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Middle aged heaven

18 November 2003

Whether we believe heaven to exist or not, Dr Ad Putter, Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies in the English Department, spends his time researching it.

If you ever wish to find out more about heaven – would like to know, say, what colour of shoes is in fashion there, whether people there have bodies, and if so, what they do (and don’t do) with these bodies – I can recommend to you the literature and art of the Middle Ages. In this period, the reality of heaven was never in serious doubt. Medieval representations of the cosmos duly map heaven beyond the spheres of the planets and the fixed stars. In numerous medieval maps of the world, the earthly paradise is given an exact location (in the Far East).

Do celestial beings have bodies or not?

Alexander the Great was famously believed to have knocked on the very gates of paradise, and to have been refused entry by an angel who curtly reminded him he was only a mortal. Medieval minds turned readily to the Otherworld, because it mattered more than life itself that people got to heaven or at least to purgatory. Not surprisingly, then, the precise conditions of life after death were the focus of intense speculation and sometimes controversy. One such controversy raged over the question I raised earlier: do celestial beings have bodies or not? On the authority of St Paul, who had spoken unambiguously of ‘celestial bodies’ (I Corinthians, xv), the view that we would be pure spirits in heaven was eventually declared anathema, though it would have simplified the work of medieval theologians if things had gone the other way. Bodies bring with them all manner of complications: eventually their age had to be decided on (all early thirties – the perfect age), and likewise their sex (we shall be male or female as we are now, though sex in the other sense will interest us no more) and their physical condition perfected, regardless of any disfigurement of our terrestrial body.

In its scrupulous attention to detail, and the coherence of the logic that determines each detail, heaven is one of the most impressive medieval ‘cathedrals of the mind’. And as with real cathedrals, the architecture of this mental construct changed with the passing of time. Corresponding roughly with the transition from Romanesque to Gothic is the change from visions of heaven as a garden (which is what the word ‘paradise’ originally meant) to visions of heaven as a walled city. Both ideas have precedents in the Bible – the garden in Genesis and the Song of Songs, the city in the Book of Revelation – but the resurgence of cities in the 12th century helped reinvigorate the concept of heaven as a large city.

What machinery was used to hoist angels up and down?

The subject of medieval heaven is a vast one, and serious study of it calls for expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including history and art history, letters, music and theology and others. This is why the Centre for Medieval Studies at Bristol University, which brings together medievalists from all relevant disciplines across the Arts Faculty, has joined forces with leading scholars from other universities to explore heaven as it was envisaged by medieval people in art and literature, and in popular and academic thought.

The Centre has organised a two-year research programme, generously sponsored by the Read-Tuckwell Foundation and the University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. The programme includes several public lectures, delivered by distinguished guest speakers from other universities, and culminates in an international and interdisciplinary conference. The topics of the speakers give some indication of the fascinating issues surrounding medieval heaven.

How was heaven portrayed on stage in medieval mystery plays – what machinery was used to hoist angels up and down, for example? To what extent is it defensible or heretical for a woman mystic to say that she has seen God face to face in this life when that is supposed to happen in the life hereafter? How can writers do justice to the notion that heaven is complete when their literary resources are inevitably incomplete? And finally, how could such theological speculations produce the finest poetry of the period, in Dante’s Divina Commedia?

Dr Ad Putter / Centre for Medieval Studies


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