Medieval attitudes and mental exercises

My post on historical novels (and the responses to it) have got me thinking a bit more about the difference between modern and medieval mentalities, or rather, the differences that historical novelists need to contemplate and possibly find ways to express. This is my first attempt to say what I think the most important differences to note are (please join in with your own suggestions in the comments). I also want to suggest some possible mental exercises/thought experiments to help both historians and novelists contemplate these differences

1) An acceptance of hierarchy, injustice and inequality.
This is often a difficult ‘modern’ concept to unthink: how could people accept the subordination and oppression of peasants, slaves, women, etc? I find memories of childhood (the more traditional the better) useful here (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that children’s historical novels often stand up better than adult ones). You have to do what you are told, however unfair it might seem, because you are a child and ‘they’ are adults and that’s just how it is. And most children don’t spend most of their time raging against this, both because they don’t know that things could be different, and because there is no conceivable way to change the system. Instead, they spend any spare mental energy working out how to get along in this unfair system, or how to cheat it without getting caught, or dreaming about a better world, or waiting for something to change, or just enjoying whatever good bits there are. Transfer that to the medieval subordinated adult, and that seems to me a basic template for how you might react to a society that is biased against you. Most of the time, most of the oppressed don’t rebel: that’s a basic historical fact.

2) Love and marriage
Modern thought also tends to have a problem with the concept of love in the Middle Ages, because we’re so used to thinking of love as essentially between equals, whereas Augustine describes marriage as ‘a certain friendly and true union of the one ruling, and the other obeying’ (On the Good of Marriage c 1). The best descriptions of relationships in historical novels manage to combine both timeless feelings and historical social realities about relationships. I always remember, for example, Gillian Bradshaw’s ‘The Colour of Power’, where a husband realises he has fallen in love with his wife of many years only after she has disappeared and is in danger.

3) Lack of control
A few weeks ago I was briefly on the Brough of Deerness, a rocky peninsula in Orkney on which some enthusiast built a chapel. The current archaeological view seems to be of the buildings around it as being a secular complex rather than a monastic one, but it has a lot of similarities to many other early monastic sites. As I stood there, it occurred to me that the prevailing feel was not one of solitary tranquillity (though there were only the four of us on the rock). Even though it was a lovely sunny day, the wind was still whipping up the waves enough to make it pretty loud: I didn’t feel so much serene as conscious that if we weren’t all careful there could be a horrible accident. And I started wondering whether the spiritual effect of such places wasn’t more about the power of Nature/God and one’s own insignificance than the peace of Nature/God.

Much of modern life is about our attempts to control our lives: we believe we can determine what will happen to us. Part of the stress of bereavement, disease, being a victim of crime, unhappy relationships and even failure to get the job we want is the realisation that there are some things we can do nothing about. Life in the pre-modern world made such events far more common. It’s not just natural disasters and disease (although Robin Fleming’s “Bones for Historians: Putting the Body back in Biography,” in Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow, ed. David Bates (Woodbridge, 2006), 29-48, is an eye-opening read on the topic), it’s also collapsing buildings (Carolingian balconies are terrible for this) and wars and many other unknowns. Whether this all made medieval people more fatalistic, or more realistic or more superstitious, you’ll just have to decide for yourself, but the attitudes of modern people in such situations outside their control are worth looking at. (There’s an interesting recent study on Hurricane Katrina for example).

4) Qualities of violence
I’ve recently been reading William Ian Miller, Humiliation: and other essays on honor, social discomfort, and violence (Cornell University Press, 1993), which includes some interesting attempt to make parallels between medieval and modern emotions. He comments (p 55): ‘Many of our judgments about quantities of violence…might turn out really to be judgments about qualities of violence’. The medieval world was almost certainly more violent than the modern western world (though it’s hard to produce definite metrics) but the quality of the violence was certainly very different. Violence was more visible, for example, whether public beatings or animals being killed in the farmyard. A novelist has to reflect this difference, without making his or her characters seem impossibly callous in modern terms. One useful trick, it seems to me, is to recalibrate the expected set-point for violence. If a novelist includes some throwaway lines about beatings or deaths (and writing allows one to downplay such events more easily than visual media), they can nevertheless still have set pieces of particularly gratuitous or brutal violence. After all, medieval people could still be shocked by violence, if it was excessive in their terms.

