Angels in the Early Modern World

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Belief in the importance of angels was as widespread and intense in the early modern era as it had been in the middle ages. This volume is the first to consider how ideas about the nature, existence and activities of angels negotiated the religious, intellectual and cultural upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The contributors explore the fate and fortunes of these heavenly protectors and messengers against the backdrop of the Renaissance and Reformation and in the context of scientific change. Ranging from the British Isles and continental Europe to New England and Latin America, they consider how angels were implicated in the processes of Protestant and Catholic renewal, their relationship with witchcraft and magic, and their representation in literature and art. Based on original research, the essays offer genuinely fresh insight into the moments and movements that defined the early modern world.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham provide a helpful overview of the place of angels in Christian history." -Timothy Masch, H-German

"Rarely does a collection of essays hold together so tightly as this one, which is likely to inspire a spate of studies of angels in the early modern world."
Laura Smoller, Renaissance Quarterly

"The essays in this volume are cogent and painstakingly researched. They explore aspects of the early modern period that have not been widely examined...This volume will without a doubt appeal to scholars of early modern religious and cultural history a well as those of art history and literary studies." --Richard F. Johnson, Harper College: The Catholic Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521843324
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 340
  • Product dimensions: 6.85 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Marshall is Reader in History at the University of Warwick. His recent publications include Reformation England 1480–1642 (2003) and Religious Identities in Henry VIII's England (2005).

Alexandra Walsham is Professor of Reformation History at the University of Exeter. Her previous publications include Providence in Early Modern England (1999) and Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England 1500–1700 (2006).

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-84332-4 - Angels in the Early Modern World - Edited By Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham

1 Migrations of angels in the early modern world


Seen and unseen, in heaven and on the earth, in image and in text, angels have persistently infiltrated the cultural imagination of western and near-eastern civilisation for more than two millennia. Modern popular culture in North America and (particularly) western Europe may have discarded much of its foundational Christian heritage, but it retains an almost visceral understanding of the potency of images of angelic care and protection. Yet even in academic discussions, parts of this enduring tenancy are much better understood than others. In both popular and scholarly perceptions, angels are often taken to exemplify the religion and culture of the Middle Ages, the period when theologians were supposed to have wasted their time debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.1 Historians are now less inclined to scoff than once they were: a thriving scholarly literature is demonstrating how attention to the form, function and nature of angels illuminated a range of ontological and epistemological questions for thinkers in the apostolic, patristic and medieval eras.2

   Although art historians and a number of popular general surveyshave cast the net more widely,3 early modern historians have to date paid relatively little attention to the cultural, intellectual and religious ramifications of beliefs about angels in the period between 1500 and 1800. This neglect is puzzling, as many other aspects of the supernatural, including prodigies, portents, miracles and providences, have recently come under the spotlight.4 More particularly, interest in early modern witchcraft and demonology is flourishing as never before.5 But while the demons (or evil angels) who haunted the imaginations of both elites and people between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries have become familiar, their more benign spiritual counterparts remain hidden in the shadows. This is not because contemporaries no longer believed that angels were at work in their world. As the contributors to this volume collectively demonstrate, angels retained a prominent place in the mental outlook of those who lived through the eras of the Renaissance, Reformation and ‘Scientific Revolution’. The early modern world simply abounded with angels, and their evidential traces are to be discerned in an extraordinary variety of locations, genres and media, and across a range of religious cultures and subcultures. This is not to imply that angels were an unquestioned component of some kind of consensual cultural inheritance. On the contrary, they were often a focus of contention and anxiety, a source of frictions and tensions that can help to expose the fault-lines that criss-crossed early modern religion, society, politics and knowledge. Paradoxically, it may well be the very ubiquity of angels, and the sheer range of issues in intellectual and cultural history on which they impinge, that partially account for the hesitancy among early modern historians to tackle their significance in any systematic or comprehensive way. In attempting to follow some of the migrations of angels (geographic, confessional, intellectual) in the post-medieval centuries, the current volume makes no claim to have exhausted the potential of the topic: it is intended as a rough-drawn pioneers’ map, rather than a definitive reference atlas.

