1998-Feb seminar

10 February 1998

A. Richard (Dick) Jones: Gleanings from the accounts of Westminster abbey in 1253

Dick performed a rehearsal/dry run of his talk at the 33rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo. This is a revised version of his original talk from May 1997.

Dick Jones, 1998-02-10

Robert A. Scott: The role of the dead in the world of the living in medieval times

Bob presented a short survey of some of the ways in which the power vested in the hereafter was exploited by the living during the medieval period. Much more material on this topic is to be found in Patrick Gearey's book Living with the dead during the middle ages. Bob argued that an important source of power in the medieval period was "the hereafter", and that people who were able to tap this by being convincing about its properties were able to derive a great deal of secular authority as a result.

Since death was viewed merely as a transition from one form of living to another, rather than just a departure, the dead had an important role to play in the life of the living. There were obligations and responsibilities in both directions ("at least one of which ws taken seriously"). For example, the dead were expected to warn the living of things that were about to do them harm, provide clues about life in the hereafter, and plead with the divine saints on the living's behalf. In return - and it was very much viewed as a quid pro quo - the living were expected to honor the dead (ie, remember them) through masses and prayers on commemoration days. The dead were thought to be omniscient, and to be actually present in the day to day activities of daily life. They were believed to be capable of communicating through omens, dreams, and visions.

Such ideas operated on the levels of both an individual's response to the dead as well as on an institutional one - the church hierarchy, in particular, setting itself up as having special access to the dead, and able to intercede with them more effectively on the part of the living than they could themselves, directly.

Bob's main interest was in how these beliefs were used by the monastic communities to develop and protect themselves. Since they were composed of churchmen, and often had valuable relics, such monastic communities were particularly vulnerable to physical attack. Monasteries, unlike the regular church hierarchy, didn't have the power of interdiction and excommunication. Instead, they exploited and manipulated the lay people's belief system to acquire these ends.

A monastic community embedded in a larger secular one provided the latter with two main services:

  1. saying prayers on behalf of dead individuals of the larger community (ie, performing the honoring and remembering that was expected of the community's dead);
  2. most communities had a "local saint", whose obligations were to protect the community from harm; in return the community was expected to honor and revere the saint; the monastery performed this function on behalf of the larger community by means of performing mass and honoring the saint.

To persuade people to behave appropriately, they were threatened with two forms of unction, which were both forms of "strikes" by the monastery in the sense of withdrawing their services on behalf of the community or individual:

  1. an individual could be "cursed", and God asked to punish them for some transgression or sin, as the equivalent of a episcopal excommunication;
  2. the community as a whole could be put into jeopardy by the humiliation of the saint by way of ritual "clamors".

Both operations were typically highly visible affairs - for example, an expected prayer for an individual would be replaced with the curse, in the form of a prayer to God to punish them. A clamor would interrupt mass at the moment of transubstantiation in order to achieve the maximum theatrical effect.

The plea behind a clamor was of the form "we are unable to honor you because off [some pernicious deed or threat] - and so as a result, we cannot expect you to protect us; we beg for God's help in getting the threat lifted or wrong righted so that we may again venerate you in return for your protection". The goal was to lift the threat or obtain restitution (and sometimes more) for the deed.

Sometimes the saint was publicly humiliated, for example by showing the saints relics in a way that prevented the people from touching them, such as by putting the relics on a hair shirt and covering them with thorns (which was also an allusion to Christ's suffering, of course). The monks would prostate themselves on the ground, and beg for God's intervention to stop the abuse.

Gearey offers several examples from the turn of the last millennium; Bob recounted one, which was a story from the 10th Century about the Count of Anjou and his knights, who had destroyed a monastery's houses, stolen from its treasury, and generally caused it harm. The monks invoked a clamor in the monastery church, banning entrance to any townspeople related to the count or his knights. The remainder were allowed in to see the abuse of the relics, but prevented from praying for the count's ancestors (all of whom were buried in the church). The count capitulated, was publicly humiliated and humbled, and offered certain "satisfactions" to the monastery in recompense.

Because the monks were claiming their right to mediate between the larger community and the dead and divine, they accrued benefits when things went well, but needed a way to cope when things went wrong (i.e., the saint abrogated their side of the bargain). One technique used was to invoke a clamor against the saint for failing to deliver; sometimes the peasants could be invited in to abuse the relics themselves.

Although these techniques were fairly widespread throughout Europe, for obvious reasons they were used sparingly in any one place. Towards the end of the medieval period, when plague cut down good and bad alike, people's faith and beliefs in the support from the dead waned, and the system became less effective as a way to retain authority.

Bob Scott, 1998-02-10