The visible forms in which angels appear in these episodes do not simply show that people retained in their minds old idols that had been whitewashed from the walls of their churches. They were in keeping with the modified imagery that was developing in a Protestant culture that it is no longer possible to describe as wholly iconophobic.
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Furthermore, the corpus of colourful examples discussed earlier should not be allowed to eclipse those cases of supernatural intercession from which corporeal or anthropomorphic manifestations of angels are conspicuous by their absence. They must be set alongside an even larger number of stories in which these creatures did not make their presence known to human beings through the untrustworthy medium of sight. Some involve the sense of hearing and touch instead: mysterious blows or pricks to the skin or, as in the episode at Aldeburgh in , melodious sounds or disembodied voices.
How far their reticence in these episodes was itself the result of clerical repression and erasure remains unclear, but it would be wrong to rule out the possibility that it attests to the internalization of Protestant ideology by ordinary laypeople, and to the ways in which over time the Reformation altered modes of mental and visual perception. It modified the cultural lens through which they viewed their world, correcting some distortions but simultaneously creating a new set of blind spots. Ultimately it is vital to stress that angelic intervention was entirely compatible with Reformed providentialism, and to emphasize once more the escape clause which the theologians built into their theory that visible apparitions of angels had ceased more than a millennium before.
When confronted by the messy realities of belief as it manifested itself outside their textbooks, Protestants were obliged to carve out a place for the possibility that instances of the appearance of these celestial creatures that came to their ears might just be phenomena that did indeed come from God. The trouble was it was equally, indeed even more, probable that they were of satanic origin.
And it is to the uncertain status of visions and the frictions and tensions they engendered in post-Reformation society that we must turn in the next section. The difficulty of distinguishing between divine and diabolical illusions and separating out those that were simply the side effects of disease and illness was acute.
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This was a context in which the boundaries between nature and supernature were both porous and fluid as a consequence of increasingly sophisticated philosophical and empirical scrutiny. Vincent of Beauvais d.
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Gerson wrote several treatises on the subject, the most famous of which, On the Proving of Spirits , was composed to challenge the recent canonization of St Bridget of Sweden and presented to the fathers of the Council of Constance in Jeanne des Anges, superior of the Ursuline convent at Loudon in the s, for instance, had regular interaction with a guardian angel who provided her with intimate advice on matters of faith. In Spain many similar self-professed beatas came under investigation in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the ecstasies of English nuns in religious houses in the Low Countries likewise attracted the suspicion of their male confessors.
Their raptures were dismissed as feigned and they themselves denounced as spiritual impostors acting with or without the collusion of Lucifer. The line between those who were the unwitting victims of his wiles and those who acted in conscious alliance with him as witches was very fine indeed. The intertwined strands of misogyny and resentment of lay pretension apparent in much of the discourse surrounding these Catholic visionaries find a close echo within the Protestant camp.
To assert that one had been selected as the recipient of an angelic apparition and as an emissary of divine messages was to offer a tacit challenge to clerical authority. The claim to have had direct communication with supernatural beings gave individuals a spiritual charisma that conflicted with a settled ecclesiastical and social hierarchy in which the laity owed deference to ministers, women to men, servants to masters, and children to their parents.
It provided humble people with an opportunity to make themselves heard in a world in which their inferior and subordinate status required them to remain silent. Implicitly, it also represented a threat to the all-sufficiency of Scripture. It follows that angelic apparitions were most credible when they were experienced by the clergy themselves or where the message they conveyed to the laity accorded with official theological and moral priorities. When they broke out of the mould of conservative exhortations against personal sins and ventured into the region of politics or controversial tenets of dogma, they were likely to be dismissed as deceptive impressions created by Satan to bring the souls of the unwary to eternal destruction.
Perkins made this plain in the section on judging the marks of true and false prophets incorporated in his Fruitfull Dialogue Concerning the End of the World. This selective scepticism can be seen at work in particular examples. Lord Burghley was unimpressed by the pretensions of a certain Miles Fry, who wrote to him in June , calling himself Emmanuel Plantagenet and claiming to be the son of God and Queen Elizabeth I.
He said that he had been taken from her at birth by the Archangel Gabriel, whom he now exceeded in authority. In the midst of the Exclusion Crisis, her insistence that the spirit had disclosed details of a plot to poison Charles II could hardly be ignored and she was initially taken seriously by the authorities. The king himself questioned her at some length before dismissing her, satisfied that she was merely a harmless female crank with a colourful imagination. Another witness might well have attributed the event to the devil, which the dissolute party probably invoked as they drank their impious healths.
