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European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval Imagination


The French cultural historian Jacques LeGoff treats imagination as a dimension of history, a window into mental representations and perspectives of the people from the past. In the introduction of his book of essays "Medieval Imagination," he distinguishes between imagination, representation, symbolism and ideology. All of the mentioned concepts play a role in the discovery of the mentalities and lived experiences of the inhabitants of the mysterious land of the Past. For LeGoff, imagination is more comprehensive than representation because it is not dependent on the reproduction of external factors and, therefore, not limited by intellect (LeGoff, 1985, p. 1). 

For many contemporary minds, the fantastical is almost synonymous with the Middle Ages. It is not only an important category of any predominantly oral pre-modern culture, including medieval Europe but is also tethered to the modern perception of the era. The most prominent fantasy stories of today are often rooted in today’s view of the period, which, ever-shifting, reflects national mythology, ethnic romanticism, idealized virtue of lost importance or serves as a canvas for projecting modern vices. The fantastical imaginary pasts serve the purpose of removing existing cruelty and sometimes even exaggerating it, allowing the audiences to enjoy graphic brutality while excusing it as historical accuracy. The Middle Ages can be interpreted as Europe’s own shadow, a metaphor through which it discusses and evaluates itself.

The medieval times form the foundation of Europe’s identity and contemporary Europeans’ fantasy still uses its shape to express a multitude of attitudes and meanings. But the medieval mind is as distant and mysterious as ever. This article will provide an insight into the way medieval imagination worked and how, at the same time, it influenced the culture and embodied its product. 

This series contains the following six chapters:

  1. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Introduction to Cultural History

  2. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval Imagination

  3. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: The Body in the Middle Ages

  4. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval and Early Modern Magic

  5. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Private Living Concept

  6. European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval Games and Culture

European Cultural History of the Middle Ages 101: Medieval Imagination

For people of that era, the world was a mystery, an unknown territory, wondrous and perilous. Maps were either unavailable or lacked accuracy, transportation was slow and dangerous, the news was far from instant, and the Church and the upper classes strictly controlled books and literacy. All these factors allowed for the growth of minds who developed in drastically different contexts compared to contemporary people. In his exploration of the medieval imagination, LeGoff identifies several significant categories. The marvellous, time and space, the body, and dreams. Like other prominent cultural historians, LeGoff primarily relied on literature and art as his major sources. The following paragraphs will encapsulate the essential ideas behind his chosen concepts, aiming to illuminate at least a small part of the medieval mind. 

 A man and two demons. (n.d.).
Figure 1: A man and two demons. (n.d.).

The Marvelous: At the Crossroads Between the Pagan and Christian

The medieval wonder comes in multiple forms. This is hardly surprising since the European culture at the time was built upon layers of pre-Christian traditions and all of them carved their mark on culture. LeGoff differentiates between several expressions that denote the marvellous. One is mirabilia, metaphorically and linguistically linked to mirrors and visual imagery (LeGoff, 1985, p 28). The early Middle Ages ignored the marvellous, at least the Church and the elites did, associating it with the pagans and attempting to eliminate it from the religious reality. The high culture accepted the miraculous during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, mostly due to the court literature. The genre was championed by the lower lanks of nobility, the knightly strata which rose to more power, creating a cultural alternative to the dominant Church culture. In courtly romances, the marvellous is “intimately associated with the idealized knight’s quest for individual and collective identity” (LeGoff, 1985, p. 29). A century later, the concept was no longer perceived as threatening to the Church, so it incorporated the marvellous, which resulted in the birth of the Gothic style.  

Apart from mirabilis, the medieval wonder includes magicus and miraculous. Initially regarded as neutral, miraculous was later demonized with the rise of Satan as a prominent imaginary figure. Conversely, the miraculous, seen as a legitimate intervention by God into the ordinary course of events, was the most accepted form of the supernatural according to the dominant ideology (LeGoff, 1985, p. 30). 

Jester. (n.d.).
Figure 2: Jester. (n.d.).

The marvellous occupied a precarious position between evil magic and godly miracles, thus being tolerated and allowing some cultural blending (LeGoff, 1985, p. 36). The segments of the real world that can be marvellous include natural sites (trees, mountains, castles, tombs, etc.), animals, plants, human-animal hybrids, historical persons, and objects (LeGoff, 1985, p 37). This classification demonstrates how various cultures and traditions of the European soil found their place in the Christian Imaginarium. 

