Frames of Reference

And now for something completely different! I have always been intrigued by the way we look at the world as contrasted with, say, the people of Western Europe during the Middle Ages — from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. until the Renaissance in the 16th century. The most obvious difference comes in our way of looking at death. We don’t even like to think about it and I dare say if I had put the word in the title of this blog no one would have read it. As it is, I may have lost readers by mentioning it now! But hear me out.

We fear death and regard it as a “tragedy.” This is especially so when we hear of the death of a child. Much of this comes from the fact that we live so much longer than those in the Middle Ages who were lucky to see their 30th birthday. They saw death as a release from this life of pain and fear — which it was for most of them. Think about it: no way to alleviate pain, not even a toothache. Tooth decay was common and teeth recovered from the period show signs of rotting teeth that would send any of us to our knees in agony. It must have been a fairly common companion during those days when the only cure was to pull the tooth — without a sedative. There weren’t even any aspirin! And pain was accompanied by disease and almost constant fear of spirits who were everywhere and were as real as the person closest to them. They coped with the help of generous amounts of beer — an average of a pint a day for each man, woman, and child.

But the main reason we differ in our way of looking at death is that we really don’t believe in the immortality of the soul. When I say “we” I mean the vast majority of us. Even the most devout among us don’t believe in it the way the typical Medieval mind believed in it. They believed in it the way we believe in the reality of the computer screen before our very eyes. There was simply no doubt: when a person died he or she would go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. The latter was a place souls went to continue to do penance until they were pure enough to ascend into heaven. An innocent soul would be rewarded and an evil person would be punished for eternity. There was no doubt whatever. How comforting!

Think of the “Faust” legend. It dates from the sixteenth century, which was toward the end of the Medieval period. We first hear about it from a collection of letters presumably written by a Doctor Johann Faustus in Germany, who was a real person who had remarkable magical powers and who allegedly made a “deal” with the devil that allowed him success in this world at the price of his immortal soul. The fact that this legend became popular suggests that toward the end of the Medieval period people were increasingly attracted to the idea of success in this life and less concerned about punishment in the next. But the conviction remained none the less that there was another life after this one. No doubt about it. Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, wrote the “Pardoner’s Tale” about a cleric who made his living by selling indulgences, or “pardons” that would shorten a person’s time in Purgatory for a fee — though originally the idea was that one could earn indulgences only by doing penance. It was quicker and easier as people began to accumulate some extra cash to simply buy indulgences and there were those who made a very good living from selling them. Dante’s Hell is full of these types. And bear in mind that Dante’s Divine Comedy was generally regarded as late as the fourteenth century as a faithful depiction of the afterlife consistent with the science of the time (Ptolemy) and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas that was even more certain than science.

In any event, the reality of another life after this one made it possible for the Medieval mind to escape the fear and trepidation that was a part of this life for the peace of mind that came from assurance of a reward for their good behavior. They did not regard death as a “tragedy” but as a release from a life of pain and suffering to one of bliss and comfort. Our preoccupation with the here and now has cost us that assurance and may well be the root cause of the anxiety that many cultural historians insist predominates in our age. Perhaps this helps us to understand why so many of us are fearful.