correct one another in love.”

Otto of Freising, The Two Cities, 7: 33

Functioning on principles of communal love, Otto’s coming city reveals a fantasy of an unrealized medieval democracy. Yet it is a fantasy based on discipline and repression. Binding themselves to rules of humility and inner virtue (resembling the restrictive protocols of ideal medieval lovers), Otto’s new citizens would find freedom in limitation. His democracy of collective empowerment does not look so much like an opening up of limitless enjoyment. Rather, it appears to be a gradual radiation, throughout the whole world, of a monastic rule of life.

Cite this blog post
Reyna Zachary Low (2019, December 21). Searching for Paradise in Medieval Europe. Learning to Recognize Democracy? Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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