Hallucinations and the "Bible for the Illiterate": the Psychology of Medieval Man

Table of contents:

Hallucinations and the "Bible for the Illiterate": the Psychology of Medieval Man
Hallucinations and the "Bible for the Illiterate": the Psychology of Medieval Man

"I believe, because it is absurd" - such a maxim is attributed to the early Christian theologian Tertullian. These words can be considered the motto of the Middle Ages. Even a small fraction of modern knowledge was inaccessible to people of those times, emotions ruled over the intellect, therefore they relied exclusively on God. Let's try to understand the psychology of medieval man and understand his way of thinking.

Middle Ages

Infant and Society

Western sociology believes that all the peoples of the planet go through the same stages in the development of society, only the pace of their passage differs. Some Amazonian Indians still live in the Stone Age, and developed countries fly into space. The stage selection criterion is the level of technology development. Thus, the American sociologist Daniel Bell defines three stages of social development: traditional, industrial and post-industrial. The first dominates today in most African countries, many states in South America and South Asia. Agriculture, cattle breeding and exploitation of natural resources prevail here. The industrial type of society is characterized by the already mastered nature - this is a number of countries in Europe and the former USSR. And the post-industrial begins to take shape only in recent decades in countries such as the United States, Japan, and some states of Western Europe. The emphasis here is no longer on natural resources, but on the processing and storage of information, scientific achievements and technological progress.

The social approach is closely related to the psychological view of social development. So, many authors of psychodynamic directions adhere to the theory that any society goes through vector stages of development - similar to the stages of human life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, maturity and old age. Based on this theory, not a single society on Earth has yet reached old age and even, possibly, maturity. But infancy and childhood passed (or pass) everything. One of these "childhood" periods of society can be called the Middle Ages. And the main criterion for this is the so-called magical thinking, characteristic of both ancient man (and modern wild tribes) and medieval. What is there to the ancient - magical thinking is often "thought" by a huge number of people today.

This type of thinking is characterized by the belief that by performing certain actions, pronouncing the necessary words and thoughts, a person can influence events beyond his control. "The primitive man has tremendous confidence in the power of his desires," writes Sigmund Freud in his work "Totem and Taboo". "In essence, whatever he does magically should happen just because he wants it." The same conviction, as shown by numerous studies, is found in young children (which is why they are so difficult to convince them of the rationality of an action if it goes against their desires) and even in many quite civilized adults.


Echoes of magical thinking in the most innocuous form - spitting over the left shoulder or the tradition of “sitting down on the path”. In the "hard" version - religious fanaticism and intolerance of dissent. Therefore, one has to observe magical thinking among outwardly mature individuals even today.In the Middle Ages, in the absence of scientific knowledge, this form of thinking was probably the only possible one. It is not surprising that for people of those times, the defining concept of life was faith, not intellect.

Prohibition of knowledge and asceticism

It is clear that things should have been in a similar way in more ancient times. And, apparently, they were. By the end of Antiquity, as well as later, there was widespread belief in gods, but Rome's acquaintance with the morals of the Eastern Hellenistic states made morals more free than was customary. The permissiveness of the emperor Nero, who cohabited with his mother, and Caligula, who deprived his sister of virginity, gave rise to debauchery among his subjects. By the end of the Roman Empire, the country was known to be in decline and sinking into prostitution. Apparently, therefore, the pendulum swung in the other direction - to the extreme degree of asceticism (many researchers believe that the degree of religiosity of the Middle Ages was the greatest in the history of mankind), sadistic faith in God, hatred of beauty and the human body. All these features are characteristic of the Middle Ages.


In addition, this is a time that was aggravated by terrible pandemics of plague, cholera and other dangerous diseases. The latter have worried mankind since the domestication of animals (they were the source of many infectious diseases) and the formation of the first more or less large settlements, when people lived crowded and infected a large number of neighbors. And in the XI century, there is just an increase in the number of Western European cities, and this is also the time of the beginning of the crusades to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was from here that the "knights of faith" brought leprosy to their homelands.


Medicine was in its infancy and prejudice flourished. Therefore, death, torment and illness became commonplace for medieval people. It is not surprising that in such conditions he could only rely on God. True, he did not help much, so he had to console himself with the thesis about the "inscrutability of the Lord's ways" and the "illogicality" of faith, which is not only impossible, but also sinful to cognize with the "meager" human mind. Hence the ban on knowledge, the development of which the Church fought fiercely.

What does the high temperature have to do with it?

However, faith in God is generally inherent in early forms of society. And not only because of psychological, but also because of objective reasons: it allows you to explain the inexplicable. In this regard, it is worth mentioning an interesting experiment conducted by the historical reenactor Pavel Sapozhnikov in 2013-2014. As part of the unique project “Alone in the Past” - according to the author, who has no analogues in historical science - Pavel spent eight long months on the territory of the reconstructed farm, in the conditions of Ancient Rus, checking on himself how our ancestors lived in the 10th century. And since the conditions completely imitated medieval life, Paul had no modern heating devices, no clothes we were used to, no medicines. When he fell ill, he had a fever, and due to the inability to bring it down, Pavel plunged into hallucinatory delirium.