Space and Time

In the mind of a medieval person, every real location, be it a city, forest or garden, had its own imaginary shadow. The places were sites of everyday activity but also symbols of spiritual powers, lurking entities or temptations. They were simultaneously physical and imaginary. The concept of time was a far cry from modernity. Instead of clocks, there was a plethora of different times, including “liturgical time, bell time, the time of rural labours, the time of the urban work, the academic year, the calendar of holy days” (LeGoff, 1985, p 13). The following subsections will analyze some of the most significant elements of the medieval image of time and space, what they were inspired by, and how they transformed through time under multiple exterior influences.

The Forest: A Medieval Desert

The pivotal site of the medieval imaginary space was the forest. Biblically speaking, it was to serve as a substitute for the desert. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the latter represented the primordial chaos after the original sin, a place of revelation as well as meditation, enlightenment, temptation, and refuge. The medieval forest took on the mantle of a metaphorical desert, enticing the imagination and producing diverse symbology (LeGoff, 1985, p. 48). “The history of the desert has always been compounded of both material and spiritual realities, of constant interplay between geography and symbolism, the imaginary and the economic, the social and the ideological” (LeGoff, 1985, p. 52). The forest became a place of meditation and quest for enlightenment for the monks, the last frontier of the pagan remnants, the darkness where the devil and his servants lurked unsuspected vagrants and a hiding place for the culturally marginalized. The ill-fated literary lovers, Tristan and Isolde, sought refuge in the woods, which the hero compared to castle walls, referring to the feeling of safety (LeGoff, 1985, p. 55). The wooded desert was also the natural setting of the emerging syncretic figure of a hermit. A monk, but also a folk wizard, who appeared as a character in many stories and from whom even kings asked for advice (LeGoff, 1985, p 51). This pivotal piece of medieval wilderness embodied diverse European cultural layers, manifesting them through a rich imaginative tapestry of metaphors and symbolism. The forest remained a contradictory concept, simultaneously dangerous and attractive, the path to spirituality and temptation, a solace and a source of threats. 

Dreamer (n.d.).
Figure 3: Dreamer (n.d.).

The Invention of Purgatory: A Double Time

The afterlife represents a special entity when it comes to the medieval time and space imaginary systems. The concept was built gradually, its shape forming between the early days of Christianity, most notably between the third century and the thirteenth century when fundamental societal changes took place, which was reflected in the ways people imagined the physical and the spiritual realities. The first signs of Purgatory were early Christian prayers for the dead, aimed at the attempt to help the soul redeem itself from the sins in life and reach Heaven. The backbone of the concept was heavily inspired by Saint Augustine and Gregory the Great (LeGoff, 1985, p. 70). The first one established the specific purgatorial time and the second solidified the imagery, the visions, and the apparitions that were later associated with the place. By the late twelfth century, Purgatory was defined as a location with its own concept of time. How long the souls had to spend there depended on the gravity of their sins. This resulted in a unique perspective. The individual time spent in Purgatory was specific and different for every soul, while the overall spiritual realm was meant to exist until the world finally ended and Judgement Day arrived (LeGoff, 1985, p. 70). 

In a cultural sense, the society of the thirteenth century went through radical shifts. The rise of urban life, the emergence of the bourgeois class, and the development of wealthy cities inspired a shift towards earthly pleasures and concerns. The over-focus on the afterlife and the denunciation of the material gradually lost its ideological dominance. Also, the Church no longer held a monopoly over time, and the fourteenth century brought the invention of clocks. The new devices radically transformed the passage and perspective on time by leading to the standardization of time, which gradually influenced trade, work, and communication (LeGoff, 1985, p. 75).

When it comes to the visual depictions of Purgatory, it was imagined as a place akin to Hell, just temporary rather than eternal and with less severe torture. The idea of the souls in Purgatory praying to God and asking relatives for assistance was not present before the 14th century when it became the major point of distinction between depictions of the souls in Hell as opposed to those in Purgatory (LeGoff, 1985, p. 89). In every other visual and narrative aspect, Purgatory was indistinguishable from Hell and equally inhabited by both humans and demons. 

Monstrous whale. (n.d.).
Figure 4: Monstrous whale. (n.d.).

Popular Literary Tropes

The medieval folk culture was mostly oral, which caused some troubles for cultural historians in the attempt to identify tropes. Oral stories are democratic, dynamic, and shapeshifting. Also, elusive and difficult to track. Still, a prominent written culture existed in the Middle Ages, even though it was limited. Few individuals were literate and books took a lot of time and effort to produce. The next paragraphs will analyze some of the popular tropes of medieval literature and briefly discuss their potential meaning.

