Albrecht Classen

title.none: Dinzelbacher, Angst im Mittelalter (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.007 98.09.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Dinzelbacher, Peter. Angst im Mittelalter: Teufels-, Todes- und Gotteserfahrung: Mentalitätsgeschichte und Ikonographie. Paderborn- Munich-Vienna-Zurich: Ferdinand Schoeningh, 1996. Pp. 295. DM 68. ISBN: ISBN 3-506-72026-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.07

Dinzelbacher, Peter. Angst im Mittelalter: Teufels-, Todes- und Gotteserfahrung: Mentalitätsgeschichte und Ikonographie. Paderborn- Munich-Vienna-Zurich: Ferdinand Schoeningh, 1996. Pp. 295. DM 68. ISBN: ISBN 3-506-72026-0.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

To understand the past from the perspective of mental history has proven to be a highly useful approach as it allows for a comprehensive analysis of collective and deep-seated fears, sentiments, attitudes, and other aspects of the human psyche. Widespread fear of a diverse range of dangers, imagined or factual, was a quite common experience for medieval people. Some of these collective fears still impact our modern time, such as fear of war and violence, fear of monsters and strange creatures, fear of crime and natural disasters. But a fundamental fear such as fear of the dark night, or the fear of the dangerous forests were more typical of the Middle Ages than for the twentieth century. There are, in other words, both common aspects and profound differences with regard to fear then and today.

Whereas Jean Delumeau, in his monograph Le peche et la peur, first published in 1983, described various and multifaceted aspects of fear as historical features of medieval society, Peter Dinzelbacher, well known for his many other studies and editions on the mentality of the Middle Ages, mysticism, and interdisciplinary aspects of medieval culture, here focuses on religious fear or "'Binnenaengste' des christlichen Abendlandes" (18; 'internal fear' of the Christian Occident). These types of fear he traces, perhaps in a little too simplifying manner, exclusively back to the teachings of the church which deliberately triggered imaginative fears of and hopes for the afterlife (20). Although sermons and teachings by the clergy basically characterized human existence as a danger for the soul's salvation, hence subjugated all Christians under the strict rule of the church by way of imposing religious fear on them, the clergy itself and worldly rulers were as much victims of their own ideology as they feared God's punishments in Purgatory and Inferno as the laity. Simultaneously, despite the constantly present fear of the devil and God's wrath, worldly, courtly culture, seemingly ignoring these threats and hence also this very fear, strongly developed from very early on at least since the eleventh century and ran parallel to the religious world of the Middle Ages.

This is not to refute Dinzelbacher's basic thesis, but to contextualize it within its own reference system. Dinzelbacher himself points out a historical transformation of the fear of demons and the devil throughout the centuries. He indicates that theologians of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages (4th through 10th centuries) considered the demons as personal enemies they had to fight against and defeat, like St. George had to fight the dragon. In the high Middle Ages theologians and philosophers demonstrated rather little interest in this topic, whereas the contemporary iconography indicated an upsurge of demonology. In the late Middle Ages the general population increasingly feared demons and saw itself surrounded and attacked by them. This might also have led to the devastating wave of witch-craze and pogroms in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, although religious fear alone would not have been enough to trigger this horrendous bloodbath.

Essentially Dinzelbacher divides his monograph into three sections, the first dealing with the early Middle Ages, the second with the high Middle Ages, and the third with the late Middle Ages and early modern times. It is interesting to learn that the early church made serious attempts to introduce the fear of the devil and the afterlife, although this teaching seems to have influenced primarily the clergy itself, that is, those who belonged to a monastery. In later times this fear spread to all ranks of society, creating psychosomatic forces which were to shape the entire medieval world and actually early-modern society as well far into the nineteenth century.

The battle against demons carried out by individual churchmen was led by means of many different rituals and sacred objects which Dinzelbacher describes in great detail. These were, for instance, sacred words, signs, sacramentals, and even physical struggle. In many cases the help of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and, especially, of saints was requested, as Dinzelbacher illustrates with many references to various sources.

At first sight it might come as a surprise that the fear of demons and the devil increased in the high Middle Ages, but the iconography provides striking examples to prove this point. Dinzelbacher points out the emergence of the Cathar movement, but also emphasizes the intensified control over the laity in the western church through rules set up by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 which required all Christians to make confession at least once a year. Other factors might have been the new mendicant orders with their emphasis on sermons and preaching, and also the general social and economic changes affecting all aspects of everyday life (93f.).

