The role of mythical and imaginary figures in the mental framework of medieval society
By Olivia Crowther
Queen Mary, University of London Undergraduate History Journal, Vol.1 (2012)
Introduction: J.C. Schmitt, in his Ghosts in the Middle Ages: the Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, accurately interprets the roles of mythical and imaginary figures within society as dependant “above all on the structures and the functioning of the society and the culture at a given period in time.”1For the purposes of this essay, the period of time concerning the roles of these figures within a ‘medieval society’ will be roughly 800-1600 A.D. To examine such an extensive period means that when looking at the mental framework of medieval society, one must place great emphasis on the fact that mentalities were always changing and developing. Alterations within the medieval mental framework regarding mythical and imaginary figures can be clearly identified in the accelerated development of ideas about, for example, witchcraft in the later Middle Ages. The inconsistencies in medieval thought, not only due to changes over time but also concerning regional differences, mean that it is problematic to form a direct argument as to the primary role of these figures. Instead, my argument here is multi-faceted, and concentrates on the array of roles attributed to the most prominent mythical and imaginary figures of the medieval period. To evaluate the entire array of beings considered imaginary or mythical during this time period is beyond the scope of this essay; these figures need not necessarily be monsters but also characters of tales and folklore, such as Robin Hood and Prester John. Moreover, while one cannot place emphasis on a collective medieval framework, it must also be mentioned that these figures may not necessarily have been portrayed as mythical within medieval society. Therefore, it is crucial to evaluate also whether or not medieval people distinguished the fiction from reality, and if they did, does this have an impact on the roles which certain figures performed?
Primarily, these roles can be separated into the most simplistic of distinctions – positive and negative. Through this distinction it is possible to interpret the function of these roles within society; how these mythical and imaginary figures came to fit into the framework of the Middle Ages. Therefore here, one can clearly perceive the direct impact of these figures on the lives of medieval people. While in the world of today we undoubtedly associate the term ‘monster’ with negativity, often in the medieval period this was not the case. One beneficial role of the mythical cynocephali – men with heads like those of dogs – was during battle, as “before engaging an enemy in combat, [the Lombards] spread the rumour that a troop of cynocephali waited in their camp as allies, ready to do merciless battle against any opponent.” This rumour worked effectively, and often the enemy would make a hasty retreat. There are other positive roles of imaginary figures. In church imagery, green men were portrayed as fertility symbols, and sometimes even acted as guardians against evil. Furthermore, Rudolf Wittkower illustrates how “the marvels were invested with an allegorical meaning,” which in turn meant that “the idea of looking at the monsters as ‘moral prodigies’ was evolved in the later Middle Ages”. Yet, the key positive role attributed to the mythical figures of medieval society is more complex. The medieval “concept of the monstrous [functions] as a deformation necessary for human understanding.” Therefore, the monstrous is an important aspect in the way medieval people came to understand and interpret their own existence. Society was able to develop its own self-knowledge through the perceptions of a disordered ‘other’. As White argues, “the most important function for wild people was to help humans define their humanity, particularly important at a time when that humanity seemed threatened, or at least ill-defined.”