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.

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