The chain of being

A creature

The traditional western worldview, which was shaped by the Christian Bible, was that humans are creatures – in other words, they were intentionally created by another. According to Genesis 2:4-25 God first creates man from the dust and breathes life into him (see Earth, clay, dust). He then places man in the Garden of Eden (see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'). In order to provide companionship for man, animals and birds are then created and named by man. Finally, God creates woman as a partner for the man.

An ordered created world

Heirarchy of angels by BotticiniIn medieval times, the universe was seen as a hierarchy, with God, the Creator, as at the top. Everyone and everything else, having been made by God, was a ‘creature' of God:

  • Next to God in the order of creation were the angelic spirits: there were thought to be nine orders, or ranks: Seraphs, Cherubs, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Powers, Dominions, Archangels, Angels.
  • Below these spirits were human beings, who were thought to be unique in having both a body, like animals, but also a spirit (orsoul).
  • Below mankind came animals, having body but no soul; then plants; then stones. 

In traditional medieval imagery, humans were each seen as a miniature world (microcosm) which corresponded to the wider cosmos (macrocosm).

Spiritual soul and physical body

Medieval writers often described the body as a container for the soul, seeing the body as made of earth and the soul as a spirit trapped within it. This idea was partly derived from the Greek philosopher Plato, but also reflected the words of Genesis (see above).

Mortal and eternal

Human life is mortal, that is, it inevitably ends with physical death. Medieval people generally assented to the Christian teaching that all human beings have a soul which is immortal and reflects something of being made in God's image. Despite the relative brevity of human life, according to Christian belief the soul actually only wants to spend a short time in the world: it would far sooner be back in heaven. This was because humans were made in the image of God and welcomed the chance to be reunited with him.

(For more information see Big ideas: Death and resurrection.)

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