Hans Broedel

title.none: Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages (Broedel)

identifier.other: baj9928.9810.007 98.10.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Hans Broedel, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Chicago: Uni versity of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xiii,290. $33.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-226-73887-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.10.07

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Chicago: Uni versity of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xiii,290. $33.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-226-73887-6.

Reviewed by:

Hans Broedel
University of Washington

By now it has become a commonplace that during the Middle Ages the living and the dead were perceived to participate in a single extended community held together by bonds of kinship, duty and reciprocal obligations. In recent years, historians have mapped many of the dimensions of this community, for example through studies tracing the development of the liturgy of the dead, eschatology, and the cult of the saints. With the welcome arrival of the English translation of Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages, there is now a readily accessible survey of an often overlooked component of this world, "the apparitions of the ordinary dead, of everyday ghosts" (2). Schmitt's book, intended as a "contribution to the social history of the imaginary" (10), is an investigation of how the living imagined their deceased counterparts and their relations with them. Schmitt's object "is to show how beliefs and the imaginary depend upon the structures and functioning of society at a given period of time" (3). Because of this strictly functionalist objective, Schmitt neither delves into the shadowy byways of medieval folklore, nor takes up the search for "ur-ghosts," the dim phantoms of the Germanic, Classical, or Indo-European past. Rather, his ghosts remain firmly embedded in their medieval contexts.

Schmitt begins his discussion with the observation that the early Christian tradition left little room for the appearance of the less-than-holy dead. Augustine and his followers argued that departed spirits could neither return to nor otherwise communicate with the living, in large part because any such admission might seem to authorize the pagan worship of the dead. This skeptical view continued to predominate through the early Middle Ages, when an essentially dualist clerical world- view, one which tended to categorize the supernatural in terms of angels and demons, could seldom come to terms with the ambiguous manifestations of ordinary ghosts. This began to change, Schmitt argues, around the beginning of the 11th century, as a result of several related developments: the growing importance of the liturgy of the dead, the widespread acceptance of some notion of purgatory, and an increasingly well-defined conception of a literary self. The gradual evolution of clerical thought along these lines manifested itself in a growing number of ghost stories in a number of different narrative genres. A detailed sequential study of these genres occupies Schmitt for the next six chapters, that is, most of the book.

This emphasis upon the textual basis of medieval ghosts is one of the book's great strengths. Schmitt is fully aware of the dangers of separating the texts which provide his evidence from interpretive constructions of "belief." On the contrary, Schmitt wants "to look carefully at the conditions under which the utterance of belief [the ghost narrative] was made, at the forms and genres of the tales being analyzed" since "the essence of beliefs is largely dependent on these forms" (7). On a more prosaic level, this emphasis upon narrative genres provides a valuable means of ordering an otherwise bafflingly diverse set of tales into historically intelligible analytical categories.

Schmitt turns first to accounts of dreams of the dead. He is particularly interested in first-person, "autobiographical" accounts in which authors sought to define their own identities and social relations through a dialogue with the imagined dead, and so come to terms with their grief and loss. As elsewhere, Schmitt offers abundant examples -- his carefully nuanced reading of the dream of Giovanni Morelli being especially compelling (54-58). Although by conventional standards such narratives might not properly be called ghost stories at all, Schmitt grants them a singular importance. In contrast to other ghost narratives -- "traditional oral stories" or "socialized" tales told in the third person -- in the autobiographical accounts of dreams of ghosts he believes that we may touch upon "the intimate core of subjective belief" (9), and can "grasp what ghosts truly were" (58).

The following chapters, dealing with miracula, exempla, and mirabilia, are the best in the book, and display Schmitt's obvious expertise in these types of texts. To the first of these groups belong the tales of monastic dead -- ghost stories associated with local saints or monastic communities. These stories served an essentially didactic function: they illustrated the value of suffrages for the dead, the importance of mediating figures (most often the Virgin or the church) in the social relations of the dead, and the unity of the community of the living and the departed, a unity ensured on the one hand by social interdependencies, but even more so by the efficacy of monastic prayer. As ghost stories became more common, monastic authors became more aware of the utility of ghostly commentary upon the state of the world, and adapted ghost stories to promote their ecclesiastical or political agendas.

Ghosts in exempla were one expression of this trend. Didactic illustrative stories inserted in sermons, exempla often resemble monastic miracula but were directed toward a much wider secular audience. As such, exemplary ghosts mirrored the society and the beliefs of the laity, even as they responded to the hortatory goals and theological requirements of the preaching clergy. The results of this delicate balancing act ranged from the dreary and banal "domesticated dead" of countless moral stories to bizarre tales in which clerical sensibilities failed to overcome the striking patterns of traditional beliefs. As Schmitt points out, both kinds of tales testify in their own way to the competition taking place between an aggressively uniform ecclesiastical culture and popular local beliefs and practices, a competition, however, in which assimilation, tolerance and compromise still played a prominent part (148).

