Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Medieval and Modern: the Afterlife

This is interesting: from a festschrift for Aron Gurevich:

There’s something important here, I suspect. It piqued my interest, thinking as I am at the moment about the development of Fantasy, the lineaments of what is very often a medievalised logic, or modernity’s-version-of-medievalism. I poked around a little, looking through a few medieval visions of the afterlife. But only a few: there are loads, and a proper study would take a long time. Reviewing Gurevich’s 1988 Medieval Popular Culture in the LRB, Tom Shippey notes that the dedicated scholar really needs to read, in addition to the usual sources, ‘saints’ lives, miracle collections, penitentials, and visions of the after-life like that communicated by the Essex peasant Thurkill to his parish priest’.

Nonsense seems a harsh judgement, howsoever modified by extraordinary. Some of this makes perfect sense to me.

Indeed, I wonder if there is quite such a disparity between medieval and modern visions of the afterlife as Gurevich suggests. Moody’s work hardly involved a representative sample of the global population, after all; and there are surely plenty of visions of heavenly bliss in medieval literature (though not, I’m compelled to agree, in actual visiones of postmortem existence). If we want to argue for a medieval hell-bias, or a modern heaven-bias, then the common sense explanation would be that life in the middle ages was just much harder, less forgiving, nastily brutish and short. This is, more or less, the explanation Gurevich himself offers:

Then again, as-it-were ‘literal’ accounts of the afterlife are only ever going to be part of the picture. Magic, in the strong, medieval sense (in, that is, the religious sense: as referent to that part of human existence that cannot be rationally or materialistically explained away) has mostly been banished, in modern culture, to certain types of culture text such as Fantasy. Which is to say: such texts operate as a kind of cultural subconscious articulating widespread human anxieties and aspirations for, amongst other things, survival after death. And as far as that goes, Tolkien’s ‘white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise’ has largely been supplanted in the general imaginary by something more grimdark, GRRMish, and altogether medieval-hellish. Which runs, we might say, in the opposite direction to the point Gurevich is making. It strikes me as interesting.



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