A Historical Divide
We live on the other side of a historic divide. This divide is most obvious when we, of the privileged industrialized world, consider the physical, material conditions of our lives: indoor plumbing, central heating and cooling, refrigeration, cars-trains-airplanes, medical wonders, foods from faraway places at our fingertips. The list is endless and startling when viewed from the conditions that have marked human life for most of our history. These changes, so visible and profound, are tangible and easily apprehended. No one needs convincing that we live on the other side of a great material divide. But these changes are tethered to other, less visible, cultural, societal and social changes: in the forms of government; the organizing laws that provide structure to human exchange; the growth and modes of ordering of urban life; education, literacy and schooling; business, markets and economics. These changes pervade every corner of human action and exchange.
Another, even less visible, but no less profound transformation is how we inhabit ourselves. The most concrete expression of this change is the emergence and influence of the discipline of psychology; discipline here meaning scientific discipline. It is a watershed moment when the analytical, skeptical, empirical gaze of science is turned from the material world of galaxies and stars to the subjective experience of our own psyche. This turn was long in coming and not easily achieved, requiring that we wrench ourselves free from the moorings that provided stability for many centuries. Thus, the inwardness of the soul, embedded and buttressed by a world whose social, public, and institutional axes were theologically organized, is supplanted by the self, which emerges within secular, material, scientific coordinates. 1
The failure to grasp the historical basis of the modern self can result in the assumption that the basic features of the self are independent, timeless and “placeless” components of a universal human psyche. But time and place, history and context, matter. Indeed, they are formative. This history, then, is not simply useful as background information, but is evidence that how we organize and experience our inner world is intimately connected to how our sociocultural lives are organized; that the context-free psyche often presumed by psychological science is, itself, context dependent.
I will offer several posts that explore this transformation of inwardness from soul and self. This does not imply that the historical movement occurred through the simple substitution of self for soul, nor does it presume a dichotomous conflict between religion and science. Human history does not yield to such simplicities. Nor does it presuppose that many today do not deeply, devotionally give ultimate significance to the soul. Indeed, many do. But they do so in a world inverted: heresy is not a heinous crime punishable by public, state sanctioned torture and execution. Rather, the soul is nurtured in the privacy and shadows of one’s personal life. These posts exploring the journey from soul to self, then, are meant to illuminate the dramatically altered state of our consciousness.
We can never, fully, bring to life the ruins and runes left to us by the past. The past is always read through the lens of the present, and this is especially difficult when the focus is the experience of our inner life. Our contemporary psychological self is so naively a part of ourselves, so given and transparent, that it is difficult to conceive otherwise. The past is a foreign country. Overcoming the barriers and biases to gain entry is not easy, or completely possible. The trial of rats, however, offers a unique vantage point for appreciating the seamless union of the soul, the society, and the cosmos in the time before the onset of the age of the self.
Trial of Rats
The year is 1522, in Autun, France. Survival is precarious, crops and weather are unpredictable, and pestilence and starvation a pressing reality. Amidst this uncertainty, the town is visited by a plaque of rats. The threat to the community is so severe that the municipal authorities seek to prosecute the rats, issuing a summons that the rats appear in court. They do not. The rats are represented by official legal counsel, who argues that most of the defendants live in the countryside and, thus, likely unaware of the summons. The court, in response, issues a second summons which is read aloud in the churches in the surrounding countryside. Again, the rats fail to appear. Their attorney contends that the public reading also alerted their mortal enemy, the cats, making the journey to court too dangerous. And so it went…for eight years. Eventually, the rats were convicted, condemned, and excommunicated.2
This trial, and the many others like it, may appear confusing, shocking, even humorous to us moderns, but it obviously was a serious undertaking. The full weight and formal rituals of communal justice was brought to bear on a vital issue threatening their community. We cannot patronize our forbearers by simply dismissing this trial as a product of simplemindedness. They were not idiots. This example jars our sensibilities and thereby beckons us, offering a portal into the foreign country of the past. Two words help us gain a foothold in this alien terrain:
- Enchanted. The medieval world has been described by many as enchanted; a world infused with magical and supernatural powers. The root of the word is “to chant,” or sing, and harkens to the capacity for music and song to enthrall, to captivate our spirit, to charm, spellbind and bewitch.
- Inspirited. The world is alive, possessing, at its core, animating spirits that give movement, meaning, purpose and character not just to humans, animals and plants, but to all things in the cosmos. Indeed, one of the principle aims of alchemy, the material “science” of this era, was to extract from matter the anima mundi; the primal spirit or soul of the cosmos.
This enchanted, inspirited cosmos, pervaded by magic and supernatural powers and populated with hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful and inexplicable spirits, is a deeply unsettling place. One the one hand, it shares basic properties of intentionality, purpose, will, and desire that we are familiar with in ourselves. On the other hand, it is a dangerous, capricious, unfathomably powerful, personally directed, oppressively present reality that can crush us at any moment. The sense of vulnerability is further heightened by abject poverty, the constant threat of starvation, illness, injury, disease and death, and the tipping point for survival rests on the caprice of weather, plague, fertility, and livestock. Constant vigilance is thus required. And vigilance there was: Magic rituals were necessary before planting, plowing and harvesting; houses required the foundation to be consecrated by clergy and protected by magical charms; weather rituals helped ensure crop production; animals and livestock were subjected to blessings and curses; fertility rites and practices were required to ensure healthy offspring. Communal celebratory rituals, feasts, and pageants were held during the cycle of the seasons to ensure healthy crops and good harvests; childbirth, marriage and death each had their ceremonies to consecrate and protect against malevolent forces that threaten mental and spiritual well-being.
