Sunday, January 30, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 6

According to Scotus, an angel or a demon must do two things if it wants to possess a physical body. First, it must occupy the same region of space as that body, and second, it must take control of that body and become the mover or puppeteer.

But what exactly does it mean for an angel or a demon to be the ‘puppeteer’ of a physical body? How far does the control of the possessing angel or demon extend? Scotus puts this in rather stark terms. The question that Scotus asks is this: supposing that an angel or a demon possesses a material body, can that angel or demon cause that body to perform its basic biological functions? In other words, does angelic or demonic possession merely amount to pulling strings and making the limbs of an organic body move? Or does it extend far enough that it involves regulating that body’s internal biological functions?

For medieval thinkers like Scotus, there are three basic biological functions that living organisms perform. The first is what they call ‘nutrition’. This is essentially the process whereby a living organism takes in and processes nutrients. As Scotus and his colleagues see it, when living organisms eat food, their bodies break down the food, and then they convert it into organic tissue. That tissue then gets added to their bodies, and that’s how organisms replenish the tissue that has been used or lost. This is the basic mechanism of sustenance. If you don’t eat, you whither and die. In order to say alive, you must eat enough food to replace the tissue that your body uses or loses.

The second biological function that living organisms perform is growth. As living organisms go about their lives, they of course grow larger, and the medievals understood this to be a function of nutrition. Provided that we eat more food than our bodies burn, our bodies grow larger.

The third biological function that all living organisms perform is reproduction. Some organisms reproduce asexually, others reproduce sexually, but all living organisms reproduce. Roses beget roses, oak trees beget oak trees, dogs beget dogs, and humans beget humans.

So those are the three basic biological functions that living organisms perform. All living organisms take in and process nutrients, all living organisms grow, and all living organisms reproduce. The question, then, is whether a possessing angel or demon can cause the body it possesses to perform any of these biological functions.

Scotus says no. According to Scotus, the only thing that a possessing angel or a demon can do to the body it possesses is cause it to move, or rather, more precisely, it can cause the various parts of that body to move. Possessing angels and demons are, for Scotus, mere puppeteers, quite literally.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 5

In the last point, I pointed out that according to Scotus, in order for an angel or demon to possess a physical body, it must both occupy the same region of space, and it must take control of the body as the puppeteer (the mover).

But one might wonder: why should it matter where the demon happens to reside? Be it all the way across the room, or here in the spot where I am now standing, the fact of the matter is, the demon still controls my body. And wouldn’t that mean that I am ‘possessed’ by the demon in the relevant sense?

Scotus says no, and the reason is this: Scotus’s angelology was heavily influenced by the Persian thinker known to the Latins as Avicenna. Avicenna was a physician, a scientist, and a philosopher who lived from 980 to 1037.

Sometimes my students are surprised to discover that someone like Scotus was reading a Persian, but we shouldn’t think that the medieval world was ignorant of other cultures around it, especially when it comes to the Arabic culture around it. Far from it. In fact, one of medieval Europe’s most famous Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick II, was actually fluent in Arabic, and he was so fascinated by Arabic culture that he brought renowned scholars into his court to translate Arabic writings into Latin.

One of the Arabic authors that Frederick had translated was Avicenna, and it is hard to underestimate just how important Avicenna was in medieval Europe. Indeed, one of Avicenna’s books that was translated into Latin was known as the Canon of Medicine, and it served as the standard textbook for European medicine all the way up through the 17th century.

But even apart from Avicenna’s influence on European medicine, some of his other works that were translated into Latin made massive contributions in other arenas as well, and one of those arenas was cosmology.

Now, Avicenna was a good Aristotelian. He didn’t agree with everything that Aristotle said, but he did agree with a lot of it. In terms of cosmology, Aristotle adopted Ptolemy’s ideas about the universe. As is well known, Ptolemy’s system was geocentric: the earth (rather than the sun) sits at the center of the universe, while the moon, sun, planets, and stars rotate around the earth.

Aristotle, however, believed that all motion requires explanation. If you see a stone rolling past you, something must have put it in motion. The same goes for the heavens. We can see that the sun, moon, planets, and stars are moving around the earth, so something must be moving them. We cannot see anything else, though, so Aristotle inferred that the motion of any given heavenly object must be caused by something that is impercetible, some sort of immaterial being up there in outer space --- some sort of spirit.

