In Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror; in chapter 2, in her description of the Medieval church, she uses the phrase 'Salvandorum paucitas, damnandorum multitudo' to describe the general opinion of the time. Tuchman translates the phrase as 'few saved, many damned.'

A google search of the phrase mostly turns up references to that book and documents in Latin which I can't read. What is the origin of this phrase? Is it written by an eminent theologian? Is it a common figure of speech of Medieval times?


3 Answers 3


The full relevant quote is:

No one doubted in the Middle Ages that the vast majority would be eternally damned. Salvandorum paucitas, damnandorum multitudo (Few saves, many damned) was the stern principle maintained from Augustine to Aquinas.

I agree with Rafael that the Gospel itself lends to be understood in line with such phrase. Now, if the claim by the author is true, it is reasonable to assume an important influence of theologians also contributed to it. Expectedly, these theologians should feed strongly from the Gospel. This is at least what I found.

From what I can gather, it seems Augustine did not write specifically about this topic (for instance, he did not in his book about Christian Doctrine), but was quite aware of Matthew 22:14 "Multi enim sunt vocati, pauci vero electi" (English here, and also jerome's Vulgate here), which he quotes many times, e.g. in De correptione et gratia liber unus.

Thomas Aquinas did also write tangentially about this. From Summa Theologiae (English here):

Ad tertium dicendum quod bonum proportionatum communi statui naturae, accidit ut in pluribus; et defectus ab hoc bono, ut in paucioribus. Sed bonum quod excedit communem statum naturae, invenitur ut in paucioribus; et defectus ab hoc bono, ut in pluribus. Sicut patet quod plures homines sunt qui habent sufficientem scientiam ad regimen vitae suae, pauciores autem qui hac scientia carent, qui moriones vel stulti dicuntur, sed paucissimi sunt, respectu aliorum, qui attingunt ad habendam profundam scientiam intelligibilium rerum. Cum igitur beatitudo aeterna, in visione Dei consistens, excedat communem statum naturae, et praecipue secundum quod est gratia destituta per corruptionem originalis peccati, pauciores sunt qui salvantur. Et in hoc etiam maxime misericordia Dei apparet, quod aliquos in illam salutem erigit, a qua plurimi deficiunt secundum communem cursum et inclinationem naturae.

Similarly is the analysis from Bonaventura (e.g. page 593 here).

Cornelius a Lapide suggests in this book that the idea of "salvandorum paucitas" is also found in Church Fathers like Origin, Irenaeus, Dyonisius, Bede, and others.

From this I think it is natural to expect that the thought of the Medieval Church oriented toward such theme. Now, regarding the "origin of the phrase itself"? It is perhaps impossible to tell. In Latin the order of words is secondary; the verbal time could be changed too. For example, the (reordered) phrase "Paucitas Salvandorum et Multitudo Damnandorum" is the title of this 1705's book. According to this article (published in 1952), this doctrine was also taught by reformed theologians in the 17th century. Thus, given the possible combinations available and the fact that the phrase is present in a proto-form elsewhere makes identifying the origin of such a common theme a rather impossible task.


It is a way to read the Gospels, although it could be argued that it's not what they say literatim. However, it's not particularly medieval, but has been around since early Christianity to our days. Take e.g., NVG Mt 7:13-14:

Intrate per angustam portam, quia lata porta et spatiosa via, quae ducit ad perditionem, et multi sunt, qui intrant per eam; quam angusta porta et arta via, quae ducit ad vitam, et pauci sunt, qui inveniunt eam!

The Contemporary English Version of the Bible translates this as:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Christian teaching has always seen life here as meaning eternal life, Heaven, and destruction (actually perdition, ruin,) as hell (or at least not-Heaven in more lax interpretations.)

Jesus also gave a hint of this at other times, at the point that the disciples ask:

"Quis ergo poterit salvus esse?". Aspiciens autem Iesus dixit illis: "Apud homines hoc impossibile est, apud Deum autem omnia possibilia sunt". (NVG Mt. 19:25-26)

"How can anyone ever be saved?" Jesus looked straight at them and said, "There are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything." (CEV)

Hence your quote, salvandorum paucitas, damnadorum multitudo, can be seen as a condensed form of a way to read that aspect of the Gospels. I believe the important part of the message is not how many go into each group, but that Jesus taught the way, and that although it's impossible for the strength of man alone to achieve it, with the help of God anyone can. But we have to let God help us, and confront our pride and self-reliance (which are in fact very common.)

Unfortunately, the only results I get when looking for the full sentence are the lyrics of a heavy-metal band's song, and a book from the XVIII century whose contents I can't reach. If you could provide a link to these Latin documents you mention, it could help too.


To complement the other answers, let me give a translation of the phrase. Perhaps a discussion about the meaning and structure will be useful for context, even though that is not what you ask.

Salvandorum paucitas, damnandorum multitudo
Small number of those to be saved, great number of those to be damned

This is just a nominal phrase. Paucitas means "smallness", "small amount", or similar, and multitudo is the opposite. The most natural translation depends on context, for example whether there is an implied esse. The translation "few saved, many damned" is a good overall translation.

  • I was hoping to get information about the source, whether Tuchman invented the phrase herself or quoted from elsewhere, rather than a translation.
    – kingledion
    Apr 21, 2018 at 1:37
  • @kingledion I know. That's why I wrote that this complements the other answers. I'll edit to clarify. You gave the impression that you don't know Latin very well, so I thought a discussion on the meaning and structure would be helpful, albeit tangential.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 21, 2018 at 6:17
  • 1
    Looking back at this question to pick an accepted answer, I find your answer much more helpful that I evidently did at the time, so thank you.
    – kingledion
    Nov 18, 2018 at 21:23

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