I have a belief about beliefs
Posit: certain beliefs cluster. Through an unknown combination of crowd effect (you like the stuff your friends like) and perhaps some weird, alchemical property of the things themselves to locate near each other in the human mind, the kind of people who believe this thing are also more likely to believe that often-associated thing. This is true of societally acceptable belief clusters (e.g. Lib Dem membership, taste for real ale, Dr Who fandom) and it is also true of what I shall call aberrant beliefs. Crazy shit, basically. Anything that marks one out as a proper tinfoil hat-wearing weirdo who is standing foursquare against societal norms (as opposed to merely a shambling sandal-wearer with over-developed ideas about land taxation). And this works, I suggest, in a scalar way. Such that it is not true that everybody who believes the CIA assassinated Kennedy and NASA faked the moon landings also thinks that aliens are controlling their thoughts through the radio and lizards rule the world. But it probably is true, I suggest, that the people who seriously think aliens are controlling their thoughts and lizards rule the world have already passed, quite some time ago, through the tamer pastures of Kennedy/NASA-related conspiracy theory.
What are the characteristics of Crazy Shit?
We could say this particular variety of belief cluster has several characteristics.
1. Its component beliefs tend to be large in design – they all comment on some matter of great scale and importance.
2. They have some core feature that the societal consensus would consider bonkersly unlikely (I am adopting this as a technical term).
3. They presume superhuman skill and usually deceit on the part of some other, often unknown and shadowy party.
4. And the person who holds the belief is a member of a tiny minority, either representing themselves blessed/lucky or perhaps exceptionally unlucky, who have seen the truth, and to a greater or lesser extent there is always some implication of persecution or at least differentiation from the rest of society.
Some of the people in the modern era who are a long way into aberrant belief clusters presumably get diagnosed with illnesses like schizophrenia, but I guess not all of them do. I’ve picked a particularly schizophrenic example there with aliens controlling their thoughts but not all of them are like that. So let’s just say the inclination towards these particular aberrant beliefs is the result of some kind of psychological state or set of conditions (not necessarily a “bad” one, if we are using that label, but certainly an unusual one). Certain people, not very many of them, are nudged towards aberrant belief clusters in a way that causes them to become the subject of comment and disparagement from wider society.
So this is my question: assuming this psychological state is a human constant in anatomically modern humans, how might it have manifested itself in the medieval period? Or even better, in the Neolithic? I asked The People of Twitter this, because they know everything. The trouble is I think I did it wrong.
My tweet said:
What do we think are medieval forerunners of weird belief clusters like conspiracy theories/aliens talking thru tv etc? Religious visions?
— Alicia de Mortuomari (@alixmortimer) August 20, 2016
Answers from various people: fairies, miracle cures/King’s touch, séances/ectoplasm, building Stonehenge, paganism, druidism, any polytheism that was taken as more than allegory. @Heresy_Corner, @LeithMotive, @cmccrudden, @PhillipRotty, @daveweeden.
(Edit: late entry from @CJR23 which I REALLY need to look at. But this post is too long already.)
In other words, having planted the idea of “religion” in people’s heads as a core association with “irrational beliefs”, lots of them came up with religious/mythological/mystical stuff as evidence of crazy shit from previous eras. And actually I think these answers usefully cover the kind of stuff that usually comes up in these debates (I am not the first to ask this question, obviously). But surely the point is, these things were not perceived as crazy shit at the time. Even my own example of religious visions is inadequate because they were an accepted component of conventional religion (although I am on to something with it because visions were closely policed by the Church, and the wrong sort of visions could land you in trouble at least analogous to the sort you can land in now for aggressively harassing the FBI over suppression of files about UFO sightings – essentially, life-changing trouble).
Thus, the number of genuine aberrant subcultures in this list seems extremely small. I like séances/ectoplasm as the nearest example, mainly because it truly fulfils the “bonkersly unlikely” criterion, but in other respects (being very fashionable amongst the cool kids, namely) it falls a long way short. It’s more analogous to rock music in the 1950s than lizard theory in the 2010s. Here is my tabulated summary, green to show the belief meets the criteria, pink to show it doesn’t. Blue (oh bite me, I never did have a design eye) shows a mix.
What this tells you is that all these things are actually the commonplace quirks of a society. At best they are the equivalent of hipster trends, and actually most are quite close to societal norms of the time. They only look weird now. The very fact that we are chatting easily about them on Twitter, with the range of expertises we presumably have, suggests to me that we aren’t really identifying the psychologically aberrant behaviour in medieval society, or maybe only bits of it by accident. The stuff that was only ever commented on as evidence of just out-there crazy. And I include myself in this, because while I am technically a medievalist it is in the sense that I know a metric fuckton about high politics and constitutional crises and almost nothing about the wider culture and worldview. I am the medievalist equivalent of the modern Westminster Villager, precluding of course any incidental implication that I might have dung on my head.
So what would qualify as historically situated Crazy Shit?
But then Andrew Hickey arrived and as usual things IMMEDIATELY made more sense:
For medieval I’d suggest things like Perkin Warbeck. Earlier stuff like Gnosticism, Arianism.
Now, I might come back to Gnosticism and Arianism another time because I think they are quite complex examples, as are Cathars, Lollards, and other heretics.
