18 August 2011

Good and Evil

I recently came across this passage from Natalie Crohn Schmitt's essay, "The Idea of a Person in Medieval Morality Plays," published in a collection called The Drama in the Middle Ages (AMS, 1982). It offers a fascinating account of the Medieval European view of good and evil, and how this view influenced the way people experienced the world.

From "The Idea of a Person in Medieval Morality Plays" (quoted material is in italics:(

The war between Good and Evil was the profoundest reality of life, since upon the issue hung the eternal destiny of the soul. The salvation of the hard-pressed soul was the supreme prize of existence, and mortal life became subject to a single evaluation - the soul's progress toward God or its defection away from Him.

The adventure of life was, in our sense, inward and spiritual. God created the earth and the heavens and all things therein so that man might work out his life and destiny. Man was at the center of the universe and everything possessed significance not in itself but for man's pilgrimage.

The Devil and his demons indeed were very real and very close, and the powers of God and his angels needed constantly to be drawn upon to combat them.

What we call external reality was subordinate to the central conflict. The observer was himself in the picture at the center, and the world was more like a garment man wore about him than a stage on which he moved. The internal and external world were identified in a state of fusion and wholeness.

As a horror writer, I tend to think of evil as my bread and butter. Without some kind of badness, what would a horror plot be? For that matter, what would epic fantasy be without some Big Bad to confront and fight?

As a human being in this modern world of ours today, I have been led to believe that real life comes in shades of grey. It's fashionable to declare that there is no evil, only misunderstanding. (I don't think that's correct, for my two cents, but that's another blog post for another day.)

Reading this passage made me think a little harder about how different it might be to live in a culture that is totally immersed in the belief in concrete, tangible good and evil. Even if you're Christian, I don't know that it's possible to immerse yourself so totally into the mindset Schmitt describes here. You still have to contend with alternative points of view, even if you don't agree with them. In Medieval Europe, viewpoints that contradicted a Christian worldview were practically unthinkable, and where they were encountered, were dismissed as backward, which is to say, Satanic (thus folding them back into the good vs. evil point of view).

My question for you, Gentle Reader, is this: when you invent cultures with moral codes different from your own, how much do you alter the consciousness of your characters?


Luanne G. Smith said...

Wow, those pictures are really interesting to study.

I can't imagine living in medieval times. I probably would have been burned as a witch.

I'm not sure how to answer your question. The people in my post-apocalyptic novel do live by a different moral code than modern people. I've mostly stripped the main religions out, but there are superstitions and beliefs in the afterlife. I can't say I ever pose things as good vs evil in my story, but justice seems to be something the characters desire a lot.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

This reminds me of a similar thing I saw on the History channel that had to do with the evolution of Satan and basically how he was created.

You should write a story for my publisher. They just bought another company called Blood Moon Publishing that specializes in Horror and are open to submissions. They periodically close so if you have something you been kicking around you should totally send it in.

Unknown said...

Would you be willing to further explain what you mean by "consciousness of the character"? Maybe give me a couple examples, because I really want to engage with everything I just read ... I'm just not sure how to do that ...

:) Cool topic btw

Elizabeth Twist said...

@L.G.: I can't get enough of medieval woodcuts and other art. It's endlessly fascinating.

@Michael: Thanks for pointing me to Blood Moon. How cool! I don't have a book-length ms. ready, but I am working on a piece that might be right for them. I'll definitely keep it in mind.

@Eileen: I started composing an answer, but it got ridiculously long. I'm gonna make it a post.

Autumn Shelley said...

Hey Liz,
I personally don't think my 'worlds' alter the consciousness of the characters because of the fact that they are the character's worlds. I may have a world with different concepts of morality or varying degrees of acceptable behaviour but that is the world that character knows and functions within.
I'm with L.G., I would have been burned as a witch. And remember, in Medieval Europe, there were no 'opposing' or differing views because they WERE burned as heretics.
Never underestimate the power of the Church. Have you ever read the Malleus Mallificarum? Scary stuff to be a female in the Dark Ages.
Great post!

Deborah Walker said...

Fascinating, Elizabeth. Thinking about the past can really illumiante who we're shaped by our own culture.

Loving the images, too.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Elizabeth. I have started a short story blog, and some of the stories I have posted and will post explore the concepts of good and evil from a medieval perspective. I'm fascinated by the concepts that surround medieval Christianity. Have a little look and see what you see.
The address is

I've subscribed to your blog as it's good stuff that I'd like to see more of.