Jessica Barr – Creative Imagination and Didactic Intent in Medieval Visions of the Other World: A Response to Fritz Kemmler

Creative Imagination and Didactic Intent in Medieval Visions of the Other World: A Response to Fritz Kemmler

Jessica Barr

Published in Connotations Vol. 20.1 (2010/11)

In "Painful Restoration: Transformations of Life and Death in Medieval Visions of the Other World," Fritz Kemmler argues that we must revise some of our concepts of life and death if we are to properly understand medieval vision texts. He writes that medieval Christian writers had a "concept of a double life—the life of the body and the life of the soul; and consequently [the concept of] a double death—the death of the body and the death of the soul" (130), meaning that the life and death of the soul depend on the life and death of the body (129). These distinctive concepts of life and death are apparent in the need for the visionary's body to undergo a "temporary death" in order for his soul to explore otherworldly regions (130)—including Hell, the portrayal of which Kemmler primarily is interested in. Using three early medieval English vision texts,1) Kemmler explores portrayals of the torments and judgments of sinning souls, noting that these vividly imaginative descriptions significantly predate Dante's Divine Comedy (141).

Kemmler's article concisely describes some of the principal characteristics of the eschatological vision text. Indeed, many of the features that he points out are apparent in other subcategories of vision literature, including texts by or about medieval visionary women. First, the temporary death of the body that the visionary must undergo cannot [→page 2] help but remind one of the partial paralysis that preceded the fourteenth−century Julian of Norwich's revelations, and illnesses and semi−conscious states are common in other women's vision texts, as well. Another parallel is the infliction of marks and wounds upon the visionary's body, such as the burn that remains on the face of Saint Fursey, whose biography by Bede Kemmler discusses. The burn acts as proof of Fursey's journey to the Other World (Kemmler 133) and is reminiscent of the embodied spiritual practice that many visionary women are said by their hagiographers to have experienced. Kemmler sees the marks upon Fursey as evidence of Bede's fear that the testimony of the visionary alone would be insufficient to prove the veracity of his spiritual experience (133); similarly, such details are frequently marshaled in the lives of holy women as evidence of sanctity and seem to have been commonly employed in the discourse of women's holiness.2) Finally, Kemmler's remarks on the intended effect of these texts upon their audiences correctly underscore the importance of the outcome of the vision text: it is not enough simply to record someone else's experience; the audience itself must increase in its devotion and commitment to a holy way of life for the text to be considered a success.3)

Kemmler's discussion of the presumably imaginative touches that the authors of the vision texts contribute to their descriptions of Hell focuses on how they would have added to their audiences' desire to live holier lives. Indeed, he concludes his discussion by stressing that the "primary goal" of the vision text is "to convince [its] audience of the desirability and necessity of having their souls restored from a most cruel and horrible death by leading a pious life in the flesh" (140). While this is certainly true, such descriptions must have also engaged and even entertained their audiences. The very vivid and amusing descriptions of Hell that precede Kemmler's remark immediately raised, for me, the question, "What about the pleasure of these texts?" I would doubt very much that in Kemmler's view pleasure is precluded from the effects of these visions; in fact, he stresses the imaginative element of such texts, stating that they allow their authors [→page 2] to utilize their "creative imagination" (140). But Kemmler ultimately steers his argument in a different direction. Without contradicting his arguments, which are quite sound, it may be instructive to consider the other purposes that a vision text might serve—the unstated, yet very likely present, desire to capture the audience's imagination with a memorable story, a story that exceeds and may even subvert the instructive purpose to which it is being put. Drawing from the characteristics of the eschatological vision text that Kemmler describes, I aim to consider this tension between didactic intent and entertaining effect.

