Material Proof of the Divine

Many of the stories in Visions of Hell must be mediated through physical objects, creating a sequence of confirmations that links the vision to the physical world. Often, the stories layer different forms of validation, forming a web that supports the vision’s version of truth and strengthens the consequences of the vision. In St. Paul’s story, a man receives a vision from an angel about a hidden box in his house containing the recordings of St. Paul: “An angel appeared to him at night and revealed to him that he should break up the foundation of the house and publish what he found. But he thought this was a lying vision. But a third time the angel came and scourged him and forced him to break up the foundation […] But the man was afraid to open that box and brought it to the judge.” The reader must navigate a maze of supernatural and physical interventions in order to reach the recordings of St. Paul’s vision. First, an ordinary man receives a vision from an angel about the location of the box. He dismisses this, until the angel intervenes more harshly, warning the reader of the dangers of ignoring cosmic intercessions. The man finds a physical object, the box, after receiving spiritual guidance, forming the first connection between the spiritual and physical planes. The box passes through a hierarchy of hands before being unsealed, moving from an ordinary man, to a judge, to the emperor. The ordinary man has the guiding vision, but he is not deemed worthy for the recordings of St. Paul. The box is sealed with lead, a malleable and soft metal only affordable to the medieval wealthy, indicating its high value. The material recordings of the visions must balance supernatural influences and a physical history to maintain credibility. A similar narrative occurs in the visions of Furseus. The narrator encourages the reader to seek out the book of Furseus for more information on the monk’s journey. Rather than simply launching into a description of the visions of Furseus, the narrator points to a physical book as a material connection between Furseus’ visions and the physical world. The book supposedly offers more details, including the names of those banished to hell or welcomed to heaven, details that link Furseus’ visions to a specific time and location. However, the recordings of the book are not enough. The narrative describes a burn mark on Furseus’ face, a physical manifestation of his trials during his trance. The narrator illustrates how “when the man of God came to the passage opened amid the flames, the unclean spirits laid hold of one of those whom they tormented in the fire and threw him at Furseus and, touching his shoulder and jaw, burned them. Furseus knew the man and remembered that he had received this man’s garment when he died.” Furseus’ journey into hell transforms his physical body. Not only does this marking strengthen the connection between the material and spiritual worlds, but it warns of the influence  of the spiritual on the physical. Hell demonstrates a material power over the physical world, strengthening the truth of Furseus’ vision for the reader and warning of the vision’s consequences. The narrative continues, describing how “when he was restored to his body, and throughout his whole life, on his shoulder and jaw he bore the mark of the fire that he had felt in his soul, visible to all men. In an amazing way his flesh publicly showed what the soul had suffered in private […] he would only tell his visions to those who wished to learn of them from holy zeal and desire of reformation.” The narrator directly states how the vision mediates between the physical and spiritual world, the flesh and the body. Despite the public evidence of the vision, the vision remains accessible only to the worthy. Furseus only tells his visions to the spiritually enlightened. In this case, the vision passes directly from the receiver to the worthy, without a chain of intermediaries. Nonetheless, the narrative proceeds to describe strangers who received these visions as an additional confirmation to their validity: “An ancient brother of our monastery is still living who often declares that a very sincere and religious man told him that he had seen Furseus himself in the province of East Anglis and heard of those visions from his own mouth.” This brother is associated with the narrator’s monastery, pinning down the time and place of the visions and tying the vision more strongly to the physical world. Both the visions of Furseus and St. Paul repeatedly ground themselves in physical objects, locations, and time periods. Rather than only the monk or the saint acting as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical, the material records of these visions gain spiritual properties. A list of repeated confirmations links between the physical and spiritual strengthens their claim to truth and secures the future of the vision for new generations. Nathalie

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