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Keagan Brewer
The University of Notre Dame Australia
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Wonder and Scepticism in the Long Twelfth Century

This project considered the role of wonder in medieval European understandings of their world, and how it necessarily intersected with scepticism in a process that was both cognitive and emotional. The thesis argued that the emotion of wonder ensured that medieval Europeans interpreted bizarre phenomena with as much critical thinking as modern people, though through distinct theoretical and cultural lenses. 

The Rutland Psalter_cropped.jpg

My thesis considered medieval Europeans' responses to bizarre phenomena, which are recorded in their chronicles and other writings. Such phenomena included green children emerging from the ground, monsters in far-off India, elephants, lightning, eclipses, visions of the next world, ghosts and revenants, and so on. Medieval Europeans assessed the verisimilitude of these phenomena using a variety of epistemological strategies, including questioning witnesses, traveling to their places of origin and, in a small number of instances, performing experiments. Other secondary strategies were used when these primary strategies were not possible, such as assessing the moral reliability of the reporter, performing textual research, or assessing on the basis of breadth of report or similarity with prior reports. My thesis argued that these strategies were underpinned by wonder itself, an evolutionary mechanism that encourages humans to accrue knowledge by asking questions about novel phenomena. As such, medieval European culture had a tension at its core, between an innate curiosity and desire to examine the exotic, and a cultural repulsion towards novelty and curiosity in favour of tradition and auctoritas.

Publications

Brewer, K. Wonder and Scepticism in the Middle Ages. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.


Image: Psalter, Use of Sarum ('The Rutland Psalter') c.1260Manuscript / Illustration, Courtesy of the British Library. Public Domain.