The angelic legacy which the medieval centuries bequeathed to their successors was a rich, complex and beguiling one. Although the idea of powerful supernatural beings, subordinate to the gods and carrying out their commands, originated in a nexus of ancient near-eastern religions, medieval ‘angelology’ derived its bearings from the form those ideas took in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.6 Angels (from the Greek aggelos, ‘messenger’) are to be found almost everywhere in the Bible as intermediaries between God and humanity, in anthropomorphic form. From their first appearance as sword-wielding cherubim in the book of Genesis, barring the way to Eden (Genesis 3.24), these celestial beings carry out God’s commands and reveal his will in a multiplicity of ways.7 It is the angel of the Lord who prevents Abraham from carrying out the sacrifice of Isaac, who is sent to threaten vengeance against impenitent Israel in the guise of the plague, and who provides sustenance and encouragement to the persecuted Elijah on his long trek through the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God (Genesis 22.9–12; 1 Chronicles 21.7–17; 1 Kings 19.5–8). Jacob sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven in a dream (Genesis 28.10–12) and several of the Hebrew prophets are privileged with similar visions. The Old Testament also tells of disobedience in the ranks, of the fall of rebel angels. The role of angels as God’s messengers to humanity gathers pace in the New Testament. Angels play crucial roles in the narratives concerning Christ’s conception and nativity, announcing his coming to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1.28–32), and declaring the glorious news of his birth to the shepherds on the hillside (Luke 2.9–12). They attend his ministry at various points, and give testimony to his resurrection: in shining white garments they roll back the stone in front of his tomb and tell his mother and other women that he has risen again from the dead (Matthew 28.2–7; Luke 24.4–7). Afterwards they continue to assist his followers: it is an angel who frees Peter from prison in Acts 12.7–11. Angels also play an indispensable part in the apocalyptic drama of the book of Revelation, blowing the trumpets and presenting the books which herald the end of the world (Revelation 12.7–9).

   Few of these angels seem other than impersonal functionaries of the divine will, though a handful are assigned more specific roles and identities. The Archangel Michael is accorded, in the books of Daniel, Jude and Revelation, a special importance in combating evil, and Gabriel carries the news of the Incarnation to Mary. A third named archangel, Raphael, appears in the book of Tobit, anonymously accompanying Tobit’s son, Tobias, on his dangerous journey to Media in the Bible’s most affecting account of human–angel interaction (Tobit 5–12). Later, Protestants would reject the authority of this ‘deuterocanonical’ book from the Greek Old Testament, and neither they nor the medieval Church recognised sources, such as the apocalyptic book of Enoch, which added further names to the list: Uriel, Raguel, Sarqâêl, Remiel and Sammael.8 And while Scripture taught much concerning the excellence and dignity of angels, and about their vast numbers, it also emphasised their inferiority to Christ (Hebrews 1.13–14) and contained warnings about the limits of veneration, in St Paul’s admonition to the Colossians (2.18) to steer clear of the ‘worship of angels’.

   These caveats in the biblical canon reflected the difficulty which early Christianity experienced in effacing alternative Jewish and Gnostic traditions about these celestial beings. The identification of Christ himself as an angel was one strand of Judaic angelology which the early Church fathers, notably Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, struggled to combat, but which nevertheless had a significant impact on the evolution of Christological doctrine in the first century AD. Many Christians as well as Jews accepted the Gnostic idea that angels had participated in the Creation and contributed independently to the continuation of the cosmos, a notion rooted in a dualistic view of the universe as divided between good and evil. The Council of Nicea in 325 firmly established God as sole Creator, but the influence of the neopagan philosophy of Plato and his followers was still troubling the ecclesiastical establishment in the early fifth century, when Augustine condemned the ‘misguided belief’ that men and other mortal creatures were engendered by angels, who were not therefore to be revered as lesser deities.9

   Other definitive assumptions about angels also began to crystallise in the early centuries of the Church. Angels were asexual spiritual beings, though they usually took the outward form of young men. An idea only partially attributable to Scripture – that angels appeared as winged creatures – was becoming an almost universal iconographic convention, as angels were increasingly depicted in wall painting, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. The very question of whether these figures could legitimately be represented in art was definitively settled in the affirmative by the second Council of Nicea (787).10 A further crucial step towards the systematisation of thought on this topic was taken around 500 with the composition of a treatise On the celestial hierarchy by the Syrian monk Dionysius – now usually referred to as the ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’, as medieval writers confused him with Dionysius the Areopagite converted by St Paul, and with St Dionysius or Denis, the third-century apostle to Gaul. This text, which became known throughout the west in a ninth-century Latin translation, took the nine different names which seem to refer to angels in Scripture, and arranged them in three descending hierarchies or choirs: seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominions, virtues, powers; principalities, archangels, angels. At the same time, in a fusion of Christian and Neoplatonic thought, Dionysius provided the angels with an integral role in the hierarchical order and functioning of the universe, the upper orders moving the stars, and knowledge and instructions passing from the higher to the lower orders and thence into the created world. In the process, he provided not just a model for heavenly order, but a crucial validation for social and political hierarchies in the created world. Although Augustine had warned that it was impossible to know the number of angelic orders, Dionysius’ scheme became effectively canonical for later theologians. Hugh of St Victor, Alan of Lille and Thomas Gallus all closely echoed his conclusions in their own commentaries and treatises.11 In due course it made its mark on wider religious culture: it is to be found, for example, in elaborate Renaissance paintings such as Lorenzo Costa’s The Adoration of the Shepherds with Angels (c. 1499) (Figure 1), as well as in the more workaday representations on rood screens and stained glass in English parish churches. A defining literary expression is in Canto 28 of Dante’s Paradiso (c. 1320).12

