Miracles, Marvels, Magic

Caroline Walker Bynum

  • The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages by Robert Bartlett
    Cambridge, 170 pp, £17.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 70255 3

The events and beliefs of the Middle Ages that have appeared unusual to later centuries have always attracted attention of two rather different sorts. One tendency has been to explain them away. For example, sophisticated and thoughtful about many religious phenomena though he was, in The Varieties of Religious Experience William James tended to reduce the mystical experiences of medieval women, especially when accompanied by bodily rigidity, swelling or trances, to psychological aberrations. Catholic scholars such as Herbert Thurston also attempted to explain a number of supposed miraculous occurrences such as stigmata or the incorruptibility of bodies after death as natural or artificially induced effects. For at least 150 years, chemists and biologists have delighted in pointing out that a red fungus known as micrococcus prodigiosus could account for alleged miracles of bleeding communion hosts. Art historians have occasionally suggested that new objects such as hanging lamps in the shape of doves or brightly painted statues might have caused visionary experiences when worshippers in dusty and smoke-filled churches mistook them for apparitions.

Reductive explanations of this sort were not unknown even in the Middle Ages. Theologians and ecclesiastical authorities were aware that some miraculous hosts had mould on them; church lawyers ferreted out cases of feigned sanctity and fraudulent miracles; contemplatives wrote with great sophistication about the worrisome possibility that their visions and prophecies might be self-induced, self-validating or self-deceiving. Nicole Oresme, one of the greatest medieval mathematicians and philosophers, thought that most visionary experiences were the result of hallucinations or of eating too close to bedtime. The 13th-century Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck, who travelled to China and India, attributed tales of a people who have only one foot, which they use as a sunshade, to the fact that all Indians carried umbrellas.

The alternative tendency has been not to explain away medieval beliefs but to exaggerate their outlandishness and the credulity of those who held them. Some of the most astonishing medieval miracle claims were propagated not by medieval writers but by Protestant chroniclers of the 16th century, intent on exposing and indicting Catholic superstition. It was a 19th-century German pastor who, on the basis of a philological and theological misunderstanding, created the story of a 14th-century abbess at Lippoldsberg who claimed to have the actual body of Jesus as a relic and had inflicted wound marks on it. As Paul Freedman and Gabrielle Spiegel pointed out a decade ago, contemporary medievalists have also turned to the study of the grotesque, the bizarre or the downright offensive, justifying this as a means of enabling modern readers to explore mechanisms of repression or titillation. Moreover, like the tendency to reductionism, an enthusiasm for the bizarre is not merely a contemporary taste. Medieval writers themselves collected tales of werewolves and monsters, of exotic plants and exotic peoples. Marco Polo delighted in stories of strange beasts such as giraffes without deploying any very differentiated language to categorise them. Medieval marvel-collectors were sometimes careful to bracket their reports with layers of textual framing that disclaimed eyewitness knowledge of improbable events, or to suggest that the perspective from which a phenomenon is viewed determines whether it is seen as ‘odd’. The same William of Rubruck who explained away the monopods as umbrella-carrying Indians reported that men at the court of the great Chan gazed at the friars ‘as if they were monsters’ because they went barefoot, and explained not only that he couldn’t find the supposed monstrous races in India but also that the Indians thought such bizarre peoples must be located far away in William’s own country. Nonetheless, medieval thinkers, like a number of medievalists today, accumulated, overemphasised and vastly enjoyed the improbable.

Both of these tendencies can interfere with scholarship, however, because both deprive the past of its full complexity and hence its full power to help us understand how beliefs and events emerge, then as now. Robert Bartlett understands this very well. In The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages, four lectures given in Belfast, he does something much harder than merely divert us with medieval oddities or explain them away as misunderstandings. He explores the categories in which medieval people themselves thought about the phenomena of their world, whether they were as rare as dog-headed humans and lunar eclipses or as ordinary as the housefly that fascinated the 13th-century natural philosopher Roger Bacon. Elucidating some very complicated subject matter in graceful prose, Bartlett argues against the suggestion that there was a unified ‘medieval mind’ or a single ‘belief system’; nor does he fall into simple dichotomies of learned and popular, Latin and vernacular, religious and secular. For each phenomenon he considers and for each century between the ninth and the early 14th (Bartlett treats few thinkers beyond 1300), he finds many positions on the nature of the world and the peoples in it, and a developing complexity in the categories used to organise and explain them.