Of course, Aristotle recognized that various celestial bodies move in different ways. The sun has one orbit, the moon has another, Saturn has another, and so on. Thus, Aristotle concluded that each celestial body that moves in a unique orbit must have its own spirit that moves it in that orbit. And depending on how you calculate it, says Aristotle, that means that there must be either 47 or 55 extraterrestrial spirits up there in outer space, each of which moves a particular celestial body around the earth. So, there is one spirit who moves the moon, another spirit who moves the sun, another who moves Saturn, and so on (or, to be more accurate, these spirits move large concentric spheres in which the sun, moon, planets and so on are embedded).

Avicenna accepts much of this Ptolemaic-Aristotelian picture, but Avicenna was a good Muslim, and so he believed in angels. Avicenna naturally goes on to identify the angels of his faith with Aristotle’s extraterrestrial spirits. Those spirits who according to Aristotle move the sun, moon, planets, and stars --- those are the angels of which the Quran speaks.

Back to Scotus. Like anyone of his day who went through so many years in the University system, Scotus of course fervently read both Aristotle and Avicenna. But Scotus was a good Christian, so he believed in angels just as Avicenna did. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that Scotus follows Avicenna in identifying the angels spoken of in the Bible with the extraterrestrial spirits spoken of by Aristotle. So like Avicenna, Scotus believes that the angels of his faith are moving the sun, moon, planets, and stars around the earth.

Given that, it should be clear by now why Scotus thinks angel and demon possession cannot amount to mere puppeteering. For Scotus sees demons as a particular kind of angel: they are fallen angels, but they are angels nonetheless. Angels, however, move celestial objects like the sun and moon, so angels are the puppeteers of the heavens, even though they do not possess the heavens.

That is why Scotus says that angel and demon possession involves more than mere puppeteering. It is the influence of the Muslim Avicenna that drives Scotus to this point. To be possessed by a demon or an angel means not just that you are being moved by that demon or angel. It means also that the demon occupies the same region of space as your body.

(Exactly how angels and demons ‘occupy a region of space’ is a tricky point, but let’s pretend for now that Scotus has a coherent account.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 4

Duns Scotus had quite a lot to say about angels and demons, but let me focus on one particular issue: how do angels and demons possess material bodies?

According to Scotus, there are two things a demon or angel must do in order to possess a material body. First, it must become the mover of a body: it must take control of the body in such a way that it moves it about. Second, it must occupy the same region of space occupied by the body it controls.

Scotus claims that an angel or a demon must do both of these in order to possess a material body. An angel or demon cannot do just one of them. To see why this is so, consider cases where an angel or demon does only one of them.

Suppose, for instance, that a demon is traveling through the room at this very moment, and along the way, it happens to pass through my body. At the moment that it passes through my body, it would occupy the very same region of space that I do, but that doesn’t mean it possesses my body. In order to posses my body, the demon cannot just occupy the same region of space. It must also take control of my body as a puppeteer.

At the same time, though, simply taking control of my body as a puppeteer is not sufficient for demon possession either. Suppose that a conniving demon is sitting over there in the corner, all the way across the room, and suppose next that it exercises its powers and makes my arm suddenly move upwards. Scotus would say that doesn’t count as demon possession either. My arm would certainly be under the influence of the demon in the corner, but I would not be possessed.

So in order to possess a material body, angels and demons must do both of the things I’ve mentioned: they must take control of the body as the mover or puppeteer, and they must occupy the same reason of space. As Scotus sees it, those conditions are each necessary and jointly sufficient for angel/demon possession of a material body.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 3

When historians talk about scholasticism, they have something fairly precise in mind. The hallmark of scholasticism is a method of problem-solving that was taught in medieval universities. It is essentially a method whereby one tries to resolve a problem with the use of semantic and logical analysis.

So, for example, if you were a student at a medieval university, a typical lecture might begin with the professor asking a yes/no question. For instance: is it permissible to lie? That is, are there any cases when it is okay to lie, or is lying always wrong? Students were then expected to come up with an answer through the use of semantic and logical analysis.

Semantic analysis, because students were expected to distinguish between various meanings of the words being used. E.g., ‘lying’ could mean X, it could mean Y, and so on. Logical analysis, because students were expected to figure out what would logically follow from any given hypothesis. E.g., if ‘lying’ means X, then one set of consequences would logically follow, but if ‘lying’ means Y, then another set of consequences would logically follow.