   For the Church of the east, the nature of angels was authoritatively laid down by St John Damascene’s crisp definition of them as ‘an intellectual substance, always mobile, endowed with free will, incorporeal, serving God, having received, according to grace, immortality in its nature, the form and character of whose substance God alone, who created it, knows’.13 But it was to be in the medieval west, and particularly in the thirteenth century, in the hands of commentators such as Peter Lombard, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, that speculation about angels would reach its apogee. Whether or not the scholastics ever attempted to place angels on the head of a pin, they addressed searching and perplexing metaphysical questions about their essence and existence. Were angels pure spirits or forms, or did their composition involve some kind of material substance? Could they occupy physical space? What actually happened when angels assumed bodies? Were they able to work miracles, read minds and predict the future? Did they have the capacity to exercise ‘vegetative operations’ such as eating, drinking and sexual reproduction? What was the nature of angelic speech?14 There was convergence, but by no means complete consensus, on many of these issues. Aquinas and most other Dominicans, for example, regarded them as pure spirit, while the Franciscan tradition represented by Bonaventure argued for the presence of (spiritual) matter. Angels were affirmed to be created, though incorporeal, creatures, and not mere emanations of the divine will. Their visible bodies, according to Aquinas, were provided by condensed, shaped and coloured air – these were dependent on divine power, rather than on the angels’ own volition.15

   Medieval scholastic angelology developed in dialectic with some distinctly unorthodox ideas. The Manichean errors of the Gnostics were rearticulated

1 The Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of angels: Lorenzo Costa, The Adoration of the Shepherds with Angels (c. 1499).

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by the Cathar sect, some of whose members not only believed that the world had been created by evil angels but averred that Christ, Mary and John the Evangelist were themselves celestial beings who had never put on human flesh.16 Within the Franciscan order, the fusion of interest in angels with heightened eschatological expectation engendered various forms of ‘revolutionary angelology’, which involved the metaphorical if not literal identification of St Francis of Assisi and the Calabrian monk, Joachim of Fiore, as angels. Some strands of this increasingly fractious and centrifugal movement also began to anticipate the arrival of an ‘Angelic Pope’, who would radically reform the Church from within and thus ensure apostolic continuity.17

   The tendency of more orthodox speculation, however, was to place quite severe limits on the agency of angels. They could not perform miraculous acts on their own account, as these involved the laying aside of the natural order of which angels (like demons) were themselves an integral part. Angels had no power to change human will, or, other than within narrowly defined parameters, to illuminate human intellect.18 Their influence would often be undetected, though it was assumed that angels joined with humanity in prayer: the mass in particular was understood as a compendium of angelic prayers; the Gloria recalled the song of the angels at the Nativity; the  Sanctus the praise of the seraphim in the vision of Isaiah.19Angels represented a celestial model for human society rather than unpredictable supernatural forces. In the view of Henry Mayr-Harting, ‘the story of angels in the medieval west is the increasing importance of this function of contemplation, and the diminishing importance of their specific interventions as social agents’.20

   Yet what Mayr-Harting suggestively terms the ‘aetherialisation’ and even ‘caelesticisation’ of angels by theologians like Aquinas did not serve to remove them entirely from the realm of direct experience or to obviate expectations of their personal intervention in the created world. In monastic settings, they were envisaged not merely as exemplars of the life of perfect chastity, humility and obedience to which the cloistered should aspire, but as unseen guides who kept their charges under constant surveillance, functioning, in the words of St Benedict’s Rule, as ‘God’s ears and eyes’. An early sixth-century Italian text for the regulation of cenobitic life had even warned monks singing the office to avoid spitting or blowing their noses for fear of hitting the angels that stood immediately in front of them. The new mendicant orders of the thirteenth century were no less predicated upon the model of the angelic life, even if they modified it away from corporate isolation and communal prayer towards active apostolic ministry.21