Four lectures of some 50 minutes each make for a very short book. There has not been room for probing analysis, and the book makes no general argument about the development or the context of the ideas it deals with. Its great appeal lies in its clear, lively style and in the range of its subject matter. All of it will be new to the general reader, at whom the book is directed, and much will be unfamiliar to medievalists as well. In contrast to what one usually finds in published lectures, there is a surprising amount both of original research and of new insight into familiar texts. Bartlett’s treatment of witchcraft, for example, not only adds to the well-known Canon episcopi and Malleus maleficarum some obscure and relevant material from 11th-century Hungary, but uses all three sources to provide a more nuanced interpretation than the old cliché about there having been a simple progression from the persecution of witch-belief to the persecution of witches.

In the first lecture, Bartlett deals with the emergence, primarily in what we call scholastic theology, of the category of ‘supernatural’, arguing that the very appearance of the category limited its scope. He then briefly suggests two phenomena as proof of this contraction of the supernatural realm: the disappearance of trial by ordeal in the 13th century, and the adoption of a new educational syllabus that privileged the naturalism and empiricism of Aristotle. In the second chapter, Bartlett explores the medieval understanding of the physical world, especially the investigation of eclipses and the elucidation of the relation of land to water through theories of the elements. The third chapter deals with medieval anthropology – that is, categorisations of the human – once again refusing either to dismiss or simply to marvel at them. Discussions of angels are interpreted as complex explorations of time and space; theories of witchcraft are neither reduced to expressions of misogyny nor explained away as misunderstandings of early medieval legislation; belief in the existence of monstrous races is shown to recede into the distance as exploration and missionary work widen. As Bartlett remarks, ‘Monsters are always elsewhere.’ The fourth lecture takes one of the most fascinating and enigmatic of medieval figures, the friar, scientist, theorist of empirical method, scholarly elitist (not to say snob) and adviser to ecclesiastical powers, Roger Bacon, as a case study in medieval concepts and education.

Over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, the thinkers whose diverse views and range of knowledge Bartlett surveys moved towards a greater sophistication of categories, sorting miracles (what was beyond or contrary to natural processes) from marvels (what was extraordinary, evoking wonder, yet potentially understandable within natural laws) and distinguishing both from magic (what appeared to violate natural process but was actually a manipulation of it). Nonetheless, as Bartlett observes (following Jacques Le Goff), medieval writers not only used the words miracula, mirabilia and magica remarkably flexibly and imprecisely, they also had more complex views of phenomena than their stated definitions suggest. Traditional ideas, coming from the time of the New Testament, claimed, on the one hand, that everything is a miracle because effected by providence, yet asserted, on the other, that from God’s own perspective nothing is a miracle because He understands all the causes and patterns of things. Some thinkers referred to magic as ‘non-true’ miracles but they meant that demons manipulated natural laws, not that they had the power to abrogate them; and some impeccably orthodox theologians, such as the bishop of Paris, William of Auvergne, thought there was a ‘natural magic’ that could make good use of nature’s rules to, for example, ward off thunder or increase the fertility of olive trees.

Moreover, as Bartlett’s second and third lectures show, an event such as an eclipse was interpreted according to a plethora of conflicting intellectual systems. Natural philosophers inherited from antiquity an understanding of solar and lunar eclipses that was correct according to modern astronomical models, and this understanding was widely purveyed. Nonetheless, the sources not only give us a glimpse of the popular practice of shouting at the eclipsed moon to help her escape from the forces eating her but also demonstrate that educated preachers and chroniclers interpreted such astronomical events as signs of divine judgment and intent. Similarly, discussions of geography, which utilised the most advanced science of their day (the theory of the four elements), ranged from the theological to the purely naturalistic. Manegold of Lautenbach, writing in the later 11th century, denied that it was possible for there to be geographical areas completely cut off from the known world, on the grounds that the coming of Christ to save humankind would not then be universal; in contrast, Dante, writing in the early 1300s, accounted for the distribution of land and water over the globe by the entirely naturalistic theory that a protuberance in the sphere of earth-matter was drawn out by the influence of the stars.