No important aspect of life was without its magical means of influence and control.
In this inspirited world, nothing happens randomly or fortuitously—everything has a reason. Those reasons can, potentially, be divined, and the future and our fate can, possibly, be influenced.3 The causal nexus of this cosmos is most certainly not an impersonal, blind and indifferent, billiard-ball material causality. Rather, the world innately possesses meaning; all things, all thoughts, all actions are entangled in a web of meaningful influence. The cosmos offers up portents, omens, and signs whose meanings hold great significance for our personal and collective fate. This inspirited world, in turn, participates and responds to enchantments, to incantations, rituals and rites. Consider the power of words: A specific utterance by the right person in power at the right place and time can send an army on the march, to great destructive consequence. The entire cosmos is so ordered.
Individuals do not seek meaning in an indifferent universe; meaning is, rather, imposed. Personal thoughts and private experiences are coupled with the happenings in the greater world. Omens, amulets, holy water, sacred relics—the entire inspirited world radiates influence, and unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will. The boundary between ourselves and the cosmos is porous. Possession by alien spirits is a legitimate fear and we must take caution, heed what we say, do, and think, lest we become prey to the intrusive influence of unseen, yet overwhelming powerful forces. We are never alone, even in our thoughts, in this spirit-pervaded, enchanted world.
This cosmos is also fundamentally moral. Satanic forces of destruction are aligned against God’s benevolence and the focal point of this titanic struggle is the eternal fate of our soul. Demonic allure, temptation, and assault threaten at every turn. The single biggest mistake, which will damn us to everlasting Hell, is to presume that, in the face of such powerful, supernatural malevolence, we can make our own way in the world, can rely on our own will and wile, be self-reliant. Augustine, who shaped medieval Christian theology and practice, offers this advice: “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin”. 4 Only God’s grace can save us, and the hard route to that grace must pass through humility, surrender, and acknowledgement of our unworthiness.
While our soul’s fate is profoundly personal, our plight is not solitary. The Church stands between us and God, sanctified to draw down heavenly powers, channeled through ritual, incantation and relics, to combat the forces of darkness and evil; to provide opportunities for grace and forgiveness; and to offer sacraments for personal salvation. The Church is the hub of spiritual power that extends to all official, organizing structures of society, from legal courts to royal crown, and together they stand as a bulwark against the flood-tide of evil that threatens not only individuals, but the entire community.
The maladies of human life were understood as a complex relation between body and spirit. “Routine” illnesses were often treated as an affliction of the body, caused by an imbalance of humours; an ill wind bringing dirt and disease, the foul airs of urban life; or an unfortunate conjunction of moon and stars. Treatments were usually provided by local healers who offered folk remedies of potions, ointments, and elixirs with an admixture of rituals, incantations, and appeals to supernatural powers. Failure of treatment, or strange and disturbing symptoms, suggested affliction of the spirit requiring treatment in kind: prayers, confession, penitence, petition of saints, and also, simple resignation to one’s fate, as illness is God’s punishment for one’s sins. More diabolical illness, including madness, required more extreme measures, such as exorcism, and plagues and pestilence were viewed as afflictions visited on the entire community requiring Church sanctioned, communal responses.5
Let us now return to the trial of the Autun rats. The community was confronted with an infestation that threatened their crops, their health, their survival. Evil forces were clearly at work—for what other explanation could there be? One need look no further than the Bible, the word of God, to see examples of demonic spirits inhabiting snakes, pigs and other animals, not to mention people. This affliction of rats was, obviously, evil let loose against the community, requiring a communal response of the highest order. The decree of the court, which was closely aligned and working in concert with the Church, was a sanctified writ that spoke most directly to any spirits who might hear it and especially those to whom it was directed. Failure to respond is not evidence that it is fundamentally impossible for the spirit-possessed rats to comprehend, but is a failure to either not to have heard it, or a willful refusal to comply. Following official court protocol is necessary, for only then can the official powers of the court be legitimately enacted. And the most damning injunction that can be invoked is spiritual; condemnation and excommunication.
The trial of animals is an understandable response to a haunted world of spirits and demons, where our earthly existence is tenuous and our eternal fate is precarious, huddled as we are with other lost souls who are tossed in a violent struggle of cosmic scope and supernatural power. Demons that stalk our inner life and plague the outer world are adjudicated and combatted through the divinely sanctioned power of the Church-government.The trial is a feeble effort to exert a measure of control in an inexplicable and overwhelming cosmos.
- Taylor 1989, “Sources of the Self” and Taylor 2007, “A Secular Age” are the definitive works on this transition from soul to self
- Dinzelbacher, 2002, Animal Trials. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 405-421.
- Wilson, 2000, “The Magical Universe”, offers a thorough discussion of these issues
- Cited in Greenblatt, 1980, “Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare”, p 2
- Wilson, 2000. ibid.