Saturday, July 18, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Day One Session Three

Reasoning with Heretics

Right Belief and Right Knowledge: Epistemological Subversion in the Cloud of Unknowing – Chance Woods (University of Oklahoma)

According to the anonymous author of the fourteenth century text, the Cloud of Unknowing, the prime source of heresy is the claim to know God. Complete union with God is impossible. This concept of the radical inability to know God comes from Pseudo-Dionysius. Traditional scholarship on religion thought in terms of object of experience. This model does not work for Pseudo-Dionysius or Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud of Unknowing does not want the reader to focus on any one thing. He downplays rationality, but views the imagination as dangerous. The only response to the call of Grace is silence. The particular target of the Cloud of Unknowing’s hostility to images was the English mystic Richard Rolle. Rolle talked about feeling the Holy Spirit like a fire in his belly, which Cloud of Unknowing suggests may have been indigestion. For Cloud of Unknowing, images lead to heresy because they come from ignoring one’s spiritual mentor and pursuing images which are the products of one’s own mind. Soon such visions become addictive and Satan willingly aids in providing such images as will lead the foolhardy seeker away from the doctrines of the Church.

‘Protego – proterreo’: Pantaleon as Pagan Medicus, Healing Saint, and Heretical Magician – Dick E. H. de Boer (Rijksuniversiteit)

There is not a clear distinction between the miracles of saints and the feats of a magician. This comes out of the larger problem that, contrary to Emile Durkheim, religious ritual is not necessarily about making the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This is particularly the case with people in the Middle Ages for whom religious ritual often was distinctively about dealing with the profane and for whom religion had a distinctive magical quality.

The two most famous Catholic saints connected to medicine are Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, twin brothers, who worked as physicians and were martyred during the third century. One miracle story of theirs has them grafting a leg of an Ethiopian onto an amputee. Another saint who is not as well remembered today is Saint Pantaleon. Pantaleon had a Christian mother and a pagan father. While he grew up as a Christian he became a pagan as an adult. He later, though returned to Christianity. (This story is almost exactly like Augustine’s.) Pantaleon served as an imperial physician in Nicomedia, but was martyred at the beginning of the fourth century. The charge against him was that he was a magician. According to legend he went through burning, hot lead, wild beast and the sword until finally he prayed for death.

For some strange reason Pantaleon is not nearly as famous as the twins. He only seemed to pick up much of a following as an individual saint during the Middle Ages in the Rhineland. During the Black Death we do see Pantaleon listed as one of the fourteen holy helpers. The popular image of Pantaleon is of him getting a nail through the head. This image is used as an amulet.

The words "hocus pocus" most probably are a mangled version of the Latin “hoc est corpus,” this is the body. One suspects that this was some magician imitating the priest consecrating the Eucharist. The words” hoc est corp[us]” appear on an amulet with the image of Pantaleon.

(I actually presented second, but I am going to leave my presentation for the next post. There were not a whole lot of people there. I suspect it was because we consisted of two graduate students and one legitimate scholar and because we dealt with such diverse topics. After the presentation I had a very interesting conversation with Chance Woods. Interesting as in it went on for about two hours. It was largely a running exchange of observations on religion in the Middle Ages and in the present. To my surprise, Chance knows quite a bit about Judaism. Apparently the University of Oklahoma has a decent Jewish Studies Department with the likes of Norman Stillman on board. So keep an eye out in the future for Chance Woods; he is someone special.)

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