5) Types of racism
The big difference between medieval and modern racism is that the former is not predominantly about skin colour. Instead, it’s the more basic idea that all foreigners are strange and have bizarre habits, with ‘foreigner’ expandable as necessary to encompass anyone coming from more than X miles away. Although medieval racism could lead to war atrocities (e.g. English versus Welsh) or opportunistic killings (attacks on Flemings in London), not much of it gets to the level of later European racism, with lesser breeds treated as subhuman. We also need to take care not to read back the current hierarchies of undesirables into the Middle Ages: I’d argue, for example, that the Carolingians were probably more prejudiced about Greeks than Muslims.

6) Religion
In the comments on my previous post on historical novels, Morgan said: ‘I have yet to find a believable religious character in a historical fiction novel’. I think it may be here that the historian’s and the novelist’s tasks differ most. While historians may be trying to ascertain what medieval people actually believed, I think what novelists mainly need to do is to produce plausible Christian personalities. Most of the time people do not express their religion through talking about their beliefs, but through their religious practices and also through their personal behaviour.

The biggest mistake a novelist (or indeed a historian) can make is to think there is only one kind of Christian (or one kind of true Christian). Everyone’s faith is marked subtly or less subtly by their own personality. My husband and I have been attending church and Christian events together for more than twenty-five years, and we would probably be very close doctrinally. And yet his faith is not quite my faith and his God is not identical with my God. It’s a simplification to see a believer’s idea of God as simply a reflection of his or her own personality, but it is true that their concepts cannot help but be marked by their own sense of themself and of the world around them. The complacent, the fearful, the kind, the cruel, the lover of rituals and those who find rituals meaningless all have their own vision of God.

One of the hardest aspects of studying religion (whether for a historian or a novelist) is also trying to get to grips with the viewpoint of the religious zealot or ascetic or fanatic. It’s tempting, even for the religious among us, just to imagine such people as being fundamentally alien and personally warped, but that’s come to seem too simplistic to me. The most useful book on religious history I’ve ever read is Peter Brown’s The body and society: men, women and spiritual renunciation in early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988). In this, Brown looks at a religious practice that seems totally alien to almost all modern people (celibacy) and explores the differing reasons that various late antique and early medieval Christian groups had for practising it. Brown’s great skill is that he can make such viewpoints intelligible, fitting them into a system of thought. It was reading him that first made me think about asceticism as a positive rather than a purely negative phenomenon.

I think in the same way that one of the most useful exercise a historian or novelist can do is try and get in touch temporarily with their own inner fanatic. (And I would argue that anyone dedicated enough to do a PhD or write a novel does have a touch of the fanatic in them). Firstly, there is the sense that a particular project you are doing is of true importance: it is a goal that you are deeply committed to. And from that springs the discipline to persevere at that project even when it is difficult and to give up things in order to achieve that goal. It is a mini modern version of asceticism: if you persistently find that you would rather go to the pub or read a book or talk to friends than get on with your study or your writing, you are not going to achieve much.

Aligned to that commitment to a project, there is also normally also a desire to write the best history or novel that you can. If you are serious about your research or your fiction writing, you are likely to come to be contemptuous or even angry with those who are content to be second rate historians or novelists (especially if they are more successful than you). Why can’t they be bothered to check their sources properly or write without clichés? Why are they damaging the reputation of the craft or the genre? It’s in the moments when you fantasize that X’s book should be publicly denounced as rubbish and a copy symbolically torn into shreds (or used as toilet paper) that you start coming near the concept of fanaticism. It’s misleading to see all fanatics as simply negative, as being against things. It’s the searing, clarifying vision of the one true path that is what can justify the rejection of everything and everyone else.

I think most historians and novelists have at some time have had a vision of that true history, that great novel . If we imagine such feelings intensified to extend to something that affects one’s whole life and one’s eternal future, it’s a useful way of considering what motivates at least some religious zealots.

Those are the different mental aspects of the medieval past that I currently think are most important for novelists to try and get right. In contrast, there are some mental differences that are less important for novelists, even if they are real changes from the past. Though I’m aware of studies that show cognitive differences between preliterate/prescientific people and modern thought, these tend to occur when considering abstract problems in a way that isn’t really relevant to most situations in novels, (except historic detective novels). For an example, looking at Russian peasants, see here. (Although maybe novelists should start looking through their novels and see whether instead of some common class nouns, such as ‘animals’, ‘colo(u)rs’, ‘people’, they would be better off with a more specific term).