Mirabilia were different sorts of stories. They were often narratives taken from lay milieus and translated into clerical contexts, but without the otherwise requisite addition of a clear moral. Where miracula were accounts of God's direct subversion of the natural order, in mirabilia the cause of the marvel was not at once apparent (79). In this category Schmitt includes the monstrous revenants of William of Newburgh, Walter Map's ghostly curiosities and Gervase of Tilbury's account of the loquacious ghost of Beaucaire. This is a diverse set of texts and Schmitt does not attempt to analyze them all, rather he concentrates upon one particular type of marvelous tale, accounts of the ghostly horde, Hellequin's Hunt. Again, Schmitt avoids the temptation to look at shadowy antecedents, and focuses instead upon a body of particular tales and their contexts, and in the process shows that accounts which often strike the modern reader as inexplicable eruptions of folkloric tradition were written with quite pragmatic purposes. Like visions of Hell and Paradise, encounters with troops of the dead provided graphically imaginative evidence for the social and political commentaries of ecclesiastical authors. Of course, such an interpretation of medieval accounts of the ghostly horde is not complete: for example, Schmitt does not bother to mention analogous traditions of trooping female spirits or Carlo Ginzburg's investigation of the benandanti. It should also be said that in general Schmitt's analyses are most compelling where the relationship between the details of a narrative and its clerical context is clear and direct; where elements of a tale do not respond obviously to the apparent needs of the author -- as is true for many mirabilia -- questions linger.

Schmitt concludes his catalogue of ghost stories with a look at several lengthy dialogues between ghosts and living interlocutors in which the dead are induced to provide insight and commentary upon the contemporary political and spiritual worlds. Such tales, Schmitt argues, are evidence on the one hand of changing attitudes towards ghosts on the part of the clergy, who were increasingly tempted to regard them as a small part of the ecclesiastical apparatus of purgatory, indulgences, and masses for the dead which provided the economic basis for the church (159). As such, ghosts were required to respond readily and reliably to the clerical monopoly on legitimate supernatural power. In addition, though, these dialogues (which are also the most literary of Schmitt's ghost stories) had content and functions similar to politicized visions of the other world, mirrors for princes, and other sorts of political or ecclesiastical admonitory writing. As presumably knowledgeable and otherwise privileged informants, ghosts lent an undoubted air authority to their pronouncements.

Schmitt concludes his book with an overview of the general characteristics of medieval ghosts -- their habits, appearance, and behavior -- which serves to emphasize some of the points already made and to fill in a few gaps. The most interesting part of this concluding section is Schmitt's brief survey of visual representations of the returning dead in medieval art.

Understandably in a book as wide ranging as this, a few aspects of Ghosts in the Middle Ages may grate upon the reader. As the foregoing precis may suggest, Schmitt is given to making broad and sometimes over-broad generalizations about the Middle Ages. Late medieval clerics were obsessed with money, early modern men were obsessed with demons and sorcery (159), and children were "only an instrument for the use of adults" (51). Generalizations such as these may have their uses, but they are jarringly at variance with the sensitive and detailed treatment Schmitt devotes to ghost narratives themselves. This scrupulous attention to narratives brings up a more specific problem with Schmitt's method. In his attempt to understand ghost stories in their specifically medieval contexts, Schmitt has deliberately avoided drawing comparisons between medieval ghost beliefs and those of other times and cultures (223), yet in so doing he has also overlooked a body of ethnographic scholarship of considerable potential relevance. For example, Schmitt repeatedly insists upon privileging the autobiographical account as the subjective core of ghost experience, as opposed to orally transmitted tales of other types. Yet modern research into personal experience narratives reveals quite clearly that autobiographical narratives are every bit as subject to the demands of genre and audience as are other narrative types: we cannot assume that simply because a first-person account of a dream sounds like an accurate report of a "real" experience that indeed it is. Moreover, Schmitt implies that all "authentic" ghost experiences take place in dreams, yet again, if studies of more recent encounters with the dead are any guide, such is surely not the case. Similarly Schmitt is inclined to explain the preponderance of the ghosts of dead husbands in medieval tales as strictly a function of contemporary conditions (187), although modern studies of ghost experience tends to show a similar pattern, suggesting that perhaps a more general explanation is required.

These minor criticisms do not diminish the value of Schmitt's book, which provides a valuable and highly readable survey of an often overlooked genre, as well as insight into the complex interplay of medieval society and imagination. Medieval Ghosts will be of interest to many students of medieval thought and culture, but especially to those seeking a general overview of this particularly conspicuous aspect of the medieval remembrance of the dead.