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Hearing medieval voices

Hearing medieval voices

By Corinne Saunders

The Lancet, Vol.386 (2015)

Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary

Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary

Introduction: Hearing voices without external stimuli: in the popular imagination, auditory hallucination is most often understood as a symptom of severe mental disorders. Yet voice-hearing is also an important aspect of lived experience, not always satisfactorily addressed by medical diagnosis and treatment. Looking across cultures and historical eras suggests a wide range of possible kinds of voice-hearing experience. The medieval period is of special interest because its thought world takes for granted the possibility of the supernatural and its theories of medicine and psychology offer powerful explanatory models for hallucinatory experience. Some of the greatest religious writing in the period is inspired by hearing voices, while its fictions also play creatively with voice-hearing.

In the pre-Cartesian world-view of the Middle Ages, ideas about body and mind were closely connected. Hippocrates’ theory of the four humours, developed by Galen in the second century, underpinned the notion of a mind–body continuum: humours shaped both mind and body, and their balance was essential to physical and mental health. In striking resonance with contemporary neuro-scientific theories, emotions were written on the body but also had a fundamental role in cognition. Sense impressions were understood to be put together by the inner senses, situated in the brain. The celebrated 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas described thoughts as dependent on such “forms” or sense impressions, which passed through imagination and cognition and were stored in the memory. This model endorses the idea of an inner eye and ear—making real the possibility of visionary experience and hearing inner voices. Medieval ideas were coloured too by a profound awareness of a multifaceted supernatural— not only God and the devil, but a spirit world just beyond human reach, of angels, demons, and ghosts.

The affective experience that produces voices and visions in medieval writing is repeatedly that of love, whether romantic or divine. Love is conceived in medical treatises and in romances as a mental and bodily illness, caused by supernatural, invasive forces: an arrow shot by the god or goddess of love results in symptoms that only the beloved can cure. Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the late 14th century, depicts the physiology of love with precise detail. In his Knight’s Tale, the lover Arcite, struck in the heart by love, is transformed both physically, becoming pale, cold, and hollow-eyed, and mentally, so that his “cell fantastic”, his imagination, obsessively brings forth images of his lady; the effect is described as “mania”. In sleep, Arcite experiences a different kind of vision, of the god Mercury speaking to him, but it is striking that Chaucer uses the verb “thought”, implying the workings of the mind in dream as well as the imprint of the supernatural on the imagination.

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