How to Deal with the Restless Dead? Discernment of Spirits and the Response to Ghosts in Fifteenth-Century Europe
By Kathryn Edwards
Collegium: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 19 (2015)
Abstract: Although spiritual discernment is commonly treated as an aspect of demonology and as driven by the theological, political, and social needs of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, fifteenth-century writings by theologians Heinrich of Langenstein, Pierre d’Ailly, and Jean Gerson formed many later discussions. This article situates discernment of spirits in that late medieval context. Discernment thus becomes central to pastoral concerns about death and the afterlife in which demonology played only a small role. In the process it built on a broader definition of spirits that encompassed the wide variety of supernatural entities populating the late medieval world.
Among those spirits were ghosts. Stories about the revenant dead played essential pastoral roles, and such spirits were subject to the same testing and judgment as the demons and angels found in discernment literature. An analysis of the famous ghost story of Arndt and Heinrich Buschmann, produced not long after Gerson’s death, demonstrates that the practice of discernment of spirits and the pastoral directives about the good death need to be seen as reflecting a continuum of enduring beliefs concerning the dead and their ongoing relationships with the living. Discernment of spirits was embedded in late medieval theologies and ministries of death and, as such, was central to the assessment of other apparitions – like those of ghosts.
Introduction: “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). In early modern Europe such “trying” (probare) was an essential part of the discernment of spirits (discretio spirituum), a practice that originated in ancient Christianity. Both Catholics and mainstream Protestants mistrusted direct, personal revelation, seeing in it opportunities for demonic corruption of the soul, and both developed means of ascertaining the origins of such revelations. Self-examination, directed piety, and wise clerical observation and action could force spirits inspiring visionaries or tormenting the possessed to reveal their true natures. The correct discernment of such spirits enabled Christians to appreciate God’s care for them and the value of an individual soul in a world and on a battlefield where the supernatural and natural were intertwined.