The contraction of the scope of the supernatural, to which Bacon’s vast opus gives ample testimony, never resulted in a simple denial of miracles or divine providence by medieval thinkers, although some, such as Oresme, came close to naturalising all explanation. But after the condemnation of a number of philosophical positions by church authorities in both France and England in the 1270s, there was considerable opposition to the idea that natural philosophical (in our terms, scientific) analysis of the physical world should be completely separate from theological discussion. Nonetheless, as the work of Alain Boureau has recently shown, there was no halt to naturalistic analysis not only of the physical world but also of the human body, and it was carried out in what seem to modern eyes quite incongruous contexts. Thinkers in the 14th century pursued audacious inquiries into the natural components of such events as the stigmata of holy people or the conception of Christ without claiming to reduce either their causation or their significance to laws of biology or physics. As Bartlett’s and Boureau’s analyses suggest, the drawing by intellectuals of a clearer but not an absolute line between supernatural and natural enhanced the sophistication of the analysis to which both were subjected.

Throughout these essays, Bartlett is comfortable with the ambiguities and contradictions that shape the ideas and practices of real people, but which scholars often deny in an urge to tidy up the past. Non-specialist readers will find a number of asides that give an education in miniature in the nature of medieval sources. In the first lecture we have, for example, an explanation not only of that vast compendium of medieval saints’ lives prepared by the religious order known as the Bollandists between the 17th and the early 20th centuries but also of how, once such a compendium becomes (as it has) a database, a search for a particular word can shed new light on medieval attitudes. The argument of Henri de Lubac in the 1940s that the category of ‘supernatural’ (from supra naturam) emerged in the 13th century – an argument achieved by a lifetime of painstaking reading – can now, as Bartlett shows us, be corroborated almost in an instant by computerised searches.

It is on page 106 that Bartlett asks the fundamental question which all this fascinatingly discordant material urgently suggests: ‘What do “we” do about beliefs “we” do not share?’ To this, Bartlett’s exposition gives at least a negative answer: what we do not do is dismiss them as mistakes or delusions, reduce them to psychological aberrations, or giggle at them as objects of amusement. There is, however, a fuller and more positive answer: we should try to see how such beliefs arose and adapted in their changing historical context, which needs they met and functions they served, which basic emotional, spiritual and political quandaries and paradoxes they evoked and addressed. We should do this because, if we can understand the many views of past times in all their complexity – and this includes taking account of their real differences from our own views, including the implausible ones – we can perhaps understand the way in which the ideas not just of intellectuals but of ordinary people arise and change and also refuse to change.

This is fiendishly difficult to do. One approach is to embed the ideas in contemporary practices. One might ask, for example, what sorts of miracle did canon lawyers and ecclesiastical authorities confront? What were so-called magicians and alchemists actually doing in their studios and workshops? What sorts of practical administrative problem were university professors, clerical authorities, missionaries and mendicant preachers facing as they tried to educate groups and populations newly reached by urban preaching, by the spread of the parish system, by merchant adventuring and colonial conquest? In other words, did the physical transformations and human problems that medieval theorists explained with their ideas of nature and super-nature change over the years between 1000 and 1500?

The 13th and 14th centuries did see a range of new miracles, such as stigmata, bleeding communion wafers and animated statues – that is, a sort of allegedly supra-natural event never alleged before. The period also saw a new confidence in manipulating matter, which was manifested both in the spread of alchemy and in the emerging claim that the artisan and the artist are creators. As Bartlett himself indicates, new races, objects and societies were encountered in the Far East, while older expectations were disappointed. Natural philosophers such as Bacon and Oresme, who developed universal theories to explain physical events (rays in the case of Bacon, geometrical configurations in the case of Oresme), confronted an intellectual world of developed systems in, for example, bookkeeping and law that no doubt stimulated a thinking in terms of balances and networks that was entirely foreign to theorists such as Manegold of Lautenbach two or more centuries earlier. Ideas, events and practices always change in a complex mutual relationship. If missionaries to the East and the New World did not find monstrous races, alchemists in their laboratories and church lawyers in canonisation trials did encounter new and quite plausible claims for astonishing material metamorphoses. As some of the ‘beliefs “we” do not share’ dissipated around 1300, others emerged. Putting them in their lived context will help us to understand how even today we deal – and must deal – with ‘beliefs “we” do not share.’