The Wild Man: Innocence and Savagery

This trope can be traced to antiquity but was equally popular in medieval literature. It took many forms, from a recluse hermit to a mad knight. The wild man lives in the forest and can be depicted as a natural, half-animal creature who is closer to nature than civilization or he can be an outcast, a victim of a quest gone awry, dealing with a trial he must overcome to triumph and be integrated into society. Some of the examples of this trope are Merlin from Vita Merlini by Geoffroy of Monmouth and Orlando Furioso by Ariosto (LeGoff, 1985, p. 109). The wild man is an ambivalent figure. He is innocent, reminiscent of the man before the Fall, or he is a savage brute under a demon’s thumb. In “Estoire del Chevalier au Cisne,” wild people appear simple and ignorant of society’s ways but perfectly embody this opposition. They “eat tiny roots and leaves of apple trees; they know nothing of wine or any other sophisticated refreshments. But among them are also the servants of Satan and tempters (as cited by LeGoff, 1985, p. 119). Generally speaking, medieval tropes tend to be obviously contradictory, existing in the liberating space between two absolute opposites, thus providing rich opportunities for interpretations.  

The City: Sinful and Divine

The Bible offers many unflattering depictions of sinful cities, which appear in medieval literature as well. However, with the rise of urban life, literature allows more positive perspectives on urbanity. They represent an important site of fascination and confusion for the knightly protagonists, who find themselves contrasted with the bourgeois and, especially the peasants (LeGoff, 1985, p. 154). The city is a place where the classes meet, but it is much more than that. Where they are granted an opportunity to thrive and challenge the feudal hierarchical structure. As such, cities are often sites of ambivalent anxiety which needs to be reconciled and overcome by the protagonist (LeGoff, 1985, pp.154-170). 

Mummers. (n.d.).
Figure 5: Mummers. (n.d.).

A great example of the unity between the knight and the city is “La Prise d’Orange,” where the main character wishes to seize the city and conquer the love of a woman. “If only you could see the palace of the city, entirely made of vaults and decorated with mosaics! Not a flower grows between here and Pavia that is not artfully represented in gold. Inside is Queen Orable, wife of King Tibaut of Africa. No equal beauty exists in any pagan land. Her neck is elegant. She is thin and slender. Her skin is as white as the hawthorn blossom. Her eyes are brilliant and clear and always laughing” (as cited by LeGoff, 1985, p. 157). The marriage between the knight and the desired woman is at the same time the process of conquering the city, a form of acceptance of the urban life by the knightly class, formerly associated with land. Even in biblical mythology, the original concept of Paradise as a garden, a place of nature, was gradually transformed into an eternal city (LeGoff, 1985, p. 171). Therefore, the urban site as a trope reflects not only the changing relationships between classes but also the correlation between humanity and nature as well as the dominant idea of what a desirable human life is supposed to look like. The city stands as the corruption to the purity of nature, as well as safety and wealth to the dangers that lurk on the other side of civilization. LeGoff extensively explored the myriads of changes that formed the Western civilization throughout the medieval period in multiple works, most notably his Medieval Civilization (LeGoff, 1964/1998). 

The character of the knight is a particularly interesting literary topic, not only because of its popularity but various things it represents. For instance, a link can be found between the Albigenes' spirituality and courtly love. Just like the Cathars, the knights in literature glorified spiritual love towards the lady. However, the major difference was the fact that, unlike the celibacy of either the priests or the members of the sects, the knight was actually in love with an earthly woman, unifying the carnal and the spiritual in the most profound idealized manifestation (Žderić, 2014). 

Dreams: The Staircase Between the Past and the Future, the Living and the Dead, God and the Mortal Realm

Once Christianity rose to power and established itself as a spiritual force lurking over the European continent, one of the first challenges was to find a proper place for the older traditions. Dreams and oneiromancy, or divination through dreams, were among them. Early Christians were vexed by the belief in prophetic dreams and showcased a multitude of contradictory attitudes toward the practice. Their trusty source material, The Bible, was of little help since it provided equally opposite accounts. Dreams were seen as dangerous illusions but also messages from God. “From God emanate true dreams, but there are also deceitful 'dream-senders' who propagate dreams through false prophets” (as cited by Le Goff, 1985, p. 195). Important biblical dreamers provide a pathway between the mortal realm and Heaven rather than the past and the future, so the practice of seeing the future through dreams, popular among different European pagans was frowned upon by Christians. According to them, attempting to predict the future was sinful because time belonged only to God (LeGoff, 1985, p. 196). There was also a strong association between dreaming and the underworld, the realm of the departed. 

