Francis Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829, Ashgate, Farnham & Burlington VT, 2013.

Francis Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829, Ashgate, Farnham & Burlington VT, 2013. £75.00, ISBN 978-1-4094-5565-3 (hardcover); 978-1-4094-5566-0 (ebook), pp. xii + 308

Reviewed by: Nicky Hallett, University of Sheffield, December 2014

The tremendous clarity of the Thomas F. Mayer’s Preface as Series Editor sets the scene for the approach of this thoughtful book: ‘The still-usual emphasis on medieval (or Catholic) and reformation (or Protestant) religious history has meant the neglect of the middle ground, both chronological and ideological. As a result, continuities between the middle ages and early modern Europe have been overlooked in favor of emphasis on radical discontinuities’ (p. vii). Francis Young’s study addresses the implications of such claims, to explore the connections made between Catholicism and ‘superstition’ in Protestant polemic, and to examine wider contexts for its responses to the super- and preternatural: to ghosts, witchcraft and the devil – ‘the “night side” of the invisible world’ (p. 5). He considers Catholicism as ‘a religious community with its own internal conflicts, dynamics and mixture of conservative and radical tendencies’ (p. 3) that in turn shape beliefs in supernatural phenomenon, in particular witchcraft (p. xi; p. 119).

There is an admirable self-consciousness to Young’s approach: he acknowledges the apparently anachronistic use of ‘supernatural’ in his title (p. 4) and then justifies his choice. He confines his discussion to the period 1553 to 1829, from Mary Tudor’s accession to the ‘watershed’ of Catholic emancipation. Although there is a clear logic to this choice, and studies have to begin and end somewhere, his chronology may be felt (mildly) to replicate some of the ideas of ‘discontinuity’ suggested at the outset, and to neglect Catholicism’s own emphasis on its allegiance to a particular kind of faithful past. In small part, the organizational principle also gives similar problems: the section on witchcraft is too extensive for one chapter and spills across two in a pleasurably rich exploration, the division of which carries the whiff of ‘progression’ that the discussion itself appears to disprove – between witchcraft, magic and the earlier period, ‘superstition’ and the age of Enlightenment (chapters 4 and 5). But such observations relate to organizational tactics rather than the dark heart of the book’s main matters; the study itself goes a long way towards describing the complexity of Catholic responses to a range of phenomenon experienced by early modern people and explained by them in different ways, depending in part on their confessional affiliation.

Chapter 1 discusses these denominational distinctions and the ways that attitudes to the supernatural are shaped by theology and philosophy. Young notes ‘the sustained survival of a distinctively Catholic tradition of measured scepticism concerning supernatural phenomena across three centuries’ (p. 25). He also notes the ways in which anti-Catholic discourse equated Catholicism with ‘superstition’ and ‘magic’ in sacramental language (p. 31). Although too much is often made of dichotomies (as opposed to the ways in which divergent views assimilate and adapt), Young neatly addresses this: ‘A historiography that sees everything in the early modern world as an expression of religious conflict has led some to assume that beliefs essentially unrelated to Catholicism were an expression of religious survival’ (p. 35). He argues against claims that only Protestants stressed the perils of internal temptation: introspection, as so many of the studies of cloistered nuns illustrate, was a central tenet of contemplative piety and thus demonically-induced trauma was an occupational hazard in theory and in practice. Indeed, suffering in such contexts seems to have been exacerbated by the very existence of conflicting explanations for intensely personal experiences.

Young is at pains to discuss supernatural phenomena as ‘powerful realities’, to avoid providing reasoned or ‘functional’ explanations for extramundane engagement (p. 23). This relativism is important of course, though such experience is not neutrally signified; perception is invariably shaped by preceptive conditioning, and on occasion I wished for more discussion of style as well as content; for analysis of the language individual Catholics used to describe their experiences, to explore their expressiveness as well as ‘actual’ positioning. All the same, Chapter 1 does have a sensitive and sustained discussion on Catholic Aristotelianism and Scepticism: ‘[p]hilosophical presuppositions about the nature of reality’ that clearly informed individual responses (pp. 44-54).

Chapter 2 claims ‘the arrival of the Catholic Enlightenment was slow and gradual’ (p. 55), and that rival denominations were concerned to avoid loss of belief in the supernatural in order to avoid dis-belief per se. Scepticism in such a context is necessarily shaped towards devotional ends, to advance a distinctive polemic. Young discusses the variety of Catholic responses, including Jansenism (pp. 59-64) and approaches to ‘new philosophy’ (pp. 68-71), the latter perhaps less fully treated compared to the finer account in the previous chapter. There is an interesting section here on Alexander Pope’s take on the supernatural (pp. 64-8), with mention of the Stillingfleet/ Cressy controversy (p. 65). Given Pope’s closeness to Catholic families in exile and at home, such as the Blounts (mentioned on p. 68), some of whom professed as nuns, more might have been made of this perhaps – to explore continuities of description as well as belief.

The third chapter has a strong and persuasive discussion of ‘ghosts and apparitions in the English Catholic community’. Perhaps because the title itself does not invoke ideas of sub-periodicity, somehow its water is not muddied by inferences of progress. Instead Young insightfully addresses the ‘recurring trope’ and ‘stereotyped view of Catholics as superstitious and obsessed with the macabre’ (p. 79). He acknowledges a paucity of sources, largely confined to the cultural elite. Although there is a short section on oral traditions, anecdotes are largely from the Victorian period. As elsewhere, the study would have benefitted from reference to manuscripts, and although I guess it would have been beyond the scope of his study to draw upon literary representation (and of course it is problematic to extrapolate from these to life), it might have been possible to widen discussion in this way, to consider attitudes expressed in creative material read, as well as written, by Catholics. Nonetheless, there is interesting discussion here: of ghosts, of Purgatory, and of ‘radical’ commentary supplied by Thomas White in his efforts to clean away ‘superstitious’ elements in doctrine (p. 87). In personal terms, I was pleased