Moreover, clerical opinion was itself often divided on how to interpret such occurrences, as revealed by a strange incident near Launceston in Cornwall dating from around But after it appeared in his own chamber the following night and stood at the end of the bed for half an hour he too was terrified.
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Neighbours and friends of a poor woman visited by a personage in white that carried her to strange places, and charged her with preaching vengeance to the sinful populace, interrogated her closely about its identity: was it a benevolent emissary from heaven or was it Lucifer pretending to be an angel of light? A Scotsman named Robert Dunlop who saw a great company of people singing sweetly in the loft above his bed as he lay half awake one August night in was tormented by fear that this might be a demonic delusion.
Troubled long afterwards by the strange apparition, like many early modern Protestants, he could not be certain that his eyes were not deceiving him. The difficulties connected with the discernment of spirits in Protestant England are also illuminated by reference to some of the many episodes of alleged demonic possession reported in the post-Reformation period.
It counteracted claims that their bizarre behaviour was the result of the evil machinations of witches or, alternatively, derived from divine inspiration. Spiritual charisma was displaced by stigma in a strategy that disempowered the victims and undercut their conviction that they were the conduits of supernatural grace. Faint but telling traces of these conflicting readings can be detected in various incidents.
She challenged it to depart from her if it were an evil spirit, but when it said that it had come to comfort her she was convinced.
Angels, spirits, ghosts, demons, other ethereal beings or locations
This confusing and fragmentary narrative has many layers, but one prominent thread is the touching relationship the young girl developed with two apparitions she believed to be angels. Soon, though, she descended into a more violent illness, during which she refused to partake of any sustenance, saying that the Lord fed her with celestial food. She oscillated between desperate spasms and moments of lucidity in which she recited psalms and spoke profoundly.
The battle between good and evil inside her intensified, and to her immense distress her angels, prevented from coming to her by a wicked spirit, departed for the space of twelve weeks.
Gradually her sickness took on more typical demoniacal symptoms, culminating in accusations of witchcraft against three women, one of whom, a widow called Dorothy Swinow, was convicted in April English and Scottish witch trials yield evidence of struggles over the significance of experiences which the defendants believed involved meetings with these capricious and morally ambivalent spirits.
The colour of the clothes these celestial creatures usually wear, green, was inextricably linked with the fairy in folk tradition. These points of contact are further cemented by the case of Ann Jeffries, a year-old Cornishwoman who was thrown into fits when six small fairies leapt over a hedge into the garden where she was knitting in Forsaking food for six months, she claimed to have been fed by these sprites with ethereal bread and was credited with performing marvellous cures with various salves and medicines she had received from them.
Distinguishing angels from ghosts was no less tricky. Reformed repudiation of the notion that the souls of the dead could return to haunt and instruct the living was accompanied by a concerted campaign to redefine continued sightings of departed relatives as diabolical illusions. The ghost which appeared to Isabel Billington of Great Driffield in Yorkshire in , for instance, took the form first of a child of eight dressed in white and later of a barefooted and flaxen-haired youth in a green doublet, breeches and coat.
Bewildered but bold, she bade it identify itself, upon which it confessed that it was the spirit of a murdered man called Robert Elliot intent upon bringing to book the trio of witches who had contrived to kill him. The foregoing observations both help to account for the relative scarcity of apparitions of angels in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English culture, and suggest that their relatively rare intrusions into the historical record should be read as moments in which a more upbeat assessment managed to displace an ingrained reluctance, a reluctance that was not just theological in origin but also, in the broadest sense of the word, political.
Events that were more commonly viewed through the spectacles of witchcraft and diabolism were instead seen as visible instances of angelic intercession. Often we simply do not know the circumstances in which the impulse to censor and reinterpret such episodes was overcome by a particular conjunction of social, cultural and ecclesiastical factors. One final feature of early modern stories of angelic apparition deserves discussion in this essay: their chronological distribution and patterning.
It cannot escape notice that contemporary receptivity to the visible intervention of celestial spirits appears to increase the further we advance into the seventeenth century. Whether imagined or real, the threat presented by Hobbesian materialism, mechanical philosophy and articulated doubt about the existence of an invisible spirit world prompted a renewed determination to defend traditional Protestant assumptions about the supernatural within Christian ranks.
