The Permeable Self: Five Medieval Relationships

From the LROB:

* The self Margery describes is different from our modern understanding of that word, however, and not only because she appears, with perhaps feigned humility, as a mere ‘creature’. As Barbara Newman shows in her brilliant new book, medieval Christians understood themselves to be interconnected to an extent that would surprise many people today, at least in Western cultures. Their minds and hearts were legible to other people as well as to God and the devil, and they saw themselves as vulnerable to interference from human and supernatural forces, to both good and bad ends.

This ‘porous selfhood’ was modelled on the Christian doctrine of coinherence, the notion that the three persons of the Trinity dwell in one another simultaneously. The idea extended to humankind, too, since people were understood as participating in the mystical body of Christ and, by extension, in one another. Paul summed it up in Corinthians 15:22 when he wrote that ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.’ Newman leans heavily on coinherence, arguing that it extended to relations between people even in secular contexts such as romantic love. One of the attractions of coinherence is the ethical imperative it carries, recognised by thinkers including Ludwig Feuerbach and Desmond Tutu: if human beings are interconnected, then an injury done to one is an injury done to all. But Newman’s medieval case studies also suggest a more troubling possibility: that a person’s sense of self can dissolve under the pressure of external interference both demonic and divine.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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