Kathleen M. Kent

University of New Hampshire, Manchester

History and English


Mentor: William R. Jones - Professor of History

On Angels: Theological Discourse and Popular Belief in the Middle Ages

Medieval life was lived in a state of constant awareness of other, non-material realms and entities. The very air teemed with invisible spirits capable of both interacting with and influencing the nature and the actions of humans and of the material world. This was not the deluded belief of an illiterate populace, but was supported by the highest authorities in science, philosophy, and christian theology. The questions which were raised about activities of the supernatural beings were concerned not with whether they did in fact exist, but with how, why, and in what form they acted upon the material world. One central concern was the type of person to whom they would reveal themselves, and for what purpose.

I have focused my study of this more general phenomenon of belief and perception on a specific group of spirits - angels. Angelology was a rational and scientific field of study, and was both informed and limited by popular belief. In return, popular belief was legitimized by the logical proofs offered by the theologians, who drew on the authority of the Bible and of classical tradition, primarily through Plato, Aristotle, and the concept of dualism as presented in Zoroanastrianism and as filtered through the works of Saint Augustine. I have examined primary sources from classical through medieval times in order to understand the pieces of these various traditions which different groups within the population drew upon and took comfort in as far as their belief in angels. In particular, I have focused on the ways in which the organized church sought to standardize and thereby control possible channels of access to the divine hierarchy, and the way in which this control was challenged and threatened by such diverse groups as mystic women and heretical sects. This paper will deal with the points of overlap and of divergence between orthodox and popular belief.

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