How the Mediaevals Thought About Thought

In the world of art and artistic creation, a fundamental confusion often occurs.

We’ve all been brought up in a culture heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud and by the concepts that underpin psychiatry, psychology and psycho-analysis. This isn’t meant as a critique of those disciplines — I mention them only to point out something that is so basic that you may not have considered it.

That is that the production of ‘art’, whether visual, aural or to do with words, is somehow connected to the ‘unconscious’ — i.e. that part of our minds of which we are not aware, but which, according to the viewpoints expressed by Freud and those who followed him, has a great influence on our actions. Art, including writing fiction, is positioned as something which ‘rises from the depths’ and finds its way into the light in mysterious ways. This is such an elementary notion that even as you read this, there may be a voice in you that says ‘Of course it is! Otherwise I would be entirely aware of the machinations occurring inside me which produce stories — and I’m certainly not!’

But this is worth a deeper look.

Divesting ourselves of modern cultural thinking regarding the subject of art, including writing, may seem to be a backward step. When we think of any period that was pre-modern, we usually fall prey to other misconceptions: supernatural forces affecting in human affairs, twisted, primitive notions of medicine, biology and psychology including things like astrology and using leeches to treat illness. Those are commonly held images and beliefs about the past — but they give a misleading picture.

The belief in the unconscious or subconscious and its doings is a relatively new thing. Prior to the 19th century, people had quite different ideas about how human thinking actually worked.

Another idea that most of us have swallowed whole is the concept that human knowledge is inexorably proceeding towards greater understanding and that earlier periods have little to offer. We tend to think this way because of how scientific method proceeds from theory to experiment to discovery and so on. But to take this attitude to the past would be a two-dimensional and knee-jerk approach — the huge span of time we think of as ‘mediaeval’, for example, stretches from the late classical period to the 15th century and saw many shifts in thought, most of them much more sophisticated than any modern caricature would allow.

You might think of the Middle Ages as being childishly primitive in its approach to human mentality, but in fact this period saw considerable engagement with questions of mind and body and how they worked together to produce artefacts. The educated élite, many of whom worked for the Church in some capacity, read and wrote texts that have come down to us intact, and one of the primary benefits from the point of view of what we are trying to do is that their psychology was not dominated, as most modern studies are, by later Cartesian notions of mind–body dualism.

Before Descartes, mind and body were considered to be connected in different ways.

Social and cultural contexts centuries ago were very different to our own. A Christian world was assumed; psychology was the domain of theologians, who were interested in questions of desire, will, intention, sin and virtue in the context of a God-managed reality. But we can turn some of this to our advantage: medieval practices of prayer and meditation tended to cancel out distractions in order to stay intellectually focused, and the imaginative fiction of the period offers valuable insights into cultural attitudes and experience, and gives us clues as to how ideas of mind, body and art carried over into the culture at large.

Mediaeval writers about the mind started from a particular context: Hippocrates’ theory of the four humours, developed by Galen in the second century, suggested a mind–body continuum. The distinction between mind and body was complex and more fluid than in later periods, complicated by ideas of the soul and spirit, by different views on where in the body certain functions were situated, and by the integration of thought and what it produced. We take for granted the idea of ‘mind’, for example, but back then what was called ‘mind’ (stemming from the Old English gemynd ‘memory, thought’, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘revolve in the mind, think’, and shared by Sanskrit manas and Latin mens) was mainly to do with memory, and overlapped with notions of the soul.

Aristotle situated the rational or intellectual quality that we call ‘mind’ within the soul, while locating the heart as the centre of the senses and cognitive faculties; Galen on the other hand associated these with the brain. Neo-Platonic theories placed the immortal and rational part of the soul in the head, with the physical or sensual appetites and emotions in the torso. In the fourth century, St Augustine saw the will as an extension of a superior soul, while he associated emotions with the physical body — but then emotions, to him, had both mental and physical aspects. You can already appreciate that the whole approach is less dualistic.

Towards the end of the 13th century, following the 12th-century rediscovery of Aristotle and the translation of many Arabic medical texts into Latin, thinkers of this period such as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon developed even more complex theories of mind. While popular notions persisted throughout the Middle Ages that the heart was the site of understanding and feeling, actual observations of the effects of head injuries tended to confirm Galen’s view that the rational aspects of the psyche were located in the brain.