Another tricky problem for novelists is sensory perception. The medieval world was undoubtedly smellier than ours, the night darker (no light pollution), the cold feeling more bitter, etc. And yet people adapt to such things: after a while in a noisy neighbourhood, you no longer hear the traffic. The novelist must perform a double trick here, working out what are noteworthy sensations from a different sensory baseline. Paradoxically, too much historical knowledge may be a disadvantage here, because a novelist may become tempted to show off the knowledge they have.

The historian, presenting medieval mentalities for a modern audience, has one great advantage. They can always painstakingly build up explanations and analogies for how and why a historical character might feel or behave. (For one good example of this, see Michael Clanchey, Abelard: a Medieval Life). The historical novelist doesn’t have the luxury of explanation: they must somehow make such mentalities comprehensible by implicit means. It’s not surprising that they usually fail: what is impressive is that they occasionally succeed.


14 thoughts on “Medieval attitudes and mental exercises

  1. You have made some very interesting and astute observations here, and I think you have pegged down some of the biggest hurdles in historical fiction.

    One type of historical fiction I can often tolerate is time-travel fiction, because it gives the author a chance to negotiate some of these differences. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, for instance, is a great read. There are definitely some problems with the history, but by placing a modern person in a medieval world Willis can explore one of the major things that I think attracts people to history: the persistence of human emotion (as Pat brought up in the comments on your last post). In Doomsday Book, a time traveler finds herself facing the Black Death, while in the modern timeline, a major epidemic is hitting in the 20th century. We watch people 730 years apart reacting to similar events. The main character is modern, so she can be shocked by the medieval people’s reactions to violence and acceptance of hierarchy.

    Of course, not all time travel novels are successful. Don’t get me started on Michael Crichton’s Timeline – that will definitely bring out my inner fanatic.


  2. I’d be interested in what you thought of John Arnold’s Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, 2005). Personally, I’ve never read a more subtle discussion of what belief might have meant and how it might have worked in the Middle Ages.


  3. Using your notes as a checklist, I think I’m doing okay so far–with the exception of religion. I’m having a really difficult time imagining not understanding the world in scientific terms.

    If anyone has any tips on how to improve this, I’d love to hear them.


  4. Nice. I might augment the first point by suggesting that the acceptance of hierarchy (and the parallel to a child’s perspective) may also lead to a profound desire for a leader / lord / master / parent who will retain ultimate responsibility for one’s welfare. From this viewpoint, no matter how much autonomy within the system one struggles for, the prospect of a larger personal freedom as we conceive it in more modern times (“I am the Master of My Fate,” etc.) is not only impossible, but may be genuinely frightening. Yes, I want ice cream, and I want to choose the flavor, and add sprinkles, and I want it NOW, but Daddy has to take me home when I’m done.

    On a different tack, I wonder about something that I’ve encountered in other cultures and may – or may not – be true of medieval Europeans, that is, the sense that being alone is unnatural (and, as such, generally uncomfortable). People spend their whole lives, almost every waking AND sleeping hour, with other people – in the same room, in the same bed, in the same crowded venues. Do they start to feel ill at ease if they are by themselves? Is “privacy” not only improbable, but undesirable?

    When my wife checked into a hospital in the Philippines some years ago, one of the first things they asked her was “Who will be your companion?,” assuming that of course she, like every other patient, would have some family member or close associate sleeping next to her bed, whether in a ward or a private room. (Beds for such “companions” are routinely provided.) Filipinos may express concern if you are sitting alone, even if it’s by your own choice; this strikes them as wrong, and if they have your best interests at heart, they will intrude upon your privacy as often as they can. Or am I just making an inapt cross-cultural shot in the dark?


