EXC 2060 C3-20 - Belohnungen, Prüfungen und Strafen Gottes. Religiöse Kategorien der Welt- und Geschichtsdeutung im frühen Mittelalter

Research Portal
in Process
Funding Source
DFG - Cluster of Excellence
Project Number
EXC 2060/1
  • Description

    Medieval people believed that God and his saints took an active part in human life and even in conflicts by supporting the good and punishing the bad. Or should I be more cautious and say: medieval clerics believed this, and not medieval people, because we see the Middle Ages mostly through the lenses of clerics. In any case, many sources of different types bear witness to this belief by interpreting events as rewards or punishments by God or a saint. It is superfluous to give the learned audience gathered here examples. And it is even not necessary to lose time by explaining that modern people have lost their trust in this reading and knowledge of the world. Medieval people even seem to have been sure that they could influence such activities of transcendent powers by their own deeds and activities: by a pious life, prayers and good deeds, donations and charitable institutions in one direction; by sins and evil doing in the other. And all the things I‘ve said till now seem to be the ruling opinion among modern medievalists. This supposed mindset of medieval clerics and people had an enormous impact on all notions of events which could be read as witnessing activities of God and his saints in wordly affairs, especially lost battles, cases of sudden death or cases of people dying young, illnesses or epidemic diseases, crop failure and many other misfortunes. Following such events people were accustomed to ask for reasons why God had sent these punishments and seemed to be repeating the old plagues of the Egyptians: a much-quoted example for this belief, and not only in medieval times. Conflicts played a special role in this manner of thinking, because according to common ideas, God's order was a peaceful and harmonious one. Conflicts were signs of God's aversion and anger, which left the devil space to incite conflicts. This belief created an especially sensible situation when conflicts lasted for a long time or were re-opened again and again--or above all, when they brought defeats and catastrophes to one side. If we follow my present argument, in these cases blame had to be attributed to those in power, because they could be identified as the cause of such calamities. But was this really the case? Have we enough evidence that ruling elites, especially kings, were held responsible for defeats, catastrophes and disasters on the grounds that their sins or misdeeds had caused God's punishment? Did they run the risk of losing their office because they obviously had lost God's support? At first glance it seems easy to present examples for such an argument, but if one looks closer, there come some doubts as to whether such a hypothesis is nuanced enough. It seems necessary to distinguish the cases in which opponents or enemies are put in the wrong by the argument that their defeat, loss, misfortune, damage or death was the result of God's intervention. These cases have to be separated from those in which a party accused their own leaders or rulers of having been been punished by God for their sins or misdeeds. If one realises and bears in mind this difference, it becomes visible and significant how seldom authors criticize their own lords and kings or other people they are connected with by noting events that witness God's displeasure in respect of these persons. There is no doubt that such arguments were used extensively when one's enemies or the leaders of another political party could be attacked in that way. In these cases the argument became a weapon, to undermine their position. On the other hand, people seem not have used these arguments against their own lords, despite the fact that clerics had a strong obligation to admonish and warn even their lords to fulfill God's commmandments. This observation allows us to differentiate between a religious and a political argument and to ascribe most cases to political argumentation. In other words: The many notions of God's punishing or rewarding activities in the world serve a main goal: to support one's own party or position, or to weaken the position of opponents. It is much less often used to criticize the behavior of people's own lords and kings or to bring them back to the right path. If this impression is right, it calls into question the independent role of clerics as inconvenient admonishers and observers of the mighty- clerics like to use the word „speculator" to describe their own duty - and with it, a strong conviction amoung German medievalists.
  • Persons