The perception that belief in the presence and agency of angels and indeed demons was being widely questioned served to focus fresh Protestant attention on this class of otherworldly creatures. In this context, it is possible to discern a subtle but distinct change of tone in clerical discourse about both the tendency of angels to appear to human beings in corporeal forms, and the frequency with which they did so in the post-apostolic era.
The Civil War and Interregnum coincided with a stream of new treatises about angels and their interactions with human beings. Some of these echoed sixteenth-century Reformed commonplaces. In addressing the question of whether or not angels manifested themselves in bodily form, Hall adhered to the view that the Elder the Church grew, the more rare was the use of these apparitions, as of other miraculous actions and events: not that the arme of our God is shortned, or his care and love to his beloved ones, any whit abated: but for that his Church is now in this long processe of time settled, through his gracious providence, in an ordinary way … Now then in these latter ages of the Church, to have the visible apparition of a good Angell, it is a thing so geason [scarce] and uncouth, that it is enough for all the world to wonder at.
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Paradoxically, proving the existence of the invisible realm depended on acquiring experimental evidence of those relatively rare occasions on which it impinged on human vision. Along with accounts of witchcraft, wonders and prodigies, the appearance of angels was now a principal weapon in the battle against the mass infidelity into which it was feared England would soon descend.
Clerical writers of the period thus found themselves torn between two competing tendencies: their desire to defend Christianity against the onslaughts of Hobbists and Sadducees; and their deference to the Reformed theological legacy of the sixteenth century. Closely connected with the Cambridge Platonists, he too sought to marshal an advanced form of natural philosophy in order to demonstrate the real existence and active interference of all kinds of spirits, demonic and benevolent, in the temporal realm.
There was still room for speculation about the precise nature of the bodies they assumed in their interactions with human beings: the very criteria for judging the visual status and ontological truth of apparitions were themselves under strain and in the process of change. But Glanvill strategically set to one side the conservatism dictated by the anti-Catholic agenda of Tudor controversialists.
Shelfmark G Yet, even as he emphasized the rarity of such physical manifestations, he too sought to use angels as part of his campaign against impiety and irreligion and to foster due gratitude to God for their diligent ministrations. By the end of the seventeenth century, it also transcended the deep-seated fear of a repeat of the radical explosion of sectarian enthusiasm that was one of the legacies of the Civil War and Interregnum. It cannot be ignored that Turner and his forerunners relied on a small corpus of frequently recycled episodes to support their claims, on a sample whose modest size reflected the complex web of anxiety and inhibition about otherworldly apparitions explored in the preceding section.
Ultimately, the increased prominence of discussion of angelic visions in Protestant literature may be as much a consequence of a declining tendency on the part of the clergy to suppress them as of a growing proclivity to witness them. The confessional tensions that had animated the first generation of reformers had dissipated and been replaced by disturbing new intellectual tendencies which tangible manifestations of angelic power could help to neutralize. The trends I have identified may also symptomize the wider shift in the character of post-Reformation providentialism itself described by Blair Worden: a developing impulse to stress the merciful rather than judgemental traits of the deity, to dwell less on his wrathful than on his benevolent and fatherly qualities.
This examination of beliefs about the intercession and apparition of angels in early modern England yields insights relevant to ongoing debates about the religious and cultural impact of the Reformation and the long-term transformation of assumptions about the sacred. It has underlined the fundamental ambivalence that characterized Protestant thinking on this subject. While angels had impeccable scriptural credentials, the human tendency to revere them raised the disturbing problem of superstition and idolatry. Determined to purge away popish accretions and refute the polemical claims of Catholic controversialists, early reformers played down the possibility that such celestial creatures now made themselves visible to human beings, even as they insisted upon the ubiquity of their operations on behalf of the faithful.
Emphasis on their constant intervention was matched by the claim that, like miracles, apparitions of angels had largely ceased when the Church came of age. Yet by conceding that God might still reveal these heavenly messengers to men and women at critical moments, the theologians created a small but significant loophole within which optical experiences of angelic intervention could find space to exist within a Protestant mindset. Such spectral phenomena were to be interpreted warily, however, because they might be deceptive illusions fabricated by Satan to seduce humanity to sin and damnation rather than evidence of divine benevolence.
The persistence of reports of angelic apparitions should not, then, be seen simply as a measure of the failure of the magisterial Reformation. In some respects, it can instead be read as testimony to its enduring and dynamic, if sometimes unforeseen, effects. Those examples that have entered the historical record are emblematic of the tensions that surrounded claims about the physical appearance of angels, as of demons, ghosts, fairies and other classes of spirit.
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