Why was it so difficult to decide between true and false visions and apparitions in early modern Europe? Essay

The Catholic encyclopaedia explains the difference between apparitions and visions as apparitions being a vision, is when God produces a plain image to a person that is seen with the eyes, where as an apparition is sent through God through any of the senses, a vision or sagacity that causes external pressures to the viewer1. The debate about true or false visions had been underway throughout the Middle Ages through an ongoing attempt by the Catholic Church to gain control of what people saw. However, the early modern period saw a radical transformation in regards to how visions and apparitions were perceived.

The reformation saw, both the Roman Catholic the Protestant church disagree as to what was a correct vision or apparition and the question the very nature of these revelations were also disputed. Keith Thomas acknowledges that the nature of visions and apparitions distinguished which particular religious view one decided to withhold after the reformation, yet Protestant alterations concerning certain revelations challenge this view2. Keith Thomas suggested that “it may be a relatively frivolous question today to ask whether or not one believes in ghosts, it was in the sixteenth century a shibboleth which istinguished Protestant from Catholic almost as effectively as belief in the Massor the Papal Supremacy. ”

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Yet it was not just catholic and protestant contrasting of views that made he very question of visions and apparitions appear difficult. To append to perplexity, there were scientific claims by natural magicians of visual or sensual revelations being nothing but a trick of the eye. This essay aims to suggests that leading up to the Early modern period in Europe visions and apparitions were already topic for debate yet the reformation added even more reasons to confuse the ong going issue religion, philosophy and science each held its part in making the matter of deciding between true or false visions or apparitions so difficult.

As mentioned, the very nature of visions and apparitions has always been somewhat problematic. In the middle ages, visions and apparitions were characterised by intrusions of encounters by those of the other world, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, sprits, saints or the devil. As Schmitt suggests, Saint Augustine’s perceptions on visions and apparitions became narrative for the Catholic Church in the middle ages.

To Augustine, the supernatural world was subject to constant combating encounters between saints and demons, in this sense, there was bound to be issues concerning the legitimatization of supernatural encounters. As well as this Augustine mentions how false revelations can be explained through insanity4. Particular attention was also paid to influential thinkers such as by Jean Gearson. In his writing Distinctione Verarum a falais(1400) Gearson suggests that for a revelation to be real it must possess five articles; correctness, annunciation, humility, docility and patience.

Gearson also advised that particular attention should be paid towards women who experienced any kind of phenomena. Women, he suggested are naturally unstable and for this matter men should always look into their cases with great caution5. Opinions such as Gerasons’ led to the Roman Catholics enquiring into many other female mystics. In cases such as Bridget of Sweden, some women were acquitted, yet some women were denounced as false, either by sheer deceitfulness or through to lunacy6.

All throughout the middle ages then, there was existent bewilderment in the midst of he public over the whole continuum of the supernatural. However, come the sixteenth and seventeenth century the situation was about to get even more complex and debates regarding the nature of the validity of visions and apparitions were to reach innovative, refined levels. The main dispute that erupted with the reformation was primarily concenred with the idea of purgatory. Purgatory is as a belief that when a person dies, if they deemed not fit enough for heaven yet not dissolute enough for hell they are faced with a gradual consecration process which will sanctify them the purification needed to enter Gods olace in Heaven.

Catholics accept as true that when we die it is unattainable that we die perfect; therefore, we can be given a chance to obtain our sanctification just before we enter Heaven7. The only way we can do this is to ask for the help of the living, as until we have help to be sanctified our lives are not yet complete. The medieval period was regularly occupied with accounts of ghostly figures that appeared to a person of the living need of assistance to be ascended to Heaven. If souls were unstable, ghosts would visit the living for a number of different reasons, hether it be to give out warnings or advice.

For example in the year 1612 in England, a young Catholic woman received a visit from the ghost of a local priest who received money for taking masses, but unfortunately died before he could say them. The visit was simply to ask the woman to rearrange the mass for him. When she completed the task she was said to have watched the priest form into a child whilst entering a challis which transmitted him to heaven to rest8. The protestant faith however, viewed purgatory as one of the Roman Churches most obsolete traditions.