  5. There is a great deal here to digest. I had to read it three times and take notes! Like Nicola, I believe that I have addressed all of these issues at some level. The most difficult attitude, I think, is the one of female subordination, especially when one is writing a book with a female heroine. Yes, women were subordinate. No question about it. They were the weaker vessels and they perceived themselves in that way. But the main character in my own novel is royal, and I think that in her life there may be some conflict to be found between subordination and queenship – and conflict is what a novel is all about. Look at Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflad, and we find a woman who doesn’t fit easily into the male social hierarchy. Look at Edward the Confessor having to confront his mother with soldiers at his back in order to get his hands on the royal treasure, and we find another woman, Emma, who defies any kind of pigeonholing. It is women like this who intrigue me, as both a reader and a writer. They manage to stand out in a society whose annals were written for the most part by men who had no interest in aggrandizing women — or in dealing with them at all. Are these women unique or are they merely the tip of an iceberg? If the latter, it’s what lies beneath the surface that attracts the novelist.


    • Some more responses – whether I’ll ever catch up, I’m not clear.

      dr ngo – I think the concept of being ‘captain of my fate’ is one that has always been available to the privileged in society. Paulinus of Aquileia in the 790s was complaining about the ‘lovers of this world’ who said:

      Let me do what I want and can; let me satisfy my thoughts and desires of the body; let my counsels support me, whether of my friends or my powerful relatives; gold is present for me, silver abounds; I have servants and maidservants, fields and many possessions of this world, cloaks, precious clothes, whence I can redeem myself; let me fulfil my will

      Paulinus then quotes the parable of the rich man in Luke 12, 16-20, where the man who has filled his barns is told he will die that night, showing the idea is even earlier.

      What has changed is that the circle of those who are privileged in that way to believe that they are in control of their life has been substantially expanded, and much of that expansion has been due to the (invisible) success of the modern state. If you are not going to be left to starve in the gutter if your business fails (because there is a some kind of welfare system), no-one is going to come and burn down your house in the night (because there’s a police force and an army to prevent that), there is not likely to be a cholera epidemic (because there’s a public water supply), your educational success is not going to be based on how much you pay the examiners (because corruption has been tackled), you haven’t inherited a fixed social status at birth (because there’s no caste system or segregation) it’s a lot easier to see your life as entirely shapeable at your own will.

      Your point about the desirability or otherwise of solitude is a very interesting one. I think you may be right to see parallels with the Middle Ages, although it’s difficult to be sure. In a letter from 847 (no 70), Lupus of Ferrieres says his new courier is ideal for the job, except that ‘he is still unable to sleep alone, I think because of night fears (timores nocturni)’. But it’s sometimes hard to know what counts as ‘alone’ in a world in which slaves or servants attending may be ‘invisible’ in some senses. Do all the knight errants of the romances really have a squire handy to help them put their armour on and off? And are hermits really living a solitary life, or are they dealing with a string of people coming to seek their advice?

      One of the other issues in making comparisons is that true solitude is increasingly rare in the modern world: even in the most remote areas, there are very few places where nobody else is at all. And if you have a radio or a mobile phone are you really alone even on a remote Scottish hillside, even if you don’t use it? It’s certainly not the same kind of solitude that you would have had going through an eighth century forest.

      Pat – I’ve been discussing medieval women and patriarchy a lot on the blog this year, so if you look back through the archives you’ll see some of my evolving views (as well as some dissenting voices in the comments). But I’ll try to put together a few summarizing comments here, focusing on upper class women (Non-noble women had almost no chance for power for most of the Middle Ages, but then nor did non-noble men).

      I think there are just too many powerful early medieval women for them to be regarded as purely exceptions. But they still faced constraints that powerful men didn’t and I want to highlight three. One is the issue of precedent. In the kind of customary law based society that is visible until at least the twelfth century, it’s difficult doing anything for the first time, because it’s breaking with time-honoured tradition. But, as historians have repeatedly shown, immemorial custom just tends to be what’s been happening for about the last 30 years or so. So until there are sufficient women holding particular forms of power that you get them coming along several times in a generation, the reset button keeps on getting pressed, and their powers have to be accumulated and justified anew each time. This mattered less for women religious, where there was often a continuous tradition (abbess to abbess), but I think it was more of an issue for laywomen (although Kim LoPrete’s work, which I discuss in the next post, suggests this may have changed by the eleventh century).

      Secondly, even the most successful laywoman seems to have owed more to chance than powerful laymen. (Again, this is less true for religious women). The chance for a woman to hold power relied crucially on life-cycle factors beyond her control: who she married, whether she had children, at what age she was widowed etc. And I also think women were less likely to get second chances than men were to succeed politically: if they made mistakes early on they could easily get ruled out of the political game entirely.

