Gode Cookery Presents
Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages


Visions of angels, of dead saints, of departing souls, and of the Other World were numerous in the Middle Ages. Angels mande revelations to saints, talked with them, aided them in danger; they were seen by them in conflict with demons. People saw one or many angels standing by holy men at their devotions. The Venerable Bede says of St. Cuthbert that he was often allowed to see and converse with angels, and when hungry was refreshed by food prepared by the Lord. St. Columbia was said to have received many "sweet angel visits," when sleepless or in solitude.

Detail of wall painting in the church of S. Angelo in Formis,
late 11th or early 12th century

Visions of the soul leaving the body - as a dove, for example - or of the soul being carried to Paradise by angels were very common. On the death of St. Martin, chanting voices were heard in the air, those of angels carrying his soul to Paradise. Similarly, demons were often seen carrying off souls of the departed to Hell.

Angels were believed to carry the soul to Paradise, or demons to transport it to punishment, or angels and demons to dispute for it, according to its state - ideas borrowed from Judaism. Hence there are many stories of angels or demons seen by the dying or their watchers, or of appearances of the Saviour, the Virgin, saints, and martyrs to them. Pope Gregory cites many of these, and says that when the vision is that of angels or the blessed the room is filled with light and sweet fragrance, and the music of Heaven is heard. When sinners die the visions are terrifying. Demons, as black men, crows, or vultures, with cruel faces and breathing fire, crowd round and insult the dying. Or a dragon twines itself round the body, with mouth thrust into mouth to draw out the breath. A lad who had refused to be a monk was thus attacked. The monks bade him make the sign of the Cross, but he could not. Then they prayed for him and the dragon fled. The lad lived to be an exemplary monk. Severus, a priest, was sent for by a dying man to intercede for him. He was pruning his vines and said that he would come presently. Before he arrived the man died. Soon after he returned to life, and said that cruel men, breathing fire, met him and led him through dark places, when a beautiful youth, with others like him, came and carried him back, for Severus was lamenting his death, and, for his tears, the Lord had granted him longer life. He now did penance and died cheerfully eight days later. With such edifying stories as these were medieval folk bidden to prepare for death.

Angels carrying the soul of St. Bertin to heaven.
From an altarpiece by Simon Marmion, 1480.

In early Christian art and literature the soul was represented as a worshipper, or as a virgin in bright robes, sometimes seen as leaving the body of  a martyr. From early times it was also seen as a winged Psyche, a pygmy, or a little naked child, as in classical art. Angels were also depicted carrying such tiny figures in a veil or shroud to Paradise, or Abraham holds them in his bosom and within his robe. In the West, from the twelfth century and in earlier loves of saints, angels carry souls to Heaven, though it is not said that they are pygmies. Such tiny figures were represented as leaving the body of the dying by the mouth - an idea of escape known also in ancient times - and taken by demons or angels. But, according to Irenaeus and Augustine, souls have the same form as the body - so that may be known, adds Irenaeus. The soul tormented in the material flames of Purgatory or Hell must have been believed to have some corporeal qualities. This was, indeed, a general opinion, and even in Dante's poem incorporeal souls have taken the form of bodies and are subject to pain.

While the stories and art of the medieval period generally represent the soul in some of these forms, there are occasional descriptions of a different kind. Caesarius of Heisterbach, who depicts the soul as having bodily form, or as a beautiful boy, gives other accounts of it in his book. Thus he says that the soul was declared by Master Rudolph of Cologne to be like a spherical glass vessel, with eyes before and behind. He also speaks of a female visionary who declared the soul freed from the body to be a spiritual substance, spherical, in likeness to a lunar globe, adding that it could see in every part. Nevertheless, when an angel or a soul appears to men it has corporeal lineaments. A distinction is thus drawn between visionary and actual appearances. Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) also reports a vision, seen by Ailric, who dwelt with St. Godric near Carlisle. At Ailric's death Godric saw his soul as a kind of spherical body like a hot and burning wind, which shone like most transparent glass in the midst of an incomparable whiteness.

Excerpts from: Medieval Faith and Fable by J.A. MacCulloch. Boston: Marshall Jones Company Publishers, 1932.


© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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