Leading an attack on any traditional catholic beliefs, Protestants helped to place Europe into a visually paradox state when it came to visions and apparitions. In 1569 Ludwig Lavater, in Von Gespaenstern, agreed that yes there maybe true sightings of apparitions but they are not what they seem. Instead of them being troubled souls visiting from another world, he claimed they were “priests or other bold men” claiming to be spirits but actually forgeries from the Catholic Church sent to trick people into accepting the force claims of Rome9. Therefore Spirits by no eans could be confirmed to be true apparitions as they were actually false, invented in order to encourage beliefs such as saints and pilgrimages being means of affecting life in the hereafter10.

The protestant church, by contrast, stressed that the matter of what happened to us when we died was dictated by our actions on earth, we did not get any second chances. As well as the problem of the Protestants attack on the Roman Catholic Church concerning force hopes of purgatory, the dilemma of distinguishing true and false visions continued with even more attack and claims from the Protestant church as to easons why purgatory does not exist. As we have gathered from the young Catholic woman from England’s apparition of the priest in 1612, with the reformation there were still many reports of individuals communicating with the dead. The Catholic Church gallantly refused to give up the doctrine of purgatory. Martin Del Rio hit back at Lavater’s claim by declaring it was “consistent with the tenets both of the Catholic faith and of genuine philosophy” to teach that the souls of the dead can appear to the living. ”

Historian Keith Thomas, suggests that “although men went on seeing hosts after the Reformation, they were assiduously taught not to take them at their face value. 12” Indeed, as there were also other explanations regarding the validity of apparitions being thrown around, Protestants claimed that apparitions may certainly be real, but false in perception. Lavater explained that ghosts did not derive from spirits of the dead, but could be explained as “either a good or evill angell, or someother forth warning sent by God. 13” Lavater goes on to give details “it is no difficult matter for the devil to appeare in diuers shapes, not only of those which are live but also of deade men… and in the forme of beats and birds and… also to bring incredible things to passi??. ”

As we have seen, the view that the devil could initiate himself into a vision or an apparition was one that had been around for many years. Yet Protestants, through propaganda writings raised their confessional attack by explaining that those without proper religious order were most susceptible to be played by the devil. This type of discourse is most apparent in the work of Jean Wier in his work Cinq Livres de l’Imposture et Tromperie des Diables: Des Enchantements t Sorcelleries(1569). In his writing, Wier also points to other reasons that led to difficulty in deciding between true and false apparitions. For example he suggests that not only “those who mistrust the Lord” are prone to devil dissolutions but also “the malicious, those who are curious about illicit things, those who are poorly instructed in the Christian religion, the envious, the malfaiteurs, the elderly who have almost lost their mental faculties, and all manner of women.

” The debate then was somewhat confused further as Weir pointed out that not only can reasons such as deceitful priest nd devil intrusion explain visions and apparitions but explanations such as overactive imaginations and primarily those suffering from melancholy played a part too. He goes on to point out that “Apparitions oftentimes appear to little children, to women, to the fearful, to the delicate, and to the sick who are incessantly tormented and persecuted by fear. “16 Subsequently, what we can gather is that in order to prove that visions and apparitions were not the product of signs from the dead, protagonists were using methods similar to what the Catholic church had adopted many years revious, to distinguish between true and false illusions.

Psychological reasoning was adapted as early as the days of St Augustine, therefore it was clear that both the confessional and the protestant church were both sharing certain views to add even more confusion to the matter of true or false apparitions. Some scholars argue that the ghost in Hamlet represents somebody speaking from purgatory, although it is never actually made clear. Lily Campbell argues, “Shakespeare chose rather to throw out suggestions which might satisfy those members of his audience who followed any one of the three schools of hought on the subject. ” Written in around 1601 it would have been likely that Shakespeare would not have anted to get caught into theological debate, therefore leaving the question unknown would have been a great advantage.