Bosch, H. (1575), Christ in a Limbo.
Figure 6: Bosch, H. (1575), Christ in a Limbo.

However, dreaming was not fully seen as negative. It was associated with conversion. After all, a common conversion story was often described in such a manner. An individual might have had no interest in or even hated the doctrine, but suddenly, had a vision or dream that transformed their minds completely, turning them into sudden devouts (LeGoff, 1985, p. 203). A person who played a pivotal role in Christian dream typology, theology, and theory, was Tertullian, who composed a treaty on dreams, between 210 and 213 AD. According to him, dreaming was a part of human active life since it derived from the mobility of the soul (LeGoff, 1985, p. 207). Tertullian tried to reconcile the opposite perspectives by clearly separating the dreams inspired by demons/pagan traditions and those sent by God. He also naturalized them as a side effect of the immortal soul’s movements since only the body needed rest and the soul was always alert. According to his theory, dreams, provided they came from the right source, were vessels for divine communication. 

Death and Illness in the Flesh

When discussing grievous topics like death and illness in ancient cultures, anthropomorphisms always come into play. The tendency to depict non-human entities in humanoid forms is a global phenomenon, observed across cultures. For the medieval folk, illnesses and death often appeared in the flesh, whether in fairy tales or works of art. Modern literature inspired by the Middle Ages gladly accepted this concept. In August Šenoa’s House of the Plague, (Šenoa, 1869/2003) the scary disease appears as an old woman and in Slavko Janevski’s Legions of Saint Adofonis, the titular saint is a rat saint, the bringer of the Black Death (Janevski, 1986).

The attitude towards illness in the Middle Ages was shifting between fear, rejection and compassion. As for the cause, the usual conception is that the people of the past viewed both physical and mental illness as supernatural, the work of entity possessions or curses. Even though there is truth in this claim, it is far from accurate to believe the medieval perspective on these issues was always removed from the natural world. In his article “Modern Myth and Medieval Madness: Views of Mental Illness in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance,” the psychologist Simon Kemp suggests that the examination of sources and evidence, particularly linked to the medieval period, showcases a fairly limited connection between possession, witchcraft, and mental illness (Kemp, 1985). Many cases of mental disorders were attributed to natural causes, especially from the fourteenth century onwards. He also debunks the idea that people who were accused of witchcraft were mostly mentally ill. This doesn’t mean there was no connection between physical and mental disorders and the assumption of supernatural forces at work, just that medical, scientific, and natural explanations were equally likely. 

Frog-headed man. (n.d.).
Figure 7: Frog-headed man. (n.d.).

Opposing the general view held by some that the Middle Ages was a fully irrational era, the historian Le Goff’s book “The Intellectuals in the Middle Ages” paints a picture of the rational, intellectual, and creative side of the times, proving that the medieval reputation in popular opinion is not accurate (Le Goff,  1982). The medieval attitude towards illness was far more complex, nuanced, and contradictory than what is usually depicted in the popular imagination. In other words, the “Dark Ages” was not darker than any other period in human history.

The Devil: Christianity and Paganism

The character of the Devil is probably the most popular imaginary aspect of the Middle Ages that gives insight into many cultural and societal changes, attitudes, values, and shifts. It also preserves the leftovers of previous traditions that influenced Christian Europe even in their twisted versions. The figure of the devil was meant to embody what society deemed unacceptable, dangerous, and marginal. This could refer to practices as well as groups of people. According to the historian Alfonso di Nola, the conflict between humanity and nature or history goes in two general directions. It either becomes rationalized through science, conquered and explained by humanity, thus losing the anxiety it used to inspire, or it gets removed from reality and steps into mythology (di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 11). 

The Christian devil of the medieval period is a syncretic figure, an amalgamation of multiple influences and layers. Also, the sources show a plethora of different views, explanations, and opinions on the nature of demons. The medieval thought on this topic was far from monolithic. According to Christian sects like the Albigenes and other groups prosecuted as heretics by the Church, the diabolical entity was the creator of the material world. The God of the Old Testament was seen as a demiurge, not the real creator whose presence is beyond anything the human realm represents (di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 84). The Albigenes and other similar groups were characterized by the absolute rejection of the physical world as evil. For them, reality itself was the Devil.

