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Reviewed by:
  • Miracles in Enlightenment England
  • Alexandra Walsham
Miracles in Enlightenment England. By Jane Shaw. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006. Pp. x, 244. $45.00.)

The tendency to regard the eighteenth century as a critical period in the eventual triumph of scientific rationalism over "superstition" has lingered long in English historiography. Jane Shaw's lucid and elegantly constructed book contributes to a growing body of research which is questioning settled assumptions about the intellectual contours of the "age of reason" and complicating our understanding of the nature of "Enlightenment culture." Exploring the speculation, debate, and critical investigation prompted by events that seemed miraculous to their observers, it offers a new perspective on claims that the period marked a decisive juncture in the narrative of progress and secularization that, until very recently, dominated historiographical assessments of it. Shaw identifies and traces three strands of thought about miracles: the Protestant doctrine that they had ceased after apostolic times; the renewed claims about supernatural healing and intercession made by the members of independent churches and sects from the mid-seventeenth century; and the attempt by Anglicans and natural philosophers to negotiate a middle way between the extremes of "atheistical" skepticism and nonconformist "enthusiasm." Her book demonstrates the extent to which the idea that the deity might intervene supernaturally in human affairs retained its vitality in the long eighteenth century, and indeed intensified in the century or so following 1650. As well as providing an overview of the theological and philosophical arguments that swirled about miracles, her chapters introduce us to a series of celebrated figures and episodes:from the thaumaturgic claims of the Baptists and Quakers and the Irish "stroker" Valentine Greatrakes, to the royal practice of touching for the king's evil, the prodigious abstinence of fasting girls, and the "perfectly Protestant miracles" of pious women cured while reading the Bible.

Rejecting paradigms that presuppose a split between the elite and the common people, Shaw emphasizes instead the interaction between different social groups, and between theology and "lived religion." Highlighting the [End Page 385] extent to which interest in miracles became implicated in the burgeoning public sphere, she seeks to draw attention to the extent to which ordinary men and women participated in creating and shaping the Enlightenment, and how practical experiences of the miraculous fed into the heated abstract discussions that took place within the circles of the learned. Two further key lessons emerge from this monograph: the manner in which the techniques of experimentation at the heart of the new natural philosophy were harnessed to test and authenticate as much as to discredit supernatural phenomena, and the attractive suggestion that it may be helpful to think (with the sociologist David Martin) less of a steady advance toward a more "secular" society than of "successive Christianizations followed or accompanied by recoils."

The broad thrust of Shaw's argument is enormously persuasive, but there are areas where the analysis might have been strengthened and deepened. Even while emphasizing the complexity and diversity of early Protestant thinking on this topic, her opening chapter may oversimplify the source of this ambivalence in presenting it as essentially a measure of the gap between clerical and lay theology. The polemical slogan that miracles had ceased must be assessed alongside works of systematic divinity that continued to carve out a place for miracles within a Reformed universe.To this extent, the implied contrast between the sixteenth and later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may be a touch overstated. So too the claim that several of the particular episodes on which Shaw focuses her attention constituted key "turning points." To say that the activities of Valentine Greatrakes "sparked an epistemological shift" may be to attribute too much agency to them. It may also overlook the degree to which miracles had always been implicated in "the domain of the natural philosophy," from Augustine and Aquinas onwards (pp. 73, 74): To suggest that they had hitherto been confined largely to the realm of the doctrinal is to posit too dramatic a change in the register of the age-old debate about the ontological status of the supernatural. What altered was rather the criteria and method of determining whether an event...


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