Friday, April 06, 2018

Sin and Fear: The Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture, 13th -18th Centuries by Jean Delumeau









As this work reminds us, the Church, throughout much of its history didn’t go out of its way to offer loving comfort to the poor and oppressed (or anyone else, for that matter) as they made their way through this vale of tears, and what made matters worse was that “opting out” wasn’t an option. Essentially, you were born Catholic (or heathen, but that’s another story) and you were expected to stay that way.  Deviation on the smallest point of doctrine might well earn you a visit from your friendly and enthusiastic inquisitor.

So what did the Church do with this captive audience?  Bombard them fairly constantly with harangues about their own state of deathly sin in this life and the promise of unceasing torment in the next, that’s what! In Sin and Fear (1990), Jean Delumeau more than supports this thesis with anecdotes, sermons, lyrics, and other writings from throughout Europe that ceaselessly dwell on human unworthiness, the unavoidable punishment of sin (even the rules for sexual relations within wedlock could be so convoluted as to require a tax attorney to interpret them, let alone some poor illiterate peasant), the general suckiness of life and the overwhelming stench of death. The words and images emphasizing the morbidity of the flesh and the stink of corruption were omnipresent, and all it took was a good outbreak of the plague to reinforce the truth and hopelessness of it all as, to quote Lou Reed, “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds”. 

In short, you pretty much had it drilled into you what a worthless bag of worm meat you were, and your hopes for at least some comfort in the afterlife were pretty much nil.  Delumeau at one point quotes a sermon wherein the priest tells his congregation that there wasn’t a damn one of them that had the remotest chance of escaping hell.  This isn’t to say that maybe you lucked out and got a humane, kindly village priest, but he was probably the anomaly, and anyway if word filtered up that he was coddling his flock with some fool notions of God’s mercy and loving kindness, he was likely to be shipped off for “re-education”, because, as everyone knew, God the Father* was a real son of a bitch.

Now, sadly, I’d like to tell you that the Reformation (and the seemly endless cycle of religious wars - how’s that for an oxymoron?) showed the Church the error of its ways, but of course as we all know, Luther, Calvin, et al., fine products of the guilt culture that they were, were just as merciless in their grim accounting of the corruption of the human soul, and Jonathan Edwards’  key sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” only proves to show that, far from being just an outgrown medieval mindset, this madness was still alive and kicking well into the 18th century and beyond.  In the psychological dimension, the author makes a pretty good case that the relentless instillation of fear and guilt over a period of centuries created a cultural psychosis that we, at least in the west,  are still a far ways from escaping. 

*At one point in this heavy tome, Delumeau reminds us that the original association of the word “father” was not some gentle and forgiving Ozzie Nelson-type bumbling around in a cardigan, but rather a violent, demanding autocrat with a short fuse, so whether you’re thinking of the God of the Old or New Testaments, the parish priest, the Bishop of Rome (whose informal title, after all, derives from the Latin papa) or even dear old Dad, the initial association in the early days of the church one was not necessarily a positive one.

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