The Other European Views of
Mysticism, Demons, And The Other
Since the Middle Ages, belief in ghosts, demons, spirits, and other elements have represented a challenge to the Church, and philosophers and authorities stuggle in vain against various forms of superstition and fear (Delumeau, Dinzelbacher). During the high Middle Ages, supernatural phenomena were often associated with the divine, or regarded as emanations of the Godhead, leading to a widespread mysticism movement. Bernard of Clairvaux exerted great influence on his contemporaries and posterity not only due to his learnedness, but also because of his intensive examinations of mystical phenomena. His super Cantica Canticorum particularly developed a highly affective interpretation of the Song of Songs and its imagery of the Godhead as bridegroom and the soul as bride. Contemplation was the first stage in the quest for the religious other, followed by mediation, prayer, fasting, sleep deprivation, and grace, which ultimately allowed the mystic to experience revelations. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), leader of a Benedictine convent, gained fame for her mystical visions, which were accepted as authentic by Church fathers (especially Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugene III), who authorized her to go on preaching tours throughout Germany. Other famous mystics were Mechthild of Magdeburg (1208–1282), Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241–1299), Gertrud the Great (1256–c. 1301), Bonaventura (1217–1274), Henry Suso (1295–1366), Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1327), Bridget of Sweden (1302–1373), and Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) (Szarmach). Although each mystic experienced individualized visions, all mysticism commonly dealt with the ineffable quality of the Godhead and the absolute realization of the Other in the religious context (Classen, 2002a). Since there are no adequate words to explain the phenomenon of the soul's encounter with the divine, mystics commonly resorted to an apophatic discourse, or, as in the case of Meister Eckhart, to negative theology, which contended that man cannot really talk about God, the absolute Other, and emphasized the need to subjugate the self in the presence of the divine (Milem).
In the late Middle Ages and particularly from the sixteenth century, the Church intensified its control over individualized forms of religious experience and rejected those who claimed to have had visions or been privy to divine revelation (Caciola). As a consequence, women with prophetic abilities, visionaries, and ecstatics were increasingly regarded with suspicion and became victims of the Holy Inquisition.
Although attempts were made to reject magic and to oust different types of seers and sorcerers, such as harioli, auspices, sortilegi, and incantatores, these practioners preserved their secret influence far into the modern age (Flint, 1991). Throughout Europe, both the rural population and intellectuals, even as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, subscribed to various forms of superstitions, including witchcraft, fear of the devil, and evil spirits (Ginzburg), not to mention a belief in astrology.
Surveying the eighteenth century, Theodor Adorno and Max Horckheimer identified the phenomena as the "dialectics of enlightenment." But such beliefs continue in early-twenty-first-century society as well, allowing technocrats and bureaucrats to manipulate the Other for their own purposes without regard for the latter's nature, interests, and needs: "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them" (Adorno and Horckheimer, p. 9).
Even as rationality offers logical explanations of the world around us, people fall back to superstitions and irrational thinking, which permits ideologues to stereotype groups and blame them for a wide range of general ills. In the Middle Ages, the preferred object of this manipulative strategy was the Jews. In early modern Europe, women were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, serving as scapegoats for a heightened sense of religious insecurity, fear of the scientific paradigm shift occurring at the time, the growing pressure of the centralized power of the state, and a brewing conflict between popular culture and beliefs and intellectualism (Levack, Scholz Williams).
Ancient and medieval authors, chroniclers, and writers of travelogues projected images of a fabulous East, which was paradise-like in its luxuries and sophistication, but sometimes also populated by monsters. By contrast, early twenty-first-century authors, filmmakers, and artists have resorted to technological utopias, relying on a stereotypical fear of and fascination with extraterrestrial beings, but in anthropological and epistemological terms the differences are minimal. From the late Middle Ages, people imagined the East, especially India, as a sensuous paradise, just waiting for European colonization. This form of Orientalism, which Edward Said discussed in his famous study (1978), continues to be a pervasive and manipulative concept of the Other both in its epistemological and social-literary dimensions in the early twenty-first century. Overcoming the monster, defeating extraterrestrial creatures, or colonizing their exotic worlds represent the triumph of the self over the Other and offer the chance to establish the self's identity. This phenomenon seems to have characterized all developmental stages of the Western world. Medieval monster lore was deeply influenced by ancient concepts developed by Herodotus (c. 484–between 430 and 420 B.C.E.), Ctesias (c. 400 B.C.E.), Pliny the Elder (23–79 C.E.), and Solinus (third century C.E.). Though Augustine, in his City of God Against the Pagans (BK. XVI, ch. 8) expressed doubts, he accepted the possibility that monsters might exist. He suggested that if these monstrous races were real, they should be treated as God's creatures: "He Himself knows where and when anything should be, or should have been, created; and He knows how to weave the beauty of the whole out of the similarity and diversity of its parts" (Augustine, p. 708). Decidedly excluding the idea that God might have erred when he created monsters, Augustine concludes that "just as some monsters occur within the various races of mankind, so there should be certain monstrous races within the human race as a whole" (Augustine, p. 710). One of the earliest examples of monster imagery in the Middle Ages can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East (c. 970–1150).
Throughout the Middle Ages, theologians and artists, writers and philosophers were deeply divided over the correct explanation of monsters, the absolute Other within human epistemology (Cohen, J. J., 1999). Jacques de Vitry (1160–1240) attempted to describe the European perspective of monsters: "And just as we consider Pygmies to be dwarfs, so they consider us giants.… We consider the black Ethiopians of bad character; among them, however, the one who is blackest is judged most beautiful" (Friedman, p. 164). The fascination that monsters exerted throughout the centuries was undeniable, as documented by numerous manuscript illustrations, sculptures, chronicle accounts, travelogues, textile images, and ivory, stone, and wood carvings (Bovey). Many bestiaries depict not only a wide variety of animals, but also a broad spectrum of monsters whose grotesque features were interpreted as signaling moral decrepitude or who were seen as symbols of imminent apocalypse. Often the treatment of monsters reflected a profoundly Manichean worldview that divided everything into good and evil. Late-medieval poets took a more diversified approach and developed accounts of basically good monsters, such as Melusine, half human and half snake (Classen, 1995, p. 141–162), who was eventually expelled from human society because of her human husband's failure to keep her true nature a secret (see the text versions by Walter Map, Gervasius of Tilbury, Jean d'Arras, Couldrette, and Thüring von Ringoltingen). Many medieval manuscripts, especially Psalters, contained images of hybrid creatures, grotesque beings, and monsters, which could have hardly served as deterrence from sinfulness; instead they represented a growing fascination with the Other and an emerging playfulness in the visual depiction of the world (Camille, Yamamoto). The encyclopedist Thomas of Cantimpré (1201–1272), relying on Augustine's ruminations, urged his readers to "consider the forms of creatures and delight in the artificer who made them" (Friedman, p. 123). When explorers reached the shores of the New World in 1492, they used monster images to describe and depict the indigenous population, thereby casting them as other from the start (Flint, 1992, p. 53–54, 61, et seq.).
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