In the late Middle Ages the fear of the devil and his demons became more intense, as the iconographic and literary documentation proves. Surprisingly, the author does not pay much attention to Dante's Inferno, but instead relies primarily on theological texts and visual objects to prove his point. In particular, he claims that the new movement of mysticism, primarily carried by women visionaries, also led to a new form of demonology which was inspired, above all, by the mystics' visions. One of their important sources of inspiration, however, appears to have been the constant barrage of sermons and visual impressions inside and outside of church buildings relating the alleged horrors of hell. Dinzelbacher also suggests that the new concept of ordinary people being the devil's advocates and instruments represented an important step forward toward the secularization of European mentality (133). This might well serve as a far-reaching explanation, but the author at this point refrains from further elaborations and invites his readers to explore the validity of his thesis through their own further investigations.

In the third section of this book we are confronted with many different forms of fear in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Dinzelbacher proves to be an expert both in literary studies as well as in art history as he supports his claims with a multitude of fascinating iconographical examples. He identifies the following motifs underlying the hysteria and fear of death which resulted, at first, from the Black Death, but then, also, from theological teachings. These iconographic motifs are: God the Father or Christ intervenes personally to persecute the sinners, which also often leads to the motif of the Virgin Mary who attempts to protect the believers under her cloak (Madonna of the Protecting Cloak). God is many times presented as a warrior using a range of different weapons to hurt the sinners. Sometimes even saints are depicted as instruments of God in his punishment of the sinners. Another motif was the avenging angel who strangles, drowns, devours, and burns the sinner. Perhaps the most pervasive motif, however, proves to be the personified death as a skeleton who appeared in iconography as early as the fourteenth century, and continued to be a dominant figure far into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Dinzelbacher also studies the various types of weapons and projectiles allegedly used by God or the devil to kill the sinners. In particular, he examines arrows carrying the pest, love arrows -- a motif which has, however, less to do with the subject studied here -- lances, pikes, and complicated killing machines. These objects, frequently copied in wall paintings and altar pieces, etc., apparently served to increase the lay spectators' fear of God and his angels.

Without a doubt, the author correctly states that the medieval church functionalized these images both in literary and iconographic form to secure its dominance over and government of all ranks of society. This power was established both through fear and the subsequent offer to the laity to buy safeguards against the horrible punishments in the afterlife through donations, indulgences, etc. (252). Curiously, though, this very strategy at the end led to the Protestant Reformation, a protest against the capitalization on psychological manipulation practiced by all sectors of the medieval church. This did not free, however, people from fear of the devil, it only freed them from the heavy financial burden and provided them with new, spiritual means to fight the devil.

Fundamentally, of course, as Dinzelbacher stresses, the entire concept of Christian teaching was based on the idea that, more or less, all people were condemned from birth and had to rely on God's mercy to receive salvation in the afterlife. Consequently the devil and his demons had free-play to torture human souls, and so medieval people lived in constant fear because "ubique diabolus" (276). This is true, and yet also not quite true, because medieval society did not turn into an entirely theological society subject to never-ending fear. Once again, there was worldly culture, and increasingly the influence of the church waned in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, even though late-medieval religiosity had reached an unforeseen apogee by then. Perhaps it might be argued that the growing fear of the devil was also the result of a growing secularization of every aspect of human life, which in turn required repentance. Sermons and confessions, based on the ideology of fear, therefore, served to counterbalance the deteriorating religiosity and increasing worldliness.

Dinzelbacher finally suggests that medieval people primarily experienced very specifically determined fear taught through detailed catalogues of sins and sinful behavior set up by the church. Modern man, by contrast, experiences anxiety, unspecific and unregulated, existential and future-oriented (279).

The author presents a whirlwind of profound insights and a massive range of documentation for his study of medieval fear. At times this might seem more like an accumulation of data than a critical analysis, but in the end a clear picture of medieval mentality of fear, having gone through various transformations, emerges. Overall, the remarkable blend of theological, historical, literary, and iconographical material illustrating the progressively changing appearance of fear from the early to the late Middle Ages makes this book to an important contribution to medieval mentality.