Weird creature. (n.d.).
Figure 8: Weird creature. (n.d.).

The Greco-Roman influence was most obvious in the physical traits of the Devil that are equally popular today: the hooves and horns, akin to deities like Pan (Di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 104). When it comes to the etymology behind many established demons, one can identify the influence of the ancient Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures, from Mesopotamia, through Egypt to the old Hebrew traditions. However, the renowned idea behind the identification between the snake in Genesis and the devil is specifically Christian, not mentioned at all in the source story (Di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 176). The medieval thought transformed the biblical sources into its own doctrine, which was a process that lasted for many centuries. 

Alongside the native European pre-Christian traditions and other cultures that came into contact with Christianity, society played a vital role in the medieval image of the devil. Certain people were demonized, according to religion, race, gender, etc. Still, the medieval period was mostly characterized by religious prosecutions (Di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 234). The witch-hunts, often associated with the Middle Ages, became prevalent in the early modern era, the 16th and the 17th century. The specific attitude that identified women as likely influenced by the demonic was solidified with the publication of Malleus Maleficarum in the 15th century, even though Christian thought has toyed with the idea long before (Di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 256). 

The imagination of demonic hierarchy closely reflected the real world, naming demonic entities as princes, or dukes, mimicking feudal stratification (Di Nola, 1987/2008, pp. 262-264). Some personal imaginary systems influenced the way hellscape was depicted and envisioned, the most well-known being Dante Alighieri’s “Hell,” where the poet combined Christian and pagan imagery, with an addition of his own political views. The early modern era, particularly the 17th century, resurrected the popularity of apocalyptic mythology, starting many millenarianistic movements, among European Christian and European Jews (Di Nola, 1987/2008, p. 233). Millenarianism evoked the end of the world to achieve an absolute transformation. As such, it was often present among the oppressed, manifesting their profound desire to change the state of reality. 

Human-animal hybrids. (n.d.).
Figure 9: Human-animal hybrids. (n.d.).


The medieval imagination is an elusive area of study, attractive to cultural historians because it offers a glimpse into the minds of medieval people. Since medieval Europe was predominantly oral culture, with literacy and art available to few, it is impossible to fully comprehend and reproduce the way people really saw and imagined the world. From what is available, one can notice how imagination influences the world but is itself shaped by societal, economic, political, and cultural shifts. The first impact was the Christian takeover, which left the new elites grappling with a plurality of rich pre-Christian traditions. Total eradication was often difficult and impossible to achieve, not for the lack of trying. Therefore, Christian authorities and intellectuals were left with no choice but to integrate the previous cultural layers, creating a syncretic Imaginarium of creatures, locations and themes. The second transformation came with the Holy Wars and the establishment of the knightly class, followed by the rise of the city and diversification of influence. The multiple ideas represent a result stemming from negotiation between classes and cultures, showcasing that imagination is a dynamic process, vibrant, and ever-shifting, in which the elites have the upper hand, mostly through the control of knowledge. Still, it is impossible to deny the participation of less significant social players. To quote the neo-platonist Synesius of Cyrene, “to each his own dreams and interpretation. No authoritarian state or tyrant could deprive anyone of this right. Sleep and dream were the prime domain of individual liberty” (Synesius of Cyrene, as cited by LeGoff, 1985, p. 201). 

Bibliographical References

Di Nola, A. (2008). Đavo. Clio. Beograd. (Original work published in 1987, Newton Compton editori s.r.l.).

Janevski, S. (1986). Legioni Svetog Adofonisa. Narodna knjiga Beograd. 

Kemp, S. (1985). Modern Myth and Medieval Madness: Views of Mental Illness in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. New Zealand Journal of Psychology. 14(1), 1-8.  

LeGoff, J. (1998). Civilizacija srednjovjekovnog Zapada. Golden marketing. Zagreb. (Original work published in 1964, Paris, Arthaud). 

LeGoff, J. (1982). Intelektualci u srednjem vijeku. Grafički zavod Hrvatske. (Original work published in 1957, Editions du Seuil). 

LeGoff, J. (1988). Medieval Imagination. The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1985, Editions Gallimard).

Šenoa, A. (2003). Povjestice. Školska knjiga. Zagreb. (Original work published in 1869).

Žderić, M. (2014). Lik viteza u srednjovjekovnim epovima. (Završni rad, Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. FFOS-repozitorij,

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