Unlike Kemmler, however, I will not focus on a purportedly true vision of Hell. Instead, I will write about the comic Apocalypse of Golias the Bishop, a vision poem written in Latin, probably in England, in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Pairing a satirical vision text that nonetheless has a definite moral purpose with the eschatological visions that Kemmler describes, I will argue for not only the possibility of play within the genre of the otherworldly vision, but that such play may serve instructive and even subversive purposes. As a genre, visions of Purgatory and Hell are rife with opportunities for titillation, shock, and humor, i.e. for emotional responses that do not necessarily coincide with the texts' didactic aims. Golias makes a particularly fitting contrast with the visions of Fursey, Thurkill, and Owein because it reverses many of the characteristics that Kemmler describes, in effect using those characteristics to create a harshly critical indictment of the clerical orders. Golias's use of these characteristics sheds light both on the eschatological tradition as a whole and on the extra−didactic effects to which descriptions of sin and torment might be put—on, in other words, the pleasure of the visionary text.

One common feature of satire is that it entertains while making a serious point, and in this poem—written at around the same time as the visions of Thurkill and Owein, both of which are treated in "Painful Restoration"—we can easily trace the connections between humorous effect and didactic intent. Like Bede's vision of Fursey, the brevity of which suggests the centrality of its didactic aim (Fursey's [→page 3] encounter with the devil seems to serve primarily as evidence that each of our sins will remain with us), The Apocalypse of Golias aims to instruct, but in a rather different way. Instead of exhorting its audience to live a holier life, Golias is concerned to enumerate the sins of the clergy at every level, including the Pope (called Voracius), bishops, archdeacons, parish priests, abbots, and monks. Presented as a vision of the book of the seven seals, the poem provides allegorical critiques of these men's frankly outrageous sins. Golias's reading of the book of the seven seals is divinely guided: not only does the Angel who initially appears to him instruct him to read, but the seals on the later chapters are broken by—to give but three examples—a hand that descends from heaven (st. 55), a majestic woman in the sky (st. 73), and a band of clamoring Ethiopians (sts. 84−85). Finally, upon the culmination of the seventh chapter, Golias is led physically into Heaven for a vision of divine judgment—but, owing to a mishap for which he is entirely responsible, he forgets this culminating vision and can only recall the sins of the clergy, which the Angel had earlier inscribed physically into his brain. It is a scathing and very funny text, playing with words (suggesting, for example, that "Presbyter" comes from "bibo" [I drink] and "ter" [triply] in order to explain the priests' excessive drinking [st. 67]), relishing its bawdiness (such as in the example of the "cheerful prostitute" who offers herself up for the priest to "plow" [st. 70]), and revealing the visionary himself to be careless, flawed, and rather glib. A social critique on the one hand, it is also shocking and hilarious in its excesses.

Although the poem is not actually a vision of Hell, it is a revelation, and it echoes many of the characteristics of the eschatological vision text. Thus it begins as an apparently straightforward vision, employing one of the most common tropes of the vision genre, one that Kemmler pinpoints as essential to the visions that he discusses: the visionary must undergo a sort of temporary death in order to receive his revelation. Golias has lain down to rest, "stretched out in the shade" of a tree to escape the mid−day heat, when the vision overtakes him (st. 2). This ambiguous state—neither explicitly sleeping nor [→page 4] waking—is reminiscent of literary visions such as Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. It also echoes Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 12:2; in fact, Golias alludes to the Biblical text when he says that he "do[es] not know" whether the revelation was "in flesh" (st. 3). While this state that could be sleeping or waking is not as surely a flight from the body as is the departure of Thurkill's soul from his sleeping body ("Thurkill's Vision" 220), it nonetheless suggests the separation between the body and the soul that is typical of visionary experiences.

In its usage of the other characteristics that Kemmler describes, however, the poem is more playful, subtly reworking them. Golias is grounded in the eschatological tradition, despite its close parallels with Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and Revelations and its references to ancient philosophers and poets4); in addition to echoing many eschatological tropes, the outlandishly sinful behavior of the clergy that it describes is reminiscent of the devils tormenting suffering souls in visions such as those discussed in "Painful Restoration." In this respect, visions of Heaven and Hell furnish the anonymous author of Golias with a literary and theological context for his work. The difference is that, instead of calling for the audience to recognize their own sins, Golias constitutes a direct attack upon a specific group—the clergy. And in order to make this attack, the poem inverts the order of things as they usually appear in Hell: the sins of the clergy are rendered, not as torments inflicted by devils upon the sinful, but as the sinners' cruelty to the (presumably) more innocent.

