Photo credit: Matt Lincoln
Firstly, I don’t sleep much anymore. A year ago sleep left me. I’ve spent the year in a complex postmortem of the sort that often follows a relationship breakup. What did I do to make it leave? What can I do to get it back? Is it possible to learn to survive without it? A year of counseling, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, mindfulness, CBT, meditation, supplements, drugs, and general earnest searching has left my questions with the following answers, respectively: Unclear. Unclear. No.
The two or three years prior to that I’d been working on a novel set in the late middle ages, whose genesis was confession — confession of the Catholic sort that happens in a booth, a little dark box
. I’m not a Catholic and have never confessed, but I’m drawn to the idea of this little dark box. The waiting priest, ear to the grille. The stooped, whispering penitent. A bizarre, mystic theatre. Alongside that, mundane everydayness — spiritual absolution made routine. You come in, you confess, you agree to a penance and you are absolved; it might take less than five minutes. In the middle ages, the overworked priest urged his penitent to be brief, be brutal, be gone.
To write about confession is to try to grasp how the penitents’ minds work — what they’re prepared to lie about, what their nightmares look like, what they laugh at. But already there’s a problem, since trying to discern something about the medieval mind is to impose on it a construct that didn’t exist at the time. The mind
as such wasn’t a thing. There were brains and there were hearts, but mostly hearts. The heart thought, felt, understood, and weighed morals. In René d’Anjou’s tale The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart
, written in 1457, the heart is an autonomous questing hero who sets off on a voyage, and whose first encounter is to read some strange words which jolt him, wonderstruck, into pensement
at their meaning; there it is, the thinking heart. Also the heart that desires, and is at the same time the agent that pursues desire.
There’s no real modern equivalent for that complex set of capacities assigned to the heart. But instinct told me that what went on in the medieval head (let’s say head) wasn’t fundamentally different to what goes on in ours. When penitents came into the box to shed their sins, turning the rosary beads, muttering the "
Ave," there was probably the same spectrum of experience as there is now — trepidation, relief, resentment, amusement, excitement, calculation, boredom, gratitude. The physical realities of cold, hot, achy, tired, unwell, hungry.
Brief, brutal, and gone doesn’t quite describe our lives. Ours are merely brief, relatively comfortable, and gone.
I could never buy into the term "The Dark Ages," or its associations with a population that was intellectually and emotionally blunt, or people who lived such collective animal lives that they barely even had a sense of self. You have only to look at church graffiti or wall paintings or wills to see how deeply humorous, self-concerned, loving, hopeful, fearful, canny, and crafty people of the middle ages were. You need only look at a medieval cathedral to see how distinct its makers were from other animals.
So I come back to the issue of my sleeping. Anxiety is the settled-on cause. The great modern epidemic, anxiety. I’ve thought about anxiety a lot — thinking a lot is probably the cause of my anxiety — and I was especially curious about it when I wrote my novel. Its little world of Oakham is under threat, the threat foments fear and furtiveness. What was the experience of threat like, then, for these people? Did they get anxious? I’ve read various sources claiming that anxiety is a relatively new thing, probably first documented in the 17th century — although that doesn’t mean it was the first time it was felt. Presumably not — new states of experience don’t suddenly spring into being.
In my research about the medieval mind (heart? head?) I found countless examples of what could be called worry. People worried relentlessly on the whole. Who wouldn’t? Disease, hunger, the weather, fire, penances, the early death of one’s children or wife or father, the constant surveillance of God, the arbitrary cruelty of the so-called justice system, the unbanishable dark. But worry and anxiety aren’t exactly the same; worry tends to be more temporary, more object-focused, more concrete, less diffuse than anxiety. I think of my own anxiety, which often has no object and which transmutes itself into worry by finding objects to attach to, in order to justify its existence. This thing, this iterative, self-referencing battle with one’s own thoughts, this is the strange being that is anxiety. Did medieval people have that?
One night, recently, I was lying awake in a fairly unfamiliar room with unfamiliar noises — mostly no noise at all. Then I heard something which sounded like a person outside trying to get in, or perhaps a person already inside. My attention, which had been absorbed in the thoughts banging restlessly against the inside of my skull, was drawn outwards to the source of threat. It was a strange mercy. I lay there, alert and clear of mind, and listened for a couple of minutes until I realized that it wasn’t an intruder, probably just the old house settling, or an animal, or even walnuts falling from the tree overhanging the bedroom roof, or something. Then I went into the easiest sleep I’d had for months.
Anxiety, it seems to me, is the malfunctioning of the natural impulse towards fear. Fear is transitory. It’s felt at the detection of threat, it tells us what to do to protect ourselves, and then it passes when the threat leaves or when it’s clear that the threat isn’t going to leave — in which case it cedes to some other survival mechanism. Heightened alertness, strength, speed, or maybe a shutting down. Yet we in developed countries live lives that have very little cause for real fear. It isn’t to say the world is perfect — it’s an insane mess in so many respects — but it doesn’t usually present us with imminent threat. Climate change, Trump, Assad, Putin, Brexit — a mess. But in fact, in this moment, my life isn’t being threatened by any of them at all.
If chronic anxiety is a relatively modern phenomenon, it’s surely because our lives have got easier, not harder. We don’t have much to be immediately afraid of — there might be a handful of things in a lifetime that give us cause for significant fear. The rest is noise. Sourceless noise. As soon as I perceived a real, external threat that night, the noise quietened, and in its lull I slept.
I don’t doubt that medieval people had the capacity to be anxious, but maybe they didn’t have as much opportunity. Anxiety is a battle with demons that are created by thoughts, demons that are nonexistent and self-made. Then we try to fight the demons with more thoughts, which gives rise to more demons, and more thoughts. All noise.
In the medieval records I read, the confessions, the wills, the prayers, I found a lot of humor and a lot of fear. I saw countless demons, outer and inner. There was pleasure and ease too, but largely people’s lives were summed up by that snippet of priestly advice: brief, brutal, and gone. Wouldn’t those inner demons of the medieval man or woman get outplayed by the outer ones — the pain in your stomach you’ve had for weeks, the soil that’s too sodden to plough, the second baby you lost at birth? I wonder how many chronic insomniacs there were then? Could anyone afford to stay awake night after night when their days were so physically hard?
I imagine some inversion, a 15th-century man or woman projecting forwards to write about the 21st-century mind. Inexplicably mad
, could be the appraisal. I’m reminded of a line from a Leonard Cohen song: "I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame." Brief, brutal, and gone doesn’t quite describe our lives. Ours are merely brief, relatively comfortable, and gone. In our comfort, nonexistent demons abound. Maybe it’s a paradox of being human that if we are to keep our anxieties in check, our demons need to be somewhat more like those of our medieval predecessors: more wild and wolfish and real.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of three novels, Dear Thief
, All Is Song
, and The Wilderness
, which won the Betty Trask Prize. Her books have been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian First Book Award, and the James Tait Black Prize, as well as longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize. She lives in Bath, UK, and teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University. The Western Wind
is her most recent book.