Thursday, 24 April 2014

V is for Visions

This month, I’m looking at elements of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Now obviously, visions show up in a lot of fantasy literature, but they were also a major thing in the Middle Ages. They showed up in literature (Dante being only the tip of the iceberg), in apparent “histories” such as Bede’s work, and in numerous documents attached to religious houses.

In some ways, visions can be seen as a way that the people of the time claimed control of a religion that still wasn’t quite as centralised as it would come to be, and in which systematic teaching of the “correct” thing to believe wasn’t always very efficiently conducted. Visions represented a way for groups who would otherwise not have had power within the Church, notably women but also lay figures and the poor, to comment on the highly religious society around them. In some ways, they were also a product of that society, where having visions was considered normal.

Well, up to a point. There has been a lot of work done on medieval visions of the afterlife (including mine. I did my initial MA on them), and some of that work shows that even in the Middle Ages, there was a range of reactions to them. Some were seen as genuine visions, while others were treated as heresy. Some were seen as tricks by the devil, some as simple entertainment, and some as symptoms of mental illness. It might be interesting to build in that kind of range of responses the next time one of your characters has the obligatory fantasy prophetic vision.


Liz E said...

Was the response to a vision mainly situational? By that I mean if it fit within the power structure it was accepted, and if it went against it then it was witchcraft? I'm sure its all incredibly complex. After all your studies how well do you feel like you understand the medieval mind?

stu said...

Witchcraft is probably not the right way of thinking about it for certainly the central middle ages. The biggest days of the witch trials were a bit later, certainly around England.

Sometimes, rarely, they could be equated with heresy, but if anything, visions were a way to get around accusations of heresy by effectively appealing directly to the source. The ones that weren't clearly made up for entertainment often featured a mixture of standard and non-standard Christian elements.

Lynda Dietz said...

I'd imagine it would be a delicate balance to decide to let someone know if you had a true vision, especially if that vision was contrary to the popular direction of the day.

Knowing that anyone could accuse me of making something up, or being mentally ill, would probably have me keeping my mouth shut more often than not, especially if possible punishment or death was on the line.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I would think having visions would terrify many medieval people for the reasons you named. Heresy, the devil and did they even believe in mental illness or think it another kind of evil. Another interesting post, Stu.

stu said...

They could also be quite lucrative. The families of famous visionaries such as a boy called Orm whose vision is reported by Roger of Howden, seem to have benefitted.