Man, nature and the supernatural, c.1000-c.1600

Course Material 2023/24

‘Man, Nature and the Supernatural’ traces how men and women made sense of the visible and invisible world from c.1000 to c.1600. Taking account of both ‘learned’ and ‘unlearned’ perspectives, the paper responds to recent research that has been concerned with ideas of the natural and supernatural, relationships between material and immaterial worlds, and the means by which medieval men and women acquired and organized knowledge about these things. A range of themes, each of which has generated substantial historiographies, provides a scaffold for the paper.

Thus the paper will examine the chain of being and how human beings fitted into a cosmos populated also by animals, angels, demons and ambiguous beings. It will be concerned with the boundaries of ‘the human’ and what might constitute ‘ordinary’ experience, and how these were conceptualized and negotiated by medieval writers and artists. It will also consider how time was understood, in terms of time stretching in linear fashion from the creation of the world to its end, and in terms of the rhythms of ordinary life, liturgical and calendrical time and ‘agricultural’ time, marked by the seasons and the labours of the months. It will be concerned too with both the geography and topography of this world and that of the next – heaven, hell and purgatory – and discourses about ‘parallel’ worlds such as the fairy realm, as portrayed in chronicles and romance literature. The paper will concentrate on the British Isles, but there will be comparative reflections too, reaching out beyond Britain, and engagement with religious and intellectual dynamics of significance throughout the Christian West.  

Issues spanning the paper’s themes include the relationships between the bible, reason and experience in forming medieval interpretations, and the implications of ‘new’ knowledge — the New Platonisms and Aristotelian thought of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the ‘new humanism’ of the fifteenth century— for established understandings of the visible and invisible worlds. The themes of the paper also intersect with a series of ecclesiastical transformations. The central and later middle ages witnessed a dramatic centralization of the church’s power which had major implications for conceptions of the holy, sainthood, sacraments, extraordinary ‘spiritual’ experiences (such as miracles, dreams, visions and prophecies) and the afterlife as these were subjected to closer definition. Intellectual activity also had consequences for magic as some forms were anathematized while others were partially rehabilitated as ‘natural’. Utilitarian and ideological uses to which knowledge was put will be avenues of inquiry too, and there will be a place in studying the paper for exploration of ‘practical rationalities’, represented by treatises dealing with subjects such as the properties of natural things, medicine, astrology, weather lore, agricultural management and animal husbandry.

The paper ends beyond the limits of the middle ages, allowing a consideration of those changes in religion and geographical knowledge traditionally thought to mark the beginning of the end of the medieval understandings of the visible and invisible worlds. Here questions arise about how far existing medieval belief structures were, initially at least, able to adapt and absorb this new knowledge prior to their fuller transformation by it, and about when, and if, forces giving rise to the world’s ‘disenchantment’ become perceptible. 

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Image: An illustration from Topographia Hiberniae depicting the story of a traveling priest who meets and communes a pair of good werewolves from the kingdom of Ossory.