      That links to my final point: the vulnerability of powerful women. As Kim LoPrete discusses, powerful women had to exercise authority while not transgressing norms of female behaviour, especially concerning modesty and chastity. (This is true for both laywomen and religious, as some of the miraculous proofs of a convent’s high standards show when there’s a suspicious dead baby around). More generally, all rulers in the Middle Ages (male or female, secular or religious) were liable to collapses in authority and power. Your neighbour may decide to invade your lands or burn down your monastery, your sons or magnates might decide to revolt, the king may turn against you. What you need to prevent or overcome this is the convincing air of someone who you shouldn’t mess with, because if you do you’re going to come face to face with the wrath of God and his saints and/or a lot of devoted warriors (‘Do you feel providential, punk?’). This air of authority (holy or unholy) is always, in one sense, a confidence trick: you can end up very dead even if you are the rightful king/lord/heiress/abbess. It needs a certain personality to sustain it, and my suspicion (though it’s unprovable) is that such an air of authority is harder for a woman to maintain than a man.

      All this didn’t mean that exceptionally talented women couldn’t wield power, if they were lucky. But I think what it did do was make it hard for any non-exceptional woman to have much influence. Do you know the feminist joke: that the definition of equality is when a mediocre woman can have as much success as a mediocre man? I think that creates a particular problem for a fiction writer – you can have powerful female characters in a medieval work, but I think you’re going to find it hard to have a convincingly powerful female character who is also sympathetic to most of your audience.


  6. Thanks for all the comments – they raise a number of points, so it’ll take me a while to respond to them all.

    Morgan – I think there are several problems with time-travel historical fiction that tend to outweigh any advantages of the form. One is that it dates far more quickly than normal historical fiction, because you’re highlighting the ‘modern’ bit so much. I was just looking again at Ronald Welch’s ‘The Gauntlet’, which I read as a child, written in 1951 and including time travel into the fourteenth century. The moment you have the young hero realizing that he is no longer wearing his grey flannel shorts and blazer, the ‘present’ too seems irretrievably past. And I’d similarly say that the historical works of Dumas from the mid-nineteenth century seem far less obsolete than Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court from 1889. The other big problem seems to me to be how the time traveller fits into the society without being detected, or is accepted regardless of their origins. That seems to me to raise all sorts of technical problems (like language) that either have to be ignored or explained away rather unconvincingly.

    Theo – I haven’t yet read John’s book, although I’ve heard him lecture very entertainingly on medieval religion. It’s on my list of books to read, but the ever-expanding nature of this list means that I’m not likely to get round to it any time soon.

    Nicola – I don’t know what your educational background is, so I’ll need to talk a bit about mine to explore modern limits on ‘understanding the world in scientific terms’. I’m the product of a British education system that specialises early. So while I have a degree in mathematics, I didn’t study much science at school after the age of 13 (one chemistry O level). On the other hand, I’ve picked up more stuff over the years, so I have what I suspect would count as an above average scientific knowledge. And yet that still doesn’t lead to me most of the time ‘understanding the world in scientific terms’.

    Firstly, how often do you think about science/technology every day? Unless I read or see something on TV, most of the time I’m taking the world’s scientific knowledge for granted. When I go to work, for example, I do not consider how the train runs, but getting irritated at why it breaks down at inconvenient moments.

    Secondly, most of my scientific knowledge is actually very hazy. I am really starting to notice this now that I have a bright six-year old who asks awkward questions. She wanted to know why the North and South Pole have seasons and I was struggling to explain about this being due to the tilt of the earth (I needed to look up several diagrams before I was sure I understood it myself). And I could barely remember what the ozone layer did. I know a lot of vague outlines, but I often don’t know the details of how processes work. For example I know that radio waves exist, but if you asked me how TV pictures actually get broadcast and received, there would be a lot of hand-waving at key points. (Isn’t there a science fiction story where a team of scientists manage to bring someone from the future back in time only to find him hopelessly unable to explain the details of his world’s technology?)