That’s the scholastic method, and as I said, it was taught in the university classrooms. Virtually every problem was approached in this way.

Now, angels and demons were apparently discussed quite a lot in medieval university classrooms. If you were a student at a medieval university, chances are that you would study angels and demons at some point in your university career, and you would study angels and demons quite intensively.

Fortunately for us, university students were very good note-takers. They had a system of short-hand that allowed them to transcribe lectures pretty much word-for-word.

Also, medieval students had extend breaks just like students do today, so they would go home, trade notes, and talk over all these ideas with their friends.

For instance, if you were an Italian studying at Oxford, you might go home for summer break and exchange lecture notes with all your friends (who might be studying at Paris, Bologna, and so on). Then the next year, you would go back to your university, with your friends’ lecture notes, and you would exchange those lecture notes with your friends at Oxford. Those lecture notes would get spread around, and they would undoubtedly end up in the hands of your Professor, who would make a copy for himself. Your Professor would then discuss the ideas he had learned from Paris or Bologna in his own lectures.

Many of these lectures notes have survived, and that is immensely useful for the historian of medieval thought. And indeed, if we restrict ourselves just to the notion of angels and demons, we have a huge body of material, consisting of lecture transcripts (many of which have been edited by the Professors themselves) which record practically all of the theories about angels and demons that were discussed in the university classroom.

All of this material offers us a convenient lense through we can start to get at the role that angels and demons might have played in the medieval imagination. Of course, we need to be clear: this material represents the thoughts of the educated; quite literally, it represents the thoughts of medieval people who were either attending, or were teaching in, a medieval university. So we need to be aware of that before we try to make any inferences about what the ‘common folk’ might have thought about angels. But nonetheless, all this scholastic material is a piece of the larger puzzle, and if we want to understand the role of religious belief in the medieval imagination as a whole, we need to account for each piece of the puzzle.

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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 1

By some estimates, over 100,000 people were killed during the witch hunts that occurred in continental Europe, England, and America. The witch craze began in the 15th century, and at that time, the notion of the ‘witch’ appeared with a rather precise definition.

Basically, witches were thought to be people (some men, but mostly women) who made the following sort of pact with a demon: in exchange for the witch’s soul, that demon would go and do all sorts of bad things to other people on the witch’s behalf. That’s how witches were thought to be able to cast spells on their neighbors. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the witch who had the power to, say, make all your crops wither, make all your sheep sick, make you impotent, and so on. It was their demon who did all that.

Witches were also thought to do other things. For example, it was believed that they flew around on brooms, and that image has of course survived all the way up to our own day. (I should note that brooms became the witch’s flying stick of choice only in the 15th century. Before that, the preference was for the shovel.) Witches were also thought to gather together in local and regional meetings where they would have sex with demons, or even with Satan himself.

How do we know all this? Early modern witchcraft manuals. To cite the most famous: in 1486, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published a book under the Latin title Malleus Malificarum, and that translates roughly as The Hammer of Witches. This was an early modern witchcraft manual --- not a manual for witches, but rather a manual for witch hunters. Indeed, in the Malleus Malificarum, the authors try to explain exactly what witches are; they try to explain how witches get their powers; they try to enumerate the various activities that witches get up to in the wee hours of the night; and they try to explain how one should go about investigating witches (via torture).

Now, if you sit down and read the Malleus Malificarum, you can’t help but notice how often the authors refer to ideas from earlier scholastic thinkers, e.g., people like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. This, of course, has not escaped the historian’s watchful gaze. Historians readily acknowledge that 15th and 16th century witchcraft theory has its origins in medieval scholasticism. Unfortunately though, historians have done a rather poor job of identifying and analyzing these scholastic origins.

Because the concept of the witch wasn’t really invented until the 15th century, you won’t find such clearly defined conceptions of witches in medieval scholastic writings. But what you do find are discussions about how angels and demons can interact with the physical world, and that’s the material that 15th and 16th century witchcraft theorists drew upon.

So, the origins of witchcraft theory should be traced back to scholastic discussions of angels and demons, and especially scholastic discussions about how angels and demons can interact with the physical world. In the following series of posts, I want to explore this in a little more detail.