Yet to add to more difficulty in deciding between true or false visions in early modern Europe a further attack from another direction appeared one that disputed religion in any sense. In early modern Europe, there was a rise in the beliefs of some natural philolosophers, those who denied the existence of souls and spirits alike. The actual eality of visions altogether began to be questioned. Pietro Pompanazzi in his first book immortalitate animi (On the Immortality of the Soul) (1516), described a whole new way of dealing with the visions and senses alike. He wondered about apparitions and asked if Gods face is there, then surely you can see it. It is not naturally possible to sense a face as surely that would be a vision. Pompanazzi goes on to dismiss any sort of ghost or spirit and claims that in all cases the classic example of imagination that can deceive the eyes to explain any kind of revelation.

Subsequently, the Catholic Church, naturally angry at the article, called for it to be burned in Venice. 18 A century Later, Vanini offered his accounts of the debate offering a new example into what can be mistaken for an apparition or vision. In his chapter Deadmiranid naturae deaeque mortalium arcanis libri quatuor, atheist Vanini echoed most of Pompanazzi’s work controversially stating, “There is only one law of nature, for nature is God. 19” Vanini, again uses examples of the imagination to describe how visions and apparitions are seen such as vapours produced in places like graveyards can be interpreted by humans s something reserved in the memory.

As well as this, he also takes the opportunity to explain how vapours could be used as mirrors. It was not uncommon that apparitional armies that have been reported to have been seen in the sky, Vanini, using this example explained how condensation and vapours could act as mirrors and what was actually happening was people were seeing a reflection of a real army fighting on the ground. Vanini, due to his ostracized thesis was executed in 1619. Vanini and numerous other materialists of the time, suggested that priests exploit a natural human ear, which convinced people into believing that apparitions and visions were real20. This is also the case with Philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes suggested, “that is in fear of ghosts, will not bear great respect to those who can make the holy water that drives them from him. 21” Deciding between true and false vision or apparitions became yet harder to determine as now it was being taught that no religious view is correct, and that unbelievably both the Catholic and the Protestants with their teachings of demonology and other apparitional thought were gaining power through peoples ignorance.

Against the theological, supernatural and natural debates, again another explanation into visions and apparitions came into the equation. Early modern Europe began to witness a rise in scientific revolutions; man made optical illusions were now being used to explain apparitional occurrence. In an era of the unknown, it was becoming clearer that optical devices could create imprecise apparitions. Cornelis Drebbel, for example was notorious for his inventions, in particular a microscope with two convex lenses in 1619, was also known to invent something similar to that of the magic lantern.

In a letter in 1606, Drebbel described how he was able to appear as an animal such as a lion, horse or cow and change the appearance of his clothes whilst standing in the middle of the room. Just to what extent of uncertainty people were now faced with can be seen in the case of Drebbels’ good friend and colleague, Constantijn Huygens’ father. Huygens father, not happy about his sons relationship with Drebbel, warned his son that Drebbles magic may very well come from the devil, demonstrating that there were many agendas faced with whilst looking into true or false apparitions.

By the late 1700’s the art of necromancy was in full swing with the rise of the magic lantern. Its fist appearance was in 1659 and throughout the eighteenth century it was being used as an instrument to present magic manifestoes, set in a dark room projecting spectres usually in the form of ghosts or the devil. In 1798, Belgian showman Etienne Gaspard Robertson, presented the magic lantern together with special effects at a show called the Phantasmagoria. At first it was reported that the optical illusions scared watchers so much that some were reported to have run out of the show screaming.

The magic lantern shows are just another example of anxieties that people in early modern Europe were faced with. No longer was it just religious issues that made a premonition suspicious, but human science had also pushed itself into the equation. During the Middle Ages, society was not advanced enough but to look to the church for explanations regarding the questions of visions and apparitions. With the reformation and the breaking away of the conventional church arguments began as to what qualifies to actually be classed as reality.

This then paved the way for atheists nd sceptics to state their view on what they thought was possible. All this added to much confusion and in the case of visions and apparitions, there were so many explanations flying around it was understandably difficult to decide between what was real and what was false. On top of this, the advances in technology assured that even more confusion was to be added to the matter as with equipment such as the magic lantern, showmen were playing with peoples fears and casting devils and spirits from the ground-the very things that had led to the publics confusion n the first place.