The Parallel Worlds of the Crucible

Time travel is not only theoretically possible, travel into our future has already been achieved (albeit on a tiny scale of a few seconds or minutes). Travel into our past is more problematical; how would interfering with our past affect our present? Some physicists have argued that sending someone into the past would create a ‘parallel universe’ – the mere presence of someone in a past world would alter that world’s future to such an extent that a different future would necessarily be created: a parallel universe (or world) to the one we live in.

The three books of The Crucible are set, not in the medieval Europe of our past, but in the medieval Europe of a parallel universe: the insertion of even one fictional character among a host of historical characters necessarily creates that parallel world. Thus, while there are many similarities between our past and the world of The Crucible, there are also subtle differences. Chapter I begins with Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome on January 16th 1377 – a historical fact from our own world – but from that time on, the Europe of The Crucible skews away from our historical past, although many points of historical reference remain the same. Although some dates and ‘facts’ have altered, the spirit of The Crucible remains identical to that of our medieval Europe.

Something strange happened in the fourteenth century … something very, very odd. The fourteenth century was an age of unprecedented catastrophe for western Europe: widespread famine due to climate change, economic collapse, uncontrollable heresies, social upheaval, endemic war and, to compound the misery, the physical and psychological devastation of the Black Death. In all of recorded history there has never been before or since a period of such utter disaster: one half of Europe’s population died due to the effects of famine, war and the Black Death. As a result, Europeans emerged from the fourteenth century profoundly – and frighteningly – changed. Medieval Europe had been an intensely spiritual society: the salvation of the soul was paramount. Post-fourteenth-century Europe abandoned spirituality for secularism, materialism and worldliness, its peoples embraced technology and science, and developed the most aggressively invasive mentality of world history. Why this profound shift from the internal quest for spiritual salvation to a craving for world domination? Was it just the end result of over a hundred years of catastrophe … or was there another reason?

The Crucible presents an explanation couched in a medieval understanding of the world rather than in terms more familiar to our modern sensibilities. Medieval Europe was a world of evil incarnate, a world where demons and angels walked the same fields as men and women, and a world where the armies of God and of Satan arrayed themselves for the final battle … we now live in the aftermath of that battle, but are we sure who won?

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