Such a reversal can be seen, for example, in the Bishop's treatment of his flock, here rendered literally as a flock of sheep. The Bishop's own crimes lead him to torture his followers:

The Bishop likes to make his sheep his prey; He stabs them with the horns that crown his head. […]
If he finds some faults among his lambs, If any lapse of faith should greet his eye, He shears them with the scissors of the law, And wrings their udders (that is, purses) dry. […]
[→page 6] But once the lambs are fleeced, the Shepherd leaves The bloody carcass to the wolf and crow. (Sts. 33, 35, 36)5)

The Bishop's exaggerated violence, his bestial appearance—he is represented allegorically as an ox (st. 27)—and the suggestion that these treatments occur not just once but as ongoing torment align his actions with the punitive measures exacted by the devils upon the souls of the sinful dead. They are, in fact, not so different from the brutally violent dismemberment, burning, and cooking of flesh that the devils ritually enact upon sinners in the "Vision of Thurkill." But unlike in "Thurkill," in Golias the crimes of the tormented are never enumerated. The Bishop punishes them for "lapse[s] of faith" that may or may not be real, and the punishment that he inflicts—emptying their purses—is not commensurate to that sin; in fact, we are invited to imagine that he invents such lapses in order to extort more money from his flock. The implication, of course, is that the clergy torment the living in much the same way that devils torment the dead. This is an eschatology turned on its head, in which the guilty punish the relatively innocent prior to their death and without any legitimate judgment.

In another echo of the texts that Kemmler describes, Golias also comes away from his vision with a sort of bodily mark. While Fursey bears a scar on his face from the burning man who was flung against him during his vision (Bede 175; Kemmler 133), Golias emerges with an internal scar: the inscription of the clergy's vices upon his brain (sts. 103−04).6) The "wound" here is a wound of knowledge; he remembers these experiences—he can't help but do so—and their inscription upon his brain is a physical sign of what he has undergone. Although his mark might be invisible to others, reading Golias in light of the eschatological vision tradition suggests that knowledge of the clergy's sin is itself a kind of injury. The similarity works the other way, too: Fursey's scar serves as a reminder of what he has seen and, importantly, done; it is the inscription of his prior sin upon his flesh. In like manner, Golias's "wound" is a reminder of sin—with the difference that it is a reminder of the sin of others, not his own. The [→page 7] eschatological tropes that Kemmler describes are inverted in Golias, just as the purpose of the vision text (to recall the sinner to Christ and the Church) is replaced with criticism of the Church itself.7) Accordingly, while the ostensibly true vision of Heaven or Hell and its textual communication are intended to "convince [its] audience of the desirability and necessity of having their souls restored from a most cruel and horrible death by leading a pious life in the flesh" (Kemmler 140), The Apocalypse of Golias cannot be said to have quite the same effect on its readers. Golias's own sins are never discussed (although they may be inferred from his feeling hungry during the vision of heavenly judgment), and only the sins of the clergy are made apparent. The reader can hardly come away from this poem with a renewed sense of spiritual fervor; instead, the more appropriate response seems to be either outrage or amusement at the antics of the bishops, priests, and monks caricatured in the vision. Further, Golias's omission of the vision of Heaven creates the impression that the heavenly realm offers no particular consolations. Kemmler's remark that "the description of the forecourts of heaven" contained in the Visio Thurkilli is "somewhat bland" compared to its depiction of Hell (140) takes on added significance in Golias, where Heaven itself is literally forgettable and the rampant sinning of the clergy is given ample elaboration.

