***This review originally appeared on another, now-defunct site of mine in February 2014.***
Carolly Erickson’s The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception discusses how medieval Europeans perceived their world, both experientially and intellectually. The picture she paints is one of a world that’s unrecognizable from our own, even though our own world grew out of that of the Middle Ages.
Rather than treating the medieval period as a time of “primitive superstition,” as so many scholars (and others) have done since the so-called Enlightenment, Erickson shows how its worldview was quite coherent and “logical” relative to its formative assumptions. (She wisely notes that no society is free from “those tacit norms…which, because they are more basic than perception itself, are rarely explicitly acknowledged.”)
The first two chapters, “The Enchanted World” and “The Visionary Imagination,” are the heart of the book. Erickson describes how the medievals saw themselves as living in a world brimming with intelligence, meaning, wonder, and spirit, where the invisible modalities of the world were more real than the visible ones. The primary means of acquiring knowledge were not “reason” or “observation,” but the active use of the visionary imagination – that faculty that grants us direct access to those unseen modalities of the real. The vision was the ultimate source of knowledge, with visions playing a role in medieval society roughly analogous to the studies and reports produced by the various scientific specialists in our modern society.
Erickson’s work thus allows us to see the imagination and the unseen in a very different light than the disenchanted, subjectivist way in which we’re typically told to view them nowadays.
It also shows how Christianity remained quite animistic in many ways throughout the Middle Ages. As D.P. Walker, for example, has also emphasized, with reference to the changes that Christianity underwent during the early modern period, “The task of taking all the magic out of Christianity was an impossible one; it was there right from the beginning.”
Erickson’s work also has tremendous implications for the nature of perception and truth in and of themselves. In an especially insightful passage – one example among many – she writes:
The perceived reality of the enchanted world predisposed the medievals to special habits of sight. Put another way, belief in a densely incorporeal population that could be glimpsed under special conditions affected the quality of their visual perception. Their sight was different from ours in kind; accepting a more inclusive concept of reality, they saw more than we do.
The Medieval Vision also includes discussions of the role of the religious and civil authorities, gender roles, the forces of chaos and destruction, and various elements of Christian belief and practice in shaping the overall medieval worldview and attitudes. I can recommend this book very highly if you’re looking for a portrait of a society very different from ours, and from which we might be able to learn a great deal in some areas.