“I understood that this was not normal, and realized that it was most likely not true, that this was not actually happening. I realized that I was in a state of stress and this can also affect these hallucinations. I analyzed and realized all this, and still I was scared, but this is me, a person from the XXI century. Accordingly, a person in the Middle Ages, feeling some kind of hallucination, would not be able to realize that it was a hallucination, because he did not even have such a concept. Naturally, he spiritualized this and explained it as he could explain: by the fact that God, the spirit of ancestors, a divine animal, had appeared to him, someone had possessed a cow's skin. These are the moments that are the basis of paganism. I understand where it comes from,”Sapozhnikov says in the film“Alone in the Past”.Obviously, people in the Middle Ages could also observe visions of a similar nature, mistaking them for the appearance of a deity.

Around the signs

A major researcher of the Middle Ages, French historian Jacques le Goff, writes that everyone in those days perceived differently not only the world, but also himself. The man believed that next to him literally were at least two more entities: the guardian angel and the devil-tempter. Not to mention other demons and deities that hovered nearby and manifested themselves through numerous symbols, signs and phenomena. People lived in a constant atmosphere of miracles, which were considered commonplace and manifested through visions, "miraculous" healings, or, conversely, the machinations of Satan.


Everything that a medieval man saw was for him a reflection of Holy Scripture. An unusual fish caught in the net - a sign of Christ, a dove flew to the window - a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and if a black raven - expect trouble, because it symbolizes sin. To "unravel" these signs means to gain power over fate, something that was so lacking in medieval man. He considered all visible things to be symbols of invisible, heavenly, or, conversely, dark entities.

Emotions over the edge

Historians such as Lucien Fevre, Marc Bloch, Robert Mandroux, Georges Duby and others were also involved in the study of human psychology in the Dark Ages. And most of the researchers agree that medieval man was extremely emotional and religiously exalted. Reason was in his last place: emotions dominated all spheres of life, and in all classes. This is probably due to the low degree of psychological and technological development of society, with the predominance of magical thinking, burdened by the tragic fatalism of a difficult medieval fate.


Therefore, people of those times, like all blind fanatics, were probably manic in terms of expressing feelings. Depending on the situation, they could be extremely spiritualized and admired by something, or they could differ in the highest degree of cruelty and sadism - not only towards others, but also towards themselves. Proof of this is the Crusades, when people (and even children!) Died in the name of “liberating the Holy Sepulcher”, the aggressive implantation of faith in other countries, terrible tortures and trials of witches. And also the widespread custom of public execution. The contemplation of blood, death and murder is what adults and children have seen, and at the same time what they psychologically needed.


“When the world was five centuries younger, all life events took on forms that were outlined much more seriously than in our time. Suffering and joy, misfortune and luck were much more perceptible; human experiences retained the degree of completeness and spontaneity with which the soul of a child perceives sorrow and joy to this day,”the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writes in his work“Autumn of the Middle Ages”.

Laughter through tears

A high degree of sensitivity made a person look for thrills (although life, it seems, already gave them in abundance), so people tried to fill their world with bright colors. This is probably why medieval painting is filled not with real, but with fairy-tale characters and, of course, with feelings, the main of which is the fear of heavenly punishment for sins. The pictures of those years are full of passions raging in a person and filled with such intense horror that he seems grotesque to his contemporaries. Meanwhile, painting played the role of not just interesting pictures - it served as a kind of "bible for the illiterate", the main task of which was intimidation. Art in those days was considered only a means of delivering the "word of God" to people, and nothing more.


However, the researcher of medieval culture and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that medieval man still had some kind of protection from the feeling of constant fear - laughter.It was with the help of laughter, according to Bakhtin, that the people of those times, in the end, defeated the fear not only of heavenly punishment, but also the forces of nature. One of the "creators" of the culture of laughter in the Middle Ages is the greatest French satirist Francois Rabelais, who, according to Bakhtin, was one of the authors of modern European culture.

But there was still a lot of fear. And due to mass horror, medieval man did not think of himself as a separate person, but only as a part of the whole society in whose name he lives. The priority of the whole over the particular was manifested in literally everything - from church culture to corporate unions of all stripes: orders of knights, guilds and craft workshops.

At the same time, the person's personality itself no longer belonged to the genus, as in prehistoric times, but to a certain class. And her place is strictly determined by the same "divine providence": if he was born a peasant and a poor man, then this is fate, it is sinful and senseless to try to change something. The desire to “be like everyone else” and boundless meekness are the embodiment of Christian virtue. Individualism develops an "egoistic" desire to think independently, therefore such a person is extremely dangerous for any totalitarian system. Being was not reduced to the manifestation of personality traits, but to a set of social roles that a person was forced to play due to his social position.

Popular by topic