The last few nights I have been watching “DaVinci’s Demons” via iTunes. The show is rather fascinating. It is based around the earlier years of Leonardo DaVinci and his struggles to find a benefactor for his works. The show also has its setting in the middle of the vast conflicting and complex world of the Italian Renaissance. So far in watching the show, I can see perfectly where Shakespeare got his inspiration for “The Merchant of Venice” and “Romeo and Juliette.” Feuding and back stabbing gain a new meaning in this show.
In episode 3, “The Prisoner,” we gain a glimpse of how medieval or in this case renaissance society perceived mental illness or any illness that effects ones psyche versus popular belief, which was if you had something going on in your head, you were possessed and or a witch. In this episode it isn’t just normal peasants who are the ones doomed. But ones close to God. The people who are being possessed by the so-called “devil” are the nuns at a near by convent.
Word gets out that some thing is a miss and Leonardo and his crew are asked to investigate and later are joined by the Pope’s excorsisum team. Which seem to do more harm than good. To them the ill are damned, possessed and there is no other reason for their maladies, but a result from sin. Leonardo at a few times himself suggests that it is something else making the women sick, but the head priest simply denies his ideas.
What does this tell us about medieval society? A few things actually. It shows how easily, even a some what educated populous can be convinced of a popular notion by a powerful entity, that it is the devil’s work and there can not be a scientific explanation. Which later Leonardo does prove is the cause of the demonic possessions (red ergot poisoning which is a fungus on the statue).
Now why did this happen what lead people to think this way? It gets down to power and control. The church at the time was all across Europe was if not richer than the kings and queens, but the most powerful entity in existence. How did they get this way; through deception, and influence, as well as making sure the masses i.e. peasants or common folks believed everything they were told so they would get their backing and funds. And to put it simply, everyone wanted to be saved by God at the time of final judgment. The sheep followed their shepherd quiet close during this time. The easiest way to do this was make people believe, what they said by all means possible, even if that meant installing fear in the uneducated, and making examples of those who where so called “damned.” Exorcism, execution of witches all were used to show society and teach that sin was bad, and those who walked on the line of thought or ideas outside of the norm whether they were ill or not, needed to be cleansed, and this was the means that these measures were carried out. If the church exorcised or cleansed a witches soul via penance, which resulted mostly in death, they gained salvation. But they had to let a person from the church do this.
There was a general fear that by denying someone’s means to salvation, was just about the quickest way to get any person to follow the word of God. The common peasant isn’t going to think of a cause for an illness or an event like Leonardo did; but they will believe the misfortune that falls upon them was the result of the unknown, something they did, or someone they wronged or damned. Because most of the population was not educated to what we would think of today, convincing a popular belief was quite simple and easy to manage.
This episode was only a brief glimpse of how close church and society were intertwined in the middle ages and well into the renaissance, but it also shows how a society we have evolved to not just believe what is said, but to look and delve for the answers that we cannot necessary see.
~ Andrea C. S. McMillin B.A. Medieval Studies/History UC. Davis