   Apparitions involving angels are a recurring characteristic of medieval religion. Elisabeth of Schönau’s ecstatic vision affirming the bodily assumption of the Virgin, c. 1157, for instance, was interpreted for her by an angel, and some of the writings of St Bridget of Sweden were similarly of angelic inspiration. The Sermo angelicus, which later formed the lessons of the office sung by the nuns of her order, was dictated to her by the ‘good angel’ who visited her every day.22 Popular later medieval sermon sources and collections such as the Dialogus miraculorum of the Cistercian monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, the Legenda aurea of the archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine, the Miracles of the Virgin Mary of the Dominican friar Johannes Herolt, and the Festial of the Englishman John Mirk, are also replete with examples of dramatic miracles performed through the agency of angels, and accounts of visions in which they appear with revelations, admonitions and disclosures, to humble clergy and laity as well as to privileged saints. Thus, the French bishop Jacques de Vitry told how an angel had appeared in a dream to warn a young girl against imitating her mother’s life of sensual pleasure and delight, taking her on a whistle-stop tour of hell and paradise which convinced her to adopt a regime of great austerity. Often the role of these divine messengers is to buttress Catholic dogma and devotion, as in Caesarius’ story of the angel which carried the transubstantiated host up to heaven as it rolled off the altar out of the hands of a sinful priest, and Herolt’s exemplum about two angels who successfully battled with demons for the soul of a worldly man, the deciding factor being their reminder of his reverence for the Virgin Mary. Such tales may be moralistic exhortations penned by learned clerics, but indirectly they still reveal much about lay attitudes towards these celestial beings.23

   Indeed, ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ attitudes towards angels remained aligned in important ways. One was with regard to the teaching about guardian angels. The Church fathers interpreted the biblical references to Jesus blessing children, whose ‘angels do always behold the face of my Father’ (Matthew 18.1, 10), and to the disciples mistaking the escaped Peter for ‘his angel’ (Acts 12.15), to mean that all humans were assigned a specific angel to watch over them during their lives and to help them choose good over evil. The notion was affirmed by Aquinas and later scholastics, and reiterated in numerous devotional texts. The famous Parisian reformer Jean Gerson incorporated it into instructional treatises for children. In the thirteenth century, a prayer to the guardian angel was added to the liturgy, votive masses addressed to them appeared in missals in the early 1400s, and by the later fifteenth century they had become the focus of books of hours used by the laity. One surviving English example, which was owned by Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward Ⅳ, reflects royal patronage of the cult. Not just individuals, but communities and regions, might have their guardian angels: chapels dedicated to them were to be found, for instance, in cities throughout the late medieval kingdom of Aragon.24

   Medieval writers were prone to identify the intervention of (unseen) guardian angels in a variety of situations, from fairly mundane determinations to moments of narrowly averted crisis. Their presence helped to account for patterns of human motivation, and for the direction of other- wise apparently random causation, representing, in David Keck’s phrase, ‘the Christianization of Fortune’.25 This placing of human decision-making within the broader workings of a moralised universe was enhanced by the widespread perception, found, for example, in Jacobus de Voragine, that ‘to every man two angels are given, one good and the other bad, the bad one to test him and the good one to protect him’.26 Here, on a microcosmic level, was expressed a fundamental insight of medieval angelology: that since the expulsion of Lucifer and the other rebel spirits from heaven, a ceaseless struggle was being waged between angels and demons for the salvation or damnation of mankind. Within the life-cycle of the individual, the struggle was at its most intense as Christians lay dying, their capacity to resist the blandishments of demons weakened by sickness just as the prize of their immortal soul came tantalisingly within sight. Both devotional writings and liturgical texts concerning death in the late Middle Ages resonate with angelic presence.27

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Preface and acknowledgments; 1. Migrations of angels in the early modern world Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham; 2. The Renaissance angel Bruce Gordon; 3. Luther on the angels Philip M. Soergel; 4. Angels around the deathbed: variations on a theme in the English art of dying Peter Marshall; 5. Angels conquering and conquered: changing perceptions in Spanish America Fernando Cervantes; 6. Angels and idols in England's long Reformation Alexandra Walsham; 7. Dubious messengers: Bodin's daemon, the spirit world and the Sadducees Robin Briggs; 8. Guardian angels and the Society of Jesus Trevor Johnson; 9. Imagining angels in early modern Ireland Raymond Gillespie; 10. 'Patronage of angels and combat of demons': good versus evil in seventeenth-century Spain María Tausiet; 11. 'With the tongues of angels': angelic conversations in Paradise Lost and seventeenth-century England Joad Raymond; 12. Otherworldly visions: angels, devils and gender in puritan New England Elizabeth Reis; 13. Angels in elite and popular magic, 1650-1790 Owen Davies.
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