woensdag 24 februari 2016

Bread of Dreams - Digest: 'Preface'


cover van Camporesi 1996, met Pieter Bruegels Het Land van Kokanje (Luilekkerland), 1567, olieverf op paneel, 52 x 78 cm, Münich, Alte Pinakothek, inv. 8940

"We must deal in an even-handed way with what to us seems sensible and what seems bizarre, what seems progressive and archaic, or sophisticated and naive. And we must grasp how such varied elements typically fitted together into what was for earlier societies [...] a coherent world view. [...] How did the people at large make sense of the world if they did not fully accept at face value the universe of meanings stipulated by authority - by Church or state? [...] Magic, the supernatural, disguise, surprise events, coincidences - all these loomed large in the hopes and fears of those who made poor and precarious livings off the land, overshadowed by the unpredictable fortunes of birth, life and death, the social exactions and exploitations of the strong and the malign. [...] For one of the cardinal assumptions pervading Camporesi's historical vision is that the tales of the unusual and the cosmology of the weird and wonderful with which he deals were not simply the mind-fodder of the mere peasantry, the opium of the illiterate, the daydreams of the dregs. Rather these beliefs were current throughout the society, accepted [...] by representatives of all social classes[...] these 'irrational' ideas were supported and generated so powerfully, and for so long, precisely by the most educated and authoritative members of the society. [...]
Not only were popular and 'vulgar' views - about the normality-defying powers of the flesh - supported by the intelligentsia, but the beliefs of Medieval and early modern Christian culture turn out to have been different from, or at least far more complex than, what historians have traditionally suggested. We have always been told that Christianity inculcated a contempt for the flesh, seeing it as mere worm-food, a mass of corruption, a prison house of the soul. That is indeed true, and Camporesi cites abundant instances of ascetics and flagellants. But his point is that the contempt of the flesh, taken to such levels, becomes and endorses its opposite. It expresses a profound fascination for the flesh as an emblem of life in a world of the inanimate, of change and becoming. It suggests almost a reverence for it, not least because the flesh of those self-scourgers, the great ascetics, became no less an object of veneration, almost adoration, than the bodies beautiful of pin-ups and movie stars
nowadays. [...] Using sources as varied as ecclesiastical records and official reports, proverbs, scurrilous verse and popular drama, Camporesi explores the diverse features of a way of life in which, for the vast majority of a society of small-scale peasants, labourers, wanderers, paupers and vagabonds, Lenten living was a cruel and perpetual necessity as much as an act of Christian holiness, and in which a public feast could be the apogee of a lifetime's aspirations. [...] Camporesi shows the enormous symbolic significance attached to having enough to eat. [...] The fat man was - as in so many third world cultures these days - the visible embodiment of the successful man, the man who had literally incorporated his success, become his own corporation. [...] Camporesi thus explores how the acts of eating, digestion, and defecation formed the core of a popular cosmology concerned with
explaining living and dying, change and process, the tendency to decay and the capacity to resist it.
lt was a culture in which all dreamed of eating flesh (meat was nourishment, taste and status) but in which eating the flesh of certain animals was taboo, and above all, the notion of eating human flesh was utterly charged with feelings of abomination, yet fascination. Tales of anthropophages, and of tribes which practised cannibalism, proliferated. How could it have been different within a religion whose most sacred ritual was the ceremonial repetition of an act of cannibalism? Popular culture, in its orgiastic drunken feasts, mocked the sacred cannibalism of the eucharist. [...]
Bread marked the divide between life and death. Bread stood for the body within Christian symbolism. Making, breaking, and distributing bread earned profound connotations of friendship, communion, giving, sharing, justice - indeed, literally, 'com-pan'ionship. [... Camporesi's] powerful imagination enables him to recreate the central importance of hunger as a moving force in history - both as what we might call a real 'gut' drive, and as the stimulus to fantasy, to rebellion, to utopias - the idea of a land of Cockayne... where none will any longer be hungry. [...]
One of the most startling claims in this book is Camporesi's view that much of the population of earlier Europe was living in some sort of drugged condition. This, he suggests, was sometimes the effect of mere hunger, producing dazed or stupefied states. Sometimes it was the result of eating tainted bread, made from mouldy, verminous flour, or stale food whose condition had deteriorated. Sometimes it was through accidental or deliberate adulteration - mixing flour with mash, bran, potatoes, vegetable leaves or chemicals to make it go further or to transform the taste. It was also thanks to consuming all manner of fermented drinks, mushrooms, distillations and the like, and applying or sniffing lotions, oils, essences, etc. Such intoxication - the equivalent perhaps of betel-chewing in Asia or the use of coca leaves in South America - perhaps inured populations to lives of toil, tedium and general hopelessness; perhaps also provided hallucinatory experiences which stimulated that vision of the tangibility of the supernatural which is so central to early modern religious experiences; and perhaps accounts for bizarre phenomena such as witchcraft possession and religious convulsionism."
(Roy Porter, 'Preface', pp. 3-15)

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