The Apocalypse of Golias is not, therefore, a text that prompts reflection or contemplation of one's own sins; it is not a call to lead a holier life. It is, instead, an invitation to critique and laugh at representatives of spiritual authority. Like Revelations itself, it underscores the failings of this world's authorities—even ecclesiastical authorities—and gestures towards the punishment that awaits them. In this sense, it follows in a tradition of critical apocalyptic texts designed to indicate the fallen state of human society. But the humor of the text arises from its parody of the conventions of eschatological visions—from the audience's recognition of the genre and the author's reversal of its usual intent. To heighten this sense of reversal, the poem uses an overblown rhetoric of revelation quite incommensurate with the absurd veniality that the vision itself depicts; for example, "the heavens [→page 8] opened to reveal ⁄ A noble woman dressed in rich array. […] At her command the next seal fell away" (st. 73). Such apocalyptic breakings of the seals lend a peculiar gravity to the revelations of a parson's usury (st. 79) or an abbot's bad influence upon his monks (st. 86). The sins of the clergy are grave; the question is whether they are made graver or more ridiculous when framed by the heightened rhetoric of the apocalyptic genre. Similar to the 'antipathetic codes' that Roland Barthes identifies as one of the pleasures of reading Sade's works (Barthes, Plaisir 14), such collisions of loftiness and veniality startle and shock the reader, bringing her into a conflicted engagement with the poem.8)

At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that The Apocalypse of Golias the Bishop provides an example of a vision text whose excesses and extravagant descriptions of wickedness function primarily to amuse, and that this use of humor could help us to understand the entertainment value of the visions that Kemmler discusses in his article. At the same time, however, considering the ways in which the satirical poem manipulates those characteristics exposes the serious side of Golias—its didactic intent and sharply critical commentary. But the humorous quality of the text—the way that it invites us to make fun of figures of authority who wield considerable power, the way that it puts them in their place and robs them of all pretence to virtue—is pleasurable, is humorous, with a humor that may be equally applicable to the antics of the devils in (non−satirical) visions of Hell. In the same way that Golias lets us laugh at the clergy, deflecting attention from our own sinfulness by poking fun at people who are even worse, Fursey's, Owein's, and Thurkill's visions invite the audience to be entertained and distracted by the wild capering of the devils—even as the latter texts imply that the same frankly appalling punishments await us if we do not mend our ways. These two aims are, in a sense, incompatible—and yet perhaps that very tension, that incompatibility, is what makes these texts salient and enjoyable. Writes Barthes, "the [reading] subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working [→page 9] side by side"9): at once biting and absurd, at once earnest exhortation and silly game, the vision both educates and amuses.

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Eureka, IL

Works Cited

Adams, Gwenfair Walters. Visions in Late Medieval England: Lay Spirituality and Sacred Glimpses of the Hidden Worlds of Faith. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

The Apocalypse of Golias. Trans. F. X. Newman. The Literature of Medieval England. Ed. D. W. Robertson, Jr. New York: McGraw−Hill, 1970. 253−61.

Die Apokalypse des Golias. Ed. Karl Strecker. Leipzig: W. Regenberg, 1928.

Barthes, Roland. Le Plaisir du texte. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973.

–––. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Leo Shirley−Price. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Bradley, Ritamary. “Beatrice of Nazareth (c. 1200−1268): A Search for her True Spirituality.” Vox Mystica: Essays on Medieval Mysticism in Honor of Professor [11] Valerie M. Lagorio. Ed. Anne Clark Bartlett, Thomas H. Bestul, Janet Goebel, and William F. Pollard. Cambridge, MA: D. S. Brewer, 1995. 57−74.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Head, Thomas. Introduction. Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. Ed. Head. New York: Routledge, 2001. xiii−xxxviii.

“St. Patrick’s Purgatory.” Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante. Ed. Eileen Gardiner. New York: Italica P, 1989. 135−48.

“Thurkill’s Vision.” Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante. Ed. Eileen Gardiner. New York: Italica P, 1989. 219−36.