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History and the Supernatural in Medieval England.


History and the Supernatural in Medieval England. By Carl S. Watkins. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought Fourth Series 66. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii + 277 pp. $99.00 cloth.

This important book is marked by sophisticated reflection, thorough and wide use of sources, and crisp writing. It is in the best tradition of Sir Richard Southern, Robert Brentano, Caroline Bynum, and Nancy Partner. Do not read the abstract and wordy chapter 6 in lieu of the preceding chapters, which are richly textured with both insight and specific examples. Carl Watkins shows that medieval writers did not divide events into "natural" and "supernatural" the way modems do but treated the "supernatural," magic, wonders, miracles, and demons in diverse ways. There was no "superstitious medieval worldview" on such subjects. Watkins studies English chronicles from about 1050 to 1215: Orderic Vitalis, Walter Map, William of Malmesbury, Gervase of Tilbury, William of Newburgh, William of Poitiers, John of Salisbury, and Gerald of Wales, among others. The chronicles, he argues, illustrate the existence of "practical theology" at the interface of abstract theology and daily practice.

The term "supernatural" was rarely used before Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and he used it primarily to describe the actions of God's grace beyond the natural course of events. The modern use of the term to designate "stuff we can't believe in because of our naturalist worldview" creates a problem. Watkins avoids such dead ends by demonstrating the sophistication and diversity of views among the English chroniclers. Augustine's views were in the minds of most of the chronicles and were particularly strong in Walter Map's. God created nature, so that everything that occurs is natural. Miracles are natural processes speeded up. Other wonders would be naturally explainable if we only knew enough. The exception to this schema was the demonic. The Devil and his demons twist nature to their own evil ends, and humans can use their free will to promote either God's will or Satan's. Thus the two categories are the good natural and the evil demonic. Orderic, Map, and Robert Grosseteste generally followed this schema.

But other chroniclers noted marvelous events that seemed to have no moral point. A man of Bristol who, while fishing in the Irish Sea, drops a knife into the sea--and finds that the same knife has crashed through the window onto his own kitchen table at home (213). What use could either God or the Devil have for such a bizarre event? The chroniclers offer a variety of solutions. The more Augustinian ones would argue that such events are caused by demons for the purpose of bewildering human minds. If the event occurred, it was the work of demons, or else it was an illusion visited by the demons on the deluded fisherman. Such chroniclers impressed morals onto tales of wonder. Watkins shows, however, that a shift appeared in the period 1050-1215, with more and more chroniclers such as Gerald of Wales reporting stories that they had from reliable witnesses that indicated a neutral set of events between the natural and demonic. Eventually, as the proto-science of the Middle Ages developed into the naturalist science of the seventeenth century, such marvels were incorporated into the naturalist view and were placed into one of two categories: the impossible and therefore false; or the true for which some sort of scientific explanation was possible. Watkins's chroniclers coped with related ideas in their own time, such as the difference between magic and religion and the remnants of pagan beliefs.

Watkins argues that modern historians claiming that medieval Europe was not thoroughly Christianized simply invented medieval paganism. Such historians posit a gulf between the religion of the theological elite and "popular religion," but Watkins shows that the chronicles reveal a sort of consensual religion, "a single community of Christian believers bound together by shared belief, ritual and practice" (9). Setting aside the perennial question of how to define paganism, there was little of it in any sense by the eleventh century. Prohibitions found in lists of penances or in decrees against pagan practices were simply copied from ancient Christian texts composed at a time when paganism had been a real threat. In 1050-1215 the church was not concentrating on paganism but on the reform and standardization of Christian education, practice, and doctrine.

Whatever unchristian practices existed in the period are much better called "magic" than paganism. The classic definition between religion and magic is that religion asks for the deity's help, whereas magic is intended to compel nature. Often the lines between magic and religion were and are blurred, as when reciting a prayer or wearing a medal is believed to cause a practical effect. Some magic or technology proves to work better than others, but the essential act is the same.

Watkins adds to the literature about medieval "ghosts," or at least apparitions. In high theology an apparition could not be neutral, but on the level of practical theology ghosts might be a part of nature as yet not understood: they might be from heaven or purgatory rather than hell, or they might fall into the ambiguous zone of the natural.

Watkins illumines the question of evidence and witnesses. Emphasis on the demonic declined, and wonders were more and more included among morally neutral events that fell into "'nature' as an intellectual category" (134) into which events could be fit. As wonders were examined as part of nature, a more careful evaluation of evidence was required. In the early part of Watkins's period, it was not uncommon for chroniclers to be prisoners of their ambiguities, reporting second- or third-hand evidence with the disclaimer that they could not vouch for it. Later, as wonders were included in the natural order, willingness to report them grew, while at the same time the testimonies of witnesses were much more thoroughly scrutinized. Some writers warned against rejecting an event just because you have never experienced anything like it yourself, an attitude that sometimes led to atheism: "Hard empirical evidence stood theology and philosophy on their head. Things once suspended between fabula and relatio autentica were rehabilitated as historical facts" (223). Watkins's views are often persuasive as well as original, and they ought to provoke much discussion.

Jeffrey Burton Russell

University of California, Santa Barbara
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Author:Russell, Jeffrey Burton
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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