Who doesn’t have a devil of a time keeping up with technology? My day is divided in almost Manichaean terms between having internet access and not. Once I climb on that New Jersey Transit bus—they don’t have restrooms, let alone wifi—I enter radio silence for God knows how long. Once safely ensconced at work, I once again have the net but I can only use it for work. The even longer commute home spells the end to internet access for the day, since supper and sleep await at the other end of the line. So when websites change in the course of a day or two, it’s difficult to keep up. The other day, for instance, I noticed on Wikipedia, in an article about the Devil, that the dark lord has a coat of arms. “That,” I thought, “would make an interesting blog post.”
That idea, like most of mine these days, had to be put on hold until after work. And between after work and getting ready for work again, the delay lasted a week. Maybe two. Then I went back to the page and the reference was gone. I can still remember that the coat of arms had three frogs on it—somewhat unfairly to amphibians, I felt—and I even recall precisely where on the page it was. When I finally had time to look it up, it was no longer there. Cached pages used to be easy to find, but who has time any more? There’s a reason that people of my generation still prefer print books. Yes, there are times when it’s difficult to remember where you read something, but at least the reference is still there when you open the cover again. It hasn’t vanished in a pique of editing enthusiasm. The strangeness of it all was worthy of comment—a coat of arms was a sign of medieval prestige. There’s no doubt that the Devil had his day in the Middle Ages.
I hear about people being bored in retirement. I’m so busy, though, that I’m going to have to request a desk in the afterlife. Not that retirement’s anywhere within sight, but I have so many projects going that I don’t know when I’ll ever have time to finish them all. Even a holiday weekend’s too short to make much of a dent. I don’t need another technologically driven mystery to occupy any more of my waking hours. Looking for a Wikipedia factoid that was deleted doesn’t make it any easier. They say the Devil’s in the details, but that presumes you can find the details where you left them. And if you happen find the reference, can you please also keep an eye out for my car keys?
One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.
What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.
Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.
Posted in Bible, Books, Deities, Monsters, Posts, Science
Tagged demons, Demons in the Middle Ages, Juanita Feros Ruys, Middle Ages, Monsters, Scholastics, science and religion
The dividing line between superstition and religion is thin and growing more effaced all the time. Nowhere does this become clearer than in studies of the history of religion. One of the critiques early made between “true religion” and superstition is that the latter involved magic, but today anthropologists find that line difficult to discern as well. Many religions are defined by their insistence on supernatural occurrences. The world as is, is by definition, secular. That’s one of the reasons Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250—1750 is so interesting. Cameron, an historian with a precise grasp on theological nuance, traces Christian responses to the world of the supernatural through the Middle Ages. Various theological responses are then explored as the author searches for that elusive distinction that makes one belief religious and another superstitious. It is really a matter of perspective.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the late Middle Ages. As Cameron notes, physics, to the mind attuned to God’s direct intervention in the cosmos, looks like the occult. How could a person seriously believe that two physical bodies, such as the sun and earth, or earth and moon, could attract each other? If you put God back into the equation just to take him out for an instant, this sounds extremely occult. Does not attraction imply volition? How can physical objects attract one another? Thus scientists such as Galileo and Newton often found opposition for their ideas based on the fact that science and superstition can also bear a passing resemblance.
As science’s superior empirical evidence became clearer, the God who’d stepped out of the room temporarily was eventually locked out. This vast universe could be explained without the supernatural at all. What was needed was better glasses. Microscopes and telescopes, and now cyclotrons and space telescopes, provide a consistent and ever sharper image of a universe that gets along just fine without the divine. But what of superstition? Has it gone away? We still routinely construct buildings without thirteenth floors. The sigh of relief from the worker or guest on floor fourteen seems never to be obviated by the fact that they are really on a renamed, empirically thirteenth floor. Your daily newspaper (although quickly growing extinct) will still offer you your horoscope before you hurry off to the lab. Call it what you will—superstition, religion, occult, magic—as long as we’re human no scientist or theologian will ever convince us that there’s not at least some whisper of a ghost in the machine.
Posted in Astronomy, Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Enchanted Europe, Euan Cameron, magic, Middle Ages, physics, superstition, thirteen