Copeland, Clare, and Machielsen, Jan, (eds.), Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period

Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (eds.), Angels of Light?  Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period, Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2013. £88, ISBN 978-90-04-23369-0 (hardback), pp. xiv + 306.

Reviewed by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA (EA 853), May 2013.

This collection of essays, published in Brill’s Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions series (series editor: Andrew Colin Gow) is the outcome of a conference held at Balliol College, Oxford, in May 2011.  Major figures of the historiography on the supernatural, such as Euan Cameron and Stuart Clark, have joined forces with early career scholars to produce a well-focused and nuanced volume.  Starting with considerations of the preternatural world in Europe in general, the book offers insights upon the discernment of spirits in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, England and Bohemia.

In his opening chapter, Euan Cameron considers the shift in attitudes towards discernment of spirits in early modern Europe.  He establishes a typology of the spirits which, in the Middle Ages, were evinced by clerics who challenged traditional lore to ‘discern’ the work of the devil in manifestations usually attributed to other supernatural creatures.  Cameron shows that the restrictive movement which started when scholastic metaphysics opposed traditional beliefs continued with the Reformation, heralding an age where the beliefs in God’s universal Providence left no room for any other form of intelligences.  Finally, he concludes that in the rationalised world-view of philosophers such as Descartes, Hobbes or Bekker, spirits were ‘no longer necessary’ (p. 52).

Chapters two and three both focus upon the issue of discernment in mystical visions.  Colin Thompson points out that despite major differences due to gender and genre, both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross agreed that mystical visions existed, and that they came in various kinds; they also agreed that clerical attempts to discern whether they were from God or the Devil were quite futile.  Clare Copeland takes similar considerations to sixteenth century Florence with her case study of Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, whose mystical visions met with the skepticism of clerics.  In this highly engaging chapter, Copeland shows that De’ Pazzi’s visions were championed by her fellow nuns, who discerned their Godliness through signs such as her transfigured, shining face, or her perfect stillness during ecstasies.  When they acted as scribes recording the visions for clerical assessors, the nuns played a crucial part in the authentification of the visions and partook in their sister’s holiness.

Chapter four is atypical in the collection, since Jan Machielsen’s analysis of textual discernment through the Acta Sanctorum spans from the 17th to the 20th century.  It shows how Jean Bolland addressed hagiography as a divine task and how his successors ascribed to him the gift of textual discernment, ascertaining the veracity of reported events and discerning their spiritual origins.  Thus, Machielsen argues, textual discernment was considered as a charism and a divine gift, making the hagiographer himself holy.

In chapter five, Victoria Van Hyning focuses upon the dispute which opposed English Benedictine Augustine Baker to his detractors in the 1630s and 1650s.  As Baker’s method of contemplation advocated internal prayer and minimised clerical control over nuns, it raised concerns about the nature of individuals’ experiences. Van Hyning shows how tensions arose to validate ‘competing form of Christian practice’ (p. 143), when Francis Hull was appointed confessor to the Benedictine nuns of Cambrai, who by then practised Baker’s silent, affective and inward form of spirituality rather than more orthodox exercises.  Van Hyning shows that Bakerite nuns such as Gertrude More (not unlike Teresa of Avila) did not fear demonic intervention and were deeply convinced of the Godliness of their personal experiences.

The next three chapters (six to eight) all address the issue of prophesies and discernment, senses and reason, from theological and philosophical points of view.  Leigh Penman focuses on Paul Felgenhauer’s failed prophecies for a new millennium in the context of the Bohemian revolt of the 1620s, and on the writer’s continued belief in his own prophesying even in the face of failure.  R. J. Scott analyses the opinions of English theologians and philosophers such as John Beale or Cambridge Platonists John Smith and Henry More towards prophesies, visions and dreams.  His analysis of the debate of the 1640s and 1650s about the authority of revealed knowledge highlights the emergence of a ‘third force’ (p. 207) between rational Cartesians and sensual empiricists.  Anthony Ossa-Richardson completes this discussion on the epistemological debate about discernment of spirits with his study of Dutch philosopher Gijsbert Voet and the so-called Utrecht crisis, in which Voet challenged Descartes’ theories about the accuracy of the senses as a misplaced willingness to trust personal reason rather than the Bible.

In the ninth and final chapter, Laura Sangha returns to seventeenth-century England to outline both the influence of Reformed theology upon angelology and the responses to this challenge.  This revealing chapter shows that if the medieval view of angels as protectors was compromised by the Reformation, angels did not disappear entirely but rather acquired a new status as ‘agents of God’s Providence’(p. 262).  Sangha argues that the process of desacralisation heralded by thinkers such as Hobbes in its turns provoked reactions (by clerics such as Joseph Hall) to resacralise.  She therefore offers a convincing alternative to the linear narrative of a gradual religious decline before the rise of modern sciences.

The volume closes with Stuart Clark’s afterword placing the chapters in the context of the main biblical quotations around which they were conceptualised, namely 2 Cor. 11:13-14 (‘For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.’) and 1 John 4:1 (‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.’). This afterword, however, soon becomes an essay in its own right.  Clark engages with familiar issues such as the place of spirits in the natural world, before moving on to the theme of discernment by image through the study of several sacred paintings, reproduced in high-quality black and white illustrations judiciously placed in the text rather than in appendices.

This volume is a good example of a successful edition of essays, in which all the contributions echo the main theme and engage with the same concepts, nuancing the general picture with relevant insights from each case study.  As an object, the book is pleasant to use, with a good quality hardback cover, very smooth paper and engaging illustrations. The manageable list of further reading is a great starting place for those interested in the discernment of spirits and sanctity, and the volume as a whole is a valuable contribution to this growing field of study.