But Perkin Warbeck! He is a window onto an abiding historical mystery, what happened to the Princes in the Tower, which makes it into William D. Rubinstein’s excellent Shadow Pasts, in which an academic historian explores his fascination with the passionate and well-informed communities of amateurs who grow up around certain historical oddities – junior-grade crazy shit fanciers in fact (the book also features the provenance of the Pyramids, the true identity of Shakespeare, and critically, JFK’s assassination). Furthermore, Warbeck was not even the origin of this particular brand of crazy shit, and he is not the end of it. A previous Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel, had been defeated by Henry VII and set to work in the royal kitchens, only a few years earlier. Less than 10 years ago someone claimed to have another candidate for a surviving Richard (Mail link). This is a crazy shit storyline that still resonates with us.
- Large in design?
Warbeck meets the first criteria. Who was the rightful King of England might be a matter of parlour game interest to modern minds, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the 1490s. It’s easy enough to forget, from the other end of the telescope in which we know what happened down to 1603, how recently a forty-year period of civil and constitutional warfare had ended. If it was true that Perkin Warbeck was Richard of Shrewsbury, it changed everything, and in a way deeply troubling to the medieval intellectual and political mind.
- Bonkersly unlikely?
Yes, due to the sheer scale of the stakes. Someone who was supposed to have died as a child turns up seven years later, not dead. You either believe it or you don’t. It has the zero sum characteristic associated with all high quality Crazy Shit. Once you make the leap to believing lizards rule the world, you can’t go back, you have started your mind on a set of problems that it solves by detecting ever more patterns, associations and explanatory narratives, and the human mind doesn’t do this stuff well in reverse (I have tried believing an allegory of the lizard thing, as an experiment; I went back, but it is hard).
- Superhuman powers?
Yes, not in the fairies sense, but in the same sense that JFK conspiracists attribute superhuman powers of judgement and action to the CIA. Somebody had to get “Richard of Shrewsbury” out of the fucking Tower of London (I mean have you seen that thing? Beats me how people ignore it as a harmless tourist destination, as a symbol of arbitrary establishment power it still scares seven shits out of me) under the close watch of loyal servants of the King, and then a succession of other people had to get him away and keep him in secret for seven years, believe his account of himself, make all the contacts and secure all the support he needed to declare himself in 1490. If you buy it, that is. But presumably the whole reason some people bought it is the corresponding unlikeliness of the counter-factual. If he wasn’t Richard of Shrewsbury (and we are tolerably sure he wasn’t) some people including him went to all that trouble to make him seem so. It really isn’t the easiest route to wealth and power, being the “legitimate” opponent of a usurper in fifteenth century England, as plenty of previous heads-on-spikes could attest. It is intensely high stakes and your prize if you win is one of the most difficult and (at the time, because you are yourself a usurper) insecure jobs in Europe. The motivations we moderns think of, as we picture jewels, crowns, horses and courtly dancing and a long drunken slide towards monarchical security, are really not in point. There were better ways to be upwardly social mobile, even in early modern Europe. It was the sheer audacity of Warbeck’s bid, the sheer unlikeliness of it all, that qualifies this again as crazy shit.
- Truth-seeing minority?
Yes, no question. And for the very good reason that you faced the prospect of being Horribly Killed if you were a part of that minority. I have read it suggested somewhere that the only person who demonstrably really Believed in Warbeck was Margaret of Burgundy, his supposed aunt, Richard III’s sister (with the implication that this was wishful thinking on her part). Yet Henry did not, we note, come down hard on Warbeck straight away – or did he? After defeat, Warbeck was actually allowed to take up residence at court, but was forbidden – of all things – to sleep with his wife. There could be no more contemptuous dismissal of his importance. If – if – that man by some chance really was Richard of Shrewsbury… Good god. Beheadings were a mark of nobility, and by the end of the fifteenth century had I suggest become culturally associated with a great enterprise failed, inferior to actually falling in battle perhaps, but not by much. There could be no greater and more insulting punishment for a man born to that inheritance to be tolerated below the salt at royal banquets and barred from legitimate procreation. Eventually Warbeck tried trouble again and was executed for it; but if there is any evidence that he was the younger Prince in the Tower, its strongest underline must come from that possible streak of political sadism on Henry’s part.
Cataloguing the crazy shit
So that concludes the case for the defence. I have not, at this point, proceeded with my central question, which I have left titling this post – what was a history of crazy shit down the ages look like? But I think I have got some way, with other people’s help, in thinking through what it doesn’t look like. We are very inclined to think of religion as a source when we try to come up with Crazy Shit from before 1900, but of course that is a function of our post-religious perspective. Some of it may qualify, lots of it doesn’t.
Any ideas? Once we have started a card index of authentic historical Crazy Shit examples, matching against the four criteria above, I would also like to proceed to the prehistoric, which is much harder and more intriguing because nobody is expressing their Crazy Shit beliefs in words anywhere, and nobody is reacting to them in words. People are getting increasingly interested in archaeologies of the deviant, of aberrant behaviour generally. (I myself am interested in the archaeology of failure. There must be some massive white elephant construction projects in the record somewhere, things that did not do what they were designed to do. Which ones are they?) An archaeology of what a Crazy Shit psychological state looks like in Neolithic material culture would really be something.