John Parsons writes:

>Again, a quite sensible idea. But it does make me wonder about later German
>convents--Helfta, obviously--in which numbers of nuns experienced visions

May I once again express discomfort with the tendency to medicalize?  I write about miracle stories, and find myself often fighting an uphill battle against those who want to try to diagnose symptoms.  Miracle stories seem to me to relate what are better thought of as cultural practices that carry enormous symbolic weight, perform social and religious functions (although they do much more - lest I be accused of functionalism), and tend to reproduce themselves over time.  (I.e., where some people are doing it, other are likely to pick it up and do it some more.)  I am convinced that visionary practices are like this.  They are culturally sanctioned and validated, they carry a certain authority (though not indisputed).  They are instantiated as literary practices (visionary texts) but not reducible to those texts (something I fear I implied in my last posting on this).  They are a sort of common language - all the speakers knew the rules, but could bend them creatively, though not too creatively as Jeanne d'Arc and Marguerite Porete learned [wasn't it Porete who was burned?  I'm too lazy to look it up . . . ].  To chalk them up to disease is too reductionistic, though migraines, ergotism, etc. may well have been one ingredient, on occasion.  It also imposes a twentieth-century construction of "disease" upon a culture who drew that boundary very differently.

I keep coming back to McGinn's remark that H's visions  nonetheless have a "quasi-physical" character (an evasive term, but properly so given the context of his remark).  If it is true that medieval Europeans constructed (construed?)  things like "illness" differently than we do, it is also likely that they construed (constructed?) bodily experience differently. You and I, for instance, probably ignore our daydreams, and lend a different weight to our night-dreams, than did our medieval forbears; what we attribute to the spontaneous activity of the mind, they in fact attributed also to divine or demonic intrusions.  Further, if your reading (and liistening) material is heavily scriptural, and your approach to it is entirely pre-critical, and you are surrounded by art work that looks like it came out of a vision, and if you are engaged in frequent contemplative or meditative practice on top of it, and your mind is not polluted by movies and television, then you have all the ingredients for really great visions, it seems to me.  If you have nightmares about the Wizard of Oz after just watching it (as I did last week), it's probably because you watched the Wizard of Oz.  If you have visions of the Blessed Virgin, it may be because you've been looking at pictures of her, hearing stories about her, thinking about her, praying to her.

Some people might well have a greater capacity for them (as indeed today some people have vivid, fascinating dreams, and others do not) or greater interest in them.  Certain bodily experiences would no doubt be drawn into the mix: there is no Latin word for "head rush," so far as I know, yet I refuse to believe medieval nuns didn't have them after long hours of sitting in choir.  (I get them myself after about forty-five minutes in the silent Quaker Meeting, and often need to shake my head to clear it, or hold on to the bench in front of me to avoid losing my balance, even while sitting.)  Most of us have probably experienced alterations of vision as our pupils adjust, or our mind begins to wander as we get sleepy around 2 in the afternoon, sitting in front of a computer screen or a bored faculty committee.  And most of us have probably had the kind of daydreams or waking fantasies in which we are pretty much in control of the proceedings.  Again, change a few basic assumptions, and the material is here for some pretty amazing "visions." 

To put a cap on the point, I brush up against rural Midwestern Protestantism a good deal where I am, and there are circles in which visions are fairly common - and are proposed and contested as claims to authority just as much as they were in the "middle ages".  Then, too, even in circles of sophisticated, urbane folk one encounters people who talk of having had visions (they may use somewhat different language, but visions is what they mean) - folks you wouldn't expect to go in for that sort of thing - though the three people I"m thinking of treat them, as we good liberals tend to do with religious experience, as "private" or "personal" events rather than as validating claims to authority.

All of this is to say that I don't think we need ergotism or migraines or even theories about delusions (though nobody's proposed that here) to understand the visions of medieval nuns, even if those events sometimes enter in.  And I think it is only in the rarest of circumstances (I haven't seen any yet) that we can mount a persuasive argument that such things are the determining factors.

Patrick J. Nugent
Department of Religion
Earlham College
Richmond, Indiana 47374 USA

(765) 983-1413
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