Society and the Supernatural: A Medieval Change

Society and the Supernatural: A Medieval Change

By Peter Brown

Daedalus, Vol. 104, No. 2 (1975)

medieval supernatural

Introduction: To add to a collection of studies on the social and intellectual evolution of the first millennium B.C. a paper whose center of gravity lies to the modern side of the first millennium A.D. seems to call for some justification. The prophetic message of Zoroaster, the philosophical and religious currents of the Hellenistic age, the rise and establishment of the Christian church – such themes might have seemed more apposite, either because they were contemporary with the changes discussed in the other papers in this volume, or because, though later in time, they could be seen as the direct sequels of such changes.

The logic of our common discussions seemed to call for a different treatment. These hinged on the problem of change: how can we meaningfully analyze and describe profound changes in the social and moral environment of long-dead societies? Once the problem of change emerged as our common concern, it became less incumbent to contribute to Dsedalus yet another reliable account of yet one more turning point in the formation of European culture. The opportunity suddenly presented itself to acknowledge with gratitude debts incurred some time ago to a great tradition of scholarship and to branch out to learn yet more new things from that great tradition. For, in this generation, the study of the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D. has been the forcing ground for some of the best evocations of the processes of social and intellectual change available to the student of any pre industrial society. To read Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, Richard Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages, M. D. Chenu’s La theologie au XIIeme siecle, and Colin Morris’s The Discovery of the Individual is to pluck with both hands a wealth of material, brilliantly marshaled, on the kinds of intimate, irreversible, and delicately interrelated changes of which any pre-industrial society may be capable.

The small emergent world of Northwestern Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, on which this study must concentrate, often strikes the student of the classical ancient world and especially the student of classical Greece and ancient Israel, as strangely germane to his own concerns. Here also we find a stocktaking and revaluation of traditional religion by a newly formed intellectual elite, associated above all with the Schools of Paris and with such great names as Peter Abelard (ca. 1079-1142). We find a sharpening and a redistribution of roles in society, dramatically pinpointed in the sudden emergence of a new relationship be tween clergy and laity in the time of the Investiture Contest (a contest connected with the name of one great pope – Gregory VII (1073-1085) – but in reality a process as widespread and ineluctable as a change in the tide of Western society). In the course of the eleventh century the feudal knightly class emerges as a distinct group, while, in the twelfth century, the facts of urban life and of a new-style mercantile professionalism had come to stay, and were slowly but surely incorporated in the medieval image of society. We find novel departures in forms of law and organization: the emergence of written codes after centuries of customary, oral law, the reception of Roman law at the Schools of Bologna, and the codification of the canon law and theology of the Christian church (in the Decretum of Gratian, ca. 1140, and the Sentences of Peter the Lombard, ca. 1150). We have a singularly consequential attempt to found a new religious order on the basis of a written rationalized legislation, in the case of the Cistercians (first founded in 1098). In numerable novel ventures in administration and constant experimentation in new forms of social organization cover the face of Europe of the twelfth century. Finally, and most revealing of all for our purposes, we find a probing of modes of self expression which vary from a revival of the tradition of religious autobiography associated with St. Augustine to the totally novel departure of courtly love poetry (Bernard de Ventadour was writing around 1145).

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