    At a deeper level, there’s the fact that a lot of scientific truths are highly implausible. By this I don’t mean to imply that they are inaccurate in any way, but that they do not fit with our common sense perceptions and intuitions about the world. For example, it is a mathematical fact that there are the same number of odd whole numbers as there are whole numbers, but that is deeply counterintuitive. In the same way, it is hard to imagine that a dachshund is descended from a wolf, let alone that humans have evolved from fish. Part of becoming a scientist is an immersion in the subject that controls or suppresses these incorrect intuitions, but it is hard to achieve. Even when I know logically that it’s quite likely I can throw a dice 10 times in succession and not get a six (this happens with around 16% probability), it’s quite hard not to start imagining that the dice is biased.

    Ultimately I accept the theory of evolution not because macroevolution makes sense to me at an imaginative level, or because I have the scientific knowledge to follow a detailed proof and know it is valid, but because I trust the scientific method that has been used to develop and test this theory. Similarly, I am teaching my daughter that the earth goes round the sun, because that’s what I’ve read, but if I had to prove the truth of the heliocentric model to a sceptical medieval astronomer who though the earth was the centre of the universe, I would run into difficulties. (If anyone has a simple and neat demonstration of this fact, please let me know).

    In other words, most of my ‘scientific knowledge’ of the world is ultimately reliant on authority rather than personal experiment, and on rather hazily understood and probably inaccurate mental models of the world. The knowledge I have also doesn’t impact much on my everyday life. How much does that really differ from the Middle Ages?

    Two more specific issues are the creation of the world and scientific modes of thought. At an analogical level, the world being created makes intuitive sense. It’s quite easy to imagine a god, who is like a human in many ways, but vastly more powerful. If a person can create a clay model of a horse, can’t a god create a real horse? And if you don’t believe the world was created, you have to have an alternative better explanation of how it exists. A steady state world, which has always existed in its current form, is intuitively plausible. A complex world emerging out of the dust from stars is frankly ludicrous as an idea, until you have 500 years of concentrated scientific thought to prove it.

    As for scientific modes of thought, again, how often are those needed in everyday life? If we’re doing certain high-skilled jobs, we might need to be able to specify a problem precisely and break it down analytically, or to see whether one hypothesis fits the evidence better than another. For most situations, however, the approach of trying things until you find a method that works and then sticking to it is entirely adequate. Similarly, why bother to expend brainpower on challenging received wisdom unless there’s some obvious benefit? Before I became a historian, for example, if I read in a history book that Charlemagne was born in 742, I would simply have accepted this. I would not have wondered what sources this information came from and if it was consistent with other information.

    I remember being told in my maths lectures that original mathematical thought was like a cavalry charge: it used up a lot of resources and was to be reserved for emergencies only. Most of the time, it makes sense to think conventional thoughts and behave in the standard way and to conserve your mental resources for more important things (such as looking forward to your day off work/contemplating how to deal with your irritating relatives/thinking about your next meal). Spending your time wondering about exactly how far the stars are away and what they’re made of is reserved for those abnormal few who can’t get enough entertainment from drink, sex and that joke about the fox.


  7. I’m really enjoying this conversation. Thank you.

    I, too, grew up in England. I was one of those awkward pupils who insisted on science and arts at ‘A’ level. Biology, chemistry, maths, physics, English, General Studies… Eventually I had to drop maths and physics because there just wasn’t time in anyone’s day to fit it all in–and, frankly, maths A level did my head in. But when I did grasp what was going on, I loved it.

    Anyway, I’m not sure how relevant any of that is to our discussion because I find I have expressed myself badly.

    I went to a Catholic convent school and learnt my catechism; the nuns tried to instill in me the belief that God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him (etc.). At the same time, I was learning that the universe obeys certain impartial laws–that the universe simply doesn’t know I exist and cares even less, that it’s disinterested.

    Naturally many of my fellow students refused this notion (or, perhaps more accurately, were able to hold both notions in their head at once), and continued to believe that God kept them in His special care, with angels and saints to watch their every move.

    Perhaps Anglo-Saxons fell into the same division of belief: those who thought various gods were paying attention to life in the vill, and those who believed the gods were about their own business and couldn’t care less–at least if you didn’t draw too much attention.

    It’s the essential belief in deities meddling with human life that I can’t get my head around. I’ve always assumed that most people in, say, the north of England in the early 7th C would hold that belief.

    It would be a massive relief if I’m wrong. Thoughts?


    • This is where I may meet the limits of the comprehensible/sayable on both medieval and modern belief, but I’ll give it a go. But firstly, I ought to recommend Susan Reynolds, ‘Social mentalities and the case of medieval scepticism’. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series, 1 (1991): 21-41, which I have just re-read and which (like most of Susan’s work) is a bracingly common-sense shot of reality. She reminds me that when I’m talking about medieval mentalities, I ought to be more careful about not implying that everyone thought the same. So can you all please go back and re-read all the post and my previous comments about how medieval people thought with the qualifiers of ‘on the whole’ or ‘probably more often than nowadays’.

      I’ll start with God’s intervention in the world and point out that miracles have always been rare and perceived as un-natural. You don’t need to know the mechanisms of how gravity works, for example, to know that if someone falls off some scaffolding and doesn’t plummet to their death, that’s deeply strange. And you don’t need advanced medical knowledge to know that dead people don’t come back to life. Miracles get noted because people have always had a keen sense of what reliably happens in the world.

      I’d also add that I don’t think medieval people expected miracles routinely. For example, monks probably did not try dropping valuable iron tools in rivers to see if they would float. Equally, commanders of armies might be praying to God for victory, but they did not follow the example of Gideon and send away almost all their men before a battle because all they needed to win was the LORD. In other words, people might hope and pray for divine help, but most of them also took numerous practical measures to help themselves. (To the argument that this shows a lack of true belief, I reply with the old joke about the Christian and the flood).

      It’s also noticeable that what gets reported by medieval chroniclers and the like as supernatural occurrences (portents, divine punishments) is largely freak events or weird things: abrupt death, bloody rain, surprise attacks of Vikings. Again, it’s not the sort of things that they expected to happen: they don’t report a moderately bad harvest as a punishment, they report the year when it’s an absolute disaster and it rained non-stop for a month.

      What about less rare divine interventions? The ‘Jesus found me a parking space’ form of modern Christianity is immensely irritating, but I think it’s a misunderstanding of a long-established theological theme: that Christians should thank God for the preservation of their everyday life. I’d note that ‘Give us today our daily bread’ is a much more heartfelt prayer when there’s no mass import of grain possible, and that there are also studies suggesting that such regular acts of thankfulness/counting one’s blessings can be psychological helpful.

      Between the mundane and the freakish, there’s a whole range of events that could possibly be ascribed to supernatural forces. Any successful theology will have an explanation for why there isn’t always a correlation between merit and worldly success, but will also point out instances where the good do prosper and the bad end unhappily. (For example, there’s a cunning argument in Augustine’s City of God 1-8 about why the good can’t always be allowed to prosper excessively, because then people would become Christians for the wrong reasons).

      At this point I have to leave medieval belief (for lack of evidence) and return to modern belief. Most Christians (and I’d include myself) have sometimes experienced events that seem ‘meant’ for good or ill, where a pattern seems visible. Everything falls into place, or conversely, everything falls apart. This can be at the global level (the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall) or the personal level (someone gets exactly the right job or the friend for whom successively everything possible goes wrong). Many people would attribute such events to the presence/existence of god(s)/devil(s) or fate or luck. (A strictly rationalist view, in contrast, would use explanations based around people’s ideas of probabilities/patterns being poor, that even statistically unlikely events do happen, and that prayer may have effects on the prayer and the prayed for as well. Did you finally get a job because you prayed for it or because your prayer inspired you to send out that 200th application rather than go back to bed?)

      I would say for myself, in the end: I believe in a God who intervenes, but that doesn’t mean I expect intervention all the time. I have no good idea whether or not someone in the seventh century (who wasn’t Bede) would expect Him to intervene more often (although if you’re encouraged to see patterns in the world around you all the time, it seems to me you’re likely to think you see them more often, just as if you’ve been encouraged to look out for suspicious looking people).

      Finally, a couple of thoughts on other spiritual beings. I am not the person to talk to about the numinous, because I have very little sense of it. On demons, I think we need to be careful not to assume that every time a medieval text mentions a demon they mean it literally, rather than figuratively. (I’ll say at once I don’t have any explanation for concrete sightings of ‘demons’).

      Demons or the devil have a couple of very handy metaphorical uses. One is that they express frustration at the perversity of the external world, whether things, animals or people. If you’ve ever felt that you computer knows when you’re in a hurry and deliberates slows down, you’re getting near to the sense that there is some hostile force within it.

      The second metaphorical use of demons is as a way to talk about the experience of one’s own divided self, that one is a stranger to oneself or observing oneself from a distance. For example, when I have been suffering from depression I have thought thoughts and done things that are afterwards inexplicable to me: I did them but I cannot now put myself in the place where that was the only option visible to me. I think many people have at times had similar sensations. Though the use of demons as metaphors has obvious dangers in avoiding responsibility (it was the devil made me do it), it also offers a way to talk about experiences that are otherwise difficult to understand without the modern vocabulary of the subconscious. (What I’m not sure about is how the repeated use of metaphors may itself affect how someone experiences reality: do metaphorical demons themselves generate more concrete demons.

      I don’t know if any of this helps. I’m increasingly feeling that matters of belief and unbelief rest on ideas of the world that are at least partly pre-rational (that one’s intuitive sense of how the world works greatly affect one’s sense of the existence and character of divine forces), and so that are peculiarly difficult to convey in words. If there are any specific parts where I’ve been unclear I will try and explain some more – but if any of the other readers have a better way of expressing these ideas, please chip in.


  8. I think the understanding and thinking of the medieval period along with the dark ages is perhaps the fastest moving and opion changing area of history.
    I will perhaps have to return and reread this again and dig out some books at home.(just trying to remember the historical division between dark ages and medieval not that I really subscribe to chopping up history into blocks)


  9. I should have read this the moment I bought it, VIIIAll right, last one of this series as I finally reach the end, blog-wise, of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. The last section, two articles and a commentary paper, is entitled ‘The Intelle…


  10. Your essays, your own and those of your contributors, prompted me to re-read Juliet Gardiner’s article in ‘History Today’.

    I can see that historical fiction raises problems for academic historians. I have a similar difficulty with television drama based on medical practice. However, I do accept that History and Medicine are both rich lodes that may be mined for intriguing tales that will bring profit when adapted by authors.

    Is this so bad? Like most children I was brought up on historical fiction. “Alfred and the Cakes” or “Bruce and the Spider” were tales that carried moral messages rather like biblical parables. Their historical truth did not need verification. They acted purely as signposts to our past and stimuli to proper study.

    Unfortunately I cannot escape from my fundamental historical belief that “The past is another country”and from that premise I have to accept that viewpoints change. He or she once referred to as a bastard, with all that that implied, would now perhaps be called a love-child if indeed the circumstances of their birth were called in question at all. More likely it would be ignored completely as being irrelevant to modern life.

    For my part, I cannot resist creating personifications from historic characters. For example, Thomas Becket in his early years as he made his way up the social ladder to become the trusted companion of King Henry, appears to me as a sort of Peter Mandleson character. The sort of guy who attends a cocktail party along with other aspirational people, nurses his half glass of white wine all evening, keeps his eyes and ears open and his counsel to himself for later use.

    I have no documentary evidence for such an opinion but I have no other way of translating my 21st.Century mind into the 12th.Century so that it makes my own understanding easier. Of course this leaves me quite incapable of explaining Thomas’s later conversion to some sort of ‘born-again’ christian.

    For this I have to move forward to 17th.Century Rome and the presentations of the pope’s own impresario Bernini. His Santa Teresa in the Cornaro chapel may strike us nowadays as ‘?soft porn’ and records of his ephemeral displays seem more like some modern ‘opening of the olympic games’

    But, we have to remember that citizens of that period, no matter how they tried to progress their trade or profession, their prosperity or indeed their personal relationships including their love life, there was nothing more important than the destiny of their immortal souls.

    I have sympathy with those who seek to keep the record pure but I think there is probably room for the romancers as well.


    • I think it’s inevitable that we often tend to think of historical personalities in this comparative way, and you’re right that these analogies can help us (as long as we don’t take them too far). I can hardly complain about making such parallels, when I once compared Sarah Palin to an early medieval queen. And you will quite often hear lecturers on medieval topics drawing similar parallels to contemporary political figures.

      But what a historian should never do (or almost never) is stick such comparisons in published work. You write a journal article on early medieval history and there’s a decent chance it will still be being read 30 years later (if not 100 years) by a dedicated few. How illuminating would you find a passing reference to Philip Snowden or even Keith Joseph? So too, Peter Mandelson and probably even Sarah Palin will pass.


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