Friday, January 14, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 2

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the scholastics did not speculate about angels and demons in a vacuum. Their ideas are part of a much broader cultural context. Indeed, it seems to me that at that time, ideas about angels and demons permeate practically every sector of medieval society. To make this point, let me list just a few examples.

When I talk about angels and demons in the Middle Ages, one of the first things that comes to mind for a lot of people is the artwork. Medieval paintings are well known for their depictions of angels and demons (and this imagery of course survived well through the Renaissance). The outside of medieval cathedrals are covered with sculptures of angels and demons. And of course, there’s the literary work as well. Dante’s Divine Comedy features angels and demons quite prominently.

But we also find stories of angels and demons in medieval writings that are not as stylized as Dante’s Divine Comedy. For instance, medieval training manuals for young monks often have entire chapters filled with stories of angels and demons. One of my favorite such examples is a story of a demon who, taking the form of beautiful young woman, managed to lure a college student out into the forest, where she quickly whisked him away to hell. The student’s Professor then had to go to great lengths to convince the demon to return the student. Apparently this want meant as a warning for young monks about the dangers of following young women off into the forest (they might be demons).

Angels and demons also show up in law codes --- and not just ecclestiastical law, but also in civil/secular law. In the 13th and 14th centuries, there were ways to sue your neighbor for associating with angels or demons (Scotus is quite famous for his view about how to counter (police?) the spells of such meddling neighbors).

And, of course, I should mention the visions of the mystics. Throughout the writings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, and other 13th and 14th century mystics, we find page after page of encounters with angels and demons.

Finally, angels and demons were discussed within the context of scholasticism. In the next post, I’ll say a little more about what scholasticism is.

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