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How to have visions and influence people

By uclektm, on 18 March 2014

“My central enquiry is how people in different social groups use persuasion to achieve what they want, and what this suggests about different people.”

It could be the opening of a new age psychology book, but it’s actually the basis of Dr Antonio Sennis’s (UCL History) research into the Middle Ages, amiably shared with us in a 13 March Lunch Hour Lecture, titled “Medieval Languages of Persuasion”.

So, what exactly can we learn about medieval Italian society based on the methods people used to influence each other?

The Abbey of Farfa today

The Abbey of Farfa today

A world of persuasion
Dr Sennis illustrated some of the key features of persuasion in this period through a topical example.

At UCL, we are persuaded to attend the Lunch Hour Lectures through a relatively gentle advertising campaign involving some unobtrusive posters and emails.

Perhaps we might feel somewhat dumber for our non-attendance, but the campaign seems underpinned by the kind of do-as-you-like liberalism that we expect from our democracy. Right?

But, technological anachronisms permitting, if the lecture series were happening in the Middle Ages, different strategies of persuasion might be implemented.

For instance, some medieval equivalent of Twitter (Dr Sennis’s invention) might announce, “I had a vision of everyone being punished in Hell because they did not go to Dr Sennis’s lecture.” We would most likely attend, if only to avoid eternal damnation.

From the example, we can see that this (hypothetical) medieval society not only places a strong emphasis on religious values, but also relies on supernatural “visions” as a mode of promoting them. This is the particular medieval language of persuasion with which Dr Sennis was concerned.

A convenient vision
True to his discipline of study, Dr Sennis then gave a more historically accurate example of influential visions.

The Abbey of Farfa is a monastery located in central Italy. Late in the 11th century, the abbey was the centre of tensions between the papacy and the Holy Roman empire.

Under the rule of Abbot Berard II, the abbey sided with the emperor. This probably exacerbated Berard’s already controversial reign; he had seized power in questionable circumstances and the general community was opposed to him.

This controversy had caused a schism in the abbey, a monk experienced a vision of Abbot Berard II seasoning a child and eating him.

Later, when the monks happened to see Berard finishing one of his meals, they understood the scene as fraught with horrible, paedo-cannibalistic meaning.

The monks asked the Abbot how he would interpret a vision of a man eating a child. Unaware that he was being drawn into a kind of self-cannibalisation, he replied, “Certainly this man is a brother of the devil.”

So, that was the end of Berard II. But there are obviously some politics at play here. After all, this is a curious situation of people trusting the advice of a man in order to prove his own distrustfulness.

More subtly than in the hypothetical case of ‘Medieval Twitter’, the monk’s supernatural vision was used as a way of persuading the community at large to turn against an already-disliked abbot. This is both historically interesting and convenient.

Evidence of gullibility?
Dr Sennis’s research focuses on 11–12th century Italy because it was a highly aristocratic society that experienced many conflicts with ecclesiastical bodies, i.e. fertile ground for visions and their practical use.

Visions were an informal element of social and political conflicts – as seen in the less than procedural events at the Abbey of Farfa.

Although informal, visions were still used carefully; ecclesiastical authorities had control over which visions were legitimate (divine) and which were illegitimate (demonic). There was also a clear distinction between dreams and visions; clerics were suspicious of dreams because of their ambiguity.

The monastic regulation of visions suggests that their basic function was to maintain the status quo. Why? According to Dr Sennis, visions secured monks’ supremacy in society by supporting the idea that they had privileged access to the spirit world.

For a contemporary audience, this flags up the question of irrationality – is the use of influential visions in a society evidence of its inherent primitivism?

In response to this, Dr Sennis was quick to highlight that even in the Middle Ages, not everybody believed in visions, especially if it wasn’t in their interests to do so.

He spoke of a woman who was the subject of a vision in which it was said that she needed to return some of her wealth. She opted for disbelief.

Here, Dr Sennis also pointed out that gurus, visionaries and healers are all available today in the back pages of the Metro; it exists, but in a marginalised way. The key difference between the function of the supernatural in our society and theirs is that in medieval Italy’s Metro, visions would be on the front page.

The centrality of visions to the operation of society is precisely what makes them such an interesting point of entry for historians such as Dr Sennis.

This is, at the very least, what he persuaded me to think.

You can watch Dr Sennis’s lecture below:


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