Albrecht Classen

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

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.018 99.02.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Translated by Theresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xiii,290. ISBN: 0-226-73887-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.18

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Translated by Theresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xiii,290. ISBN: 0-226-73887-6.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Whether we turn to the Middle Ages or consider our modern world, whether we investigate North and South American culture or that of Southeast Asia, people have always believed in ghosts. Apparitions of ghosts have at times seemed to be more real than real people, and so the sphere between life and death has often been populated by many diverse creatures of human imagination. The author of Ghosts in the Middle Ages, Jean-Claude Schmitt, a leading member of the French school of the Annalists, does not intend either to discredit ghosts or to prove their existence in the Middle Ages, instead he proposes to study the phenomenon of ghost stories as culturally relevant documents in terms of the "structures and the functioning of the society and the culture at a given period in time" (3). Although the belief in ghosts existed already in antiquity and the early Middle Ages, only the interaction of the Christian Church and the subtle but powerful pagan cultures among the laity could produce a strong reemergence and growth of ideas about ghosts since the eleventh century. Among many other reasons, the strong death cult with its insistence on remembering the dead in the Middle Ages made it possible for ghosts to play a major role in medieval mentality.

In the early Church the discussion of ghosts centered mostly on the pagan aspects of the belief in ghosts, as the church fathers such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Evodius struggled to come to terms with this "superstition." But beginning in the ninth century the Church agreed to embrace a new liturgy of the dead which made it also possible for the general belief in ghosts to grow tremendously.

Schmitt bases his investigation mainly on narrative documents from the early through the late Middle Ages and discusses the various aspects of ghosts in their appearance, functions, and actions. Beginning in the second chapter, he studies accounts of ghosts which appeared in dreams or rather nightmares. Following he turns to the large body of Christian miracle tales, exempla, and mirabilia which also were filled with reports about ghosts. These narratives were written both in Latin and in the vernacular and were intended both for the clergy and the laity to teach them lessons about the Christian interpretation of ghosts. Ghost stories, both serious and hilarious, composed by Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury, Orderic Vitalis, and Raoul Glaber, among others, circulated in the monastic convents and at court and left a deep imprint on contemporary culture. Peter of Blois, for example, publicly complained about the widespread belief in England in Hellequin's hunt, an extensive account of the appearance of a whole troop of ghosts. Many other clerical writers followed suit in their criticism, but the more they raised their voice, the more the belief in these diabolic ghosts seems to have spread.

In the sixth chapter Schmitt focuses on the new role which the Cistercians played in the public discussion of ghosts. Since this order maintained particular links with the lay population, its preachers often dealt with the phenomenon of ghosts in the reports by the ordinary people. Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus miraculorum reflected this curious fascination with ghosts from a clerical point of view and specifically dealt both with deceased monks and lay persons who appeared to the living. The narrative accounts by members of the mendicant orders were also filled with many references to ghosts and their appearance on cemeteries.

In addition, Schmitt examines those ghost tales which served, at least indirectly, as "Mirrors of the Princes" (161) and hence assumed a didactic function. This element also can be observed in the curious Roman de Fauvel from the early fourteenth century where the ghost account is related to a total disorder of the world.

Finally, the author discusses the various features of ghosts, such as the time when ghosts appeared, where they came from, the role of the cemetery, the relationship between the living and the dead, the function of ghosts to warn the living of their misdeeds, their bodily appearance, their language, and their depictions in manuscript illustrations.

This study is not only impressive in its wide historical range and depth of interpretive acumen, it also deserves our credit for its sharp analysis of the cultural functions of ghost narratives projected by the living: "it was the living alone, in their tales and their images, their phantasms and their dreams, their feelings of guilt and their greed, who fashioned the return of the dead" (221). I would also whole-heartedly agree with Schmitt that ghost stories which were not limited to the Middle Ages, but continue to enjoy a widespread popularity until today, reflect the same human mentality and spiritual, intellectual condition of people in all times. Obviously, as the author correctly observes, the collective imagination involving ghosts in medieval times was quite similar to that of the twentieth century.