A Common Sense Exorcism from a Sceptical Medieval Monk

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/10/2020 - 6:27am in

The view most of us have grown up with about the Middle Ages is that it was ‘the age of faith’. Or to put it more negatively, an age of credulity and superstition. The scientific knowledge of the Greco-Roman world had been lost, and the Roman Catholic church retained its hold on the European masses through strict control, if not an outright ban, on scientific research and fostering superstitious credulity through fake miracles and tales of the supernatural.

More recently scholars have challenged this image. They’ve pointed out that from the 9th century onwards, western Christians scholars were extremely keen to recover the scientific knowledge of the ancients, as well as learn from Muslim scholarship obtained through the translation of scientific and mathematical texts from areas conquered from Islam, such as Muslim Spain and Sicily. Medieval churchmen had to master natural philosophy as part of the theology course, and scholars frequently digressed into questions of what we would call natural science for its own sake during examinations of theological issues. It was an age of invention which saw the creation of the mechanical clock, spectacles and the application of watermills as pumps to drain marshland and saw wood. There were also advances in medicine and maths.

At the same time, it was also an age of scepticism towards the supernatural. Agabard, a medieval Visigothic bishop of what is now France, laughed when he was told how ordinary people believed that storms were caused by people from Magonia in flying ships. The early medieval manual for bishops listing superstitions and heresies they were required to combat in their dioceses, the Canon Episcopi, condemns the belief of certain women that they rode out at night with Diana or Herodias in the company of other spirits. Scholars of the history of witchcraft, such as Jeffrey Burton Russell of Cornell University, argue that this belief is the ancestor of the later belief that witches flew through the air with demons on their way to meet Satan at the black mass. But at this stage, there was no suggestion that this really occurred. What the Canon Episcopi condemns is the belief that it really happens.

The twelfth century French scholar, William of Auvergne, considered that demonic visitations in which sleepers felt a supernatural presence pressing on their chest or body was due to indigestion. Rather than being a witch or demon trying to have sex with their sleeping victim, the incubus or succubus, it was the result of the sleeper having eaten rather too well during the day. Their full stomach was pressing on the body’s nerves, and so preventing the proper circulation of the fluids responsible for correct mental functioning. There were books of spells for the conjuration of demons produced during the Middle Ages, but by and large the real age of belief in witches and the mass witch hunts came in the later middle ages and especially the 16th and 17th centuries. And its from the 17th century that many of the best known spell books date.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is G.G. Coulton’s Life in the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia, Coulton was a professor of medieval history, who had originally studied for the Anglican church but did not pursue a vocation. The book’s a collection of medieval texts describing contemporary life and events. Coulton obviously still retained an acute interest in religion and the church, as the majority of these are about the church. Very many of the texts are descriptions of supernatural events of one kind or another – miracles, encounters with demons, apparitions of the dead and lists of superstitions condemned by the church. There’s ample material there to support the view that the middle ages was one of superstitious fear and credulity.

But he also includes an account from the Dutch/ German monk and chronicler, Johann Busch, who describes how he cured a woman, who was convinced she was demonically possessed through simple common sense and folk medicine without the involvement of the supernatural. Busch wrote

Once as I went from Halle to Calbe, a man who was ploughing ran forth from the field and said that his wife was possessed with a devil, beseeching me most instantly that I would enter his house (for it was not far out of our way) and liberate her from this demon. At last, touched by her prayers, I granted his request, coming down from my chariot and following him to his house. When therefore I had looked into the woman’s state, I found that she had many fantasies, for that she was wont to sleep and eat too little, when she fell into feebleness of brain and thought herself possessed by a demon; yet there was no such thing in her case. So I told her husband to see that she kept a good diet, that is, good meat and drink, especially in the evening when she would go to sleep. “for then” (said I” “when all her work is over, she should drink what is called in the vulgar tongue een warme iaute, that is a quart of hot ale, as hot as she can stand, without bread but with a ltitle butter of the bigness of a hazel-nut. And when she hath drunken it to the end, let her go forthwith to bed; thus she will soon get a whole brain again.” G.G. Coulton, translator and annotator, Life in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967) pp.231-2).

The medieval worldview was vastly different from ours. By and large it completely accepted the reality of the supernatural and the truth of the Christian religion, although there were also scientific sceptics, who were condemned by the church. But this also did not stop them from considering rational, scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena when they believed they were valid. As one contemporary French historian of medieval magic has written, ‘no-one is more sceptical of miracles than a theologian’. Sometimes their scepticism towards the supernatural was religious, rather than scientific. For example, demons couldn’t really work miracles, as only God could do so. But nevertheless, that scepticism was also there.

The middle ages were indeed an age of faith, but it was also one of science and rationality. These were sometimes in conflict, but often united to provide medieval intellectuals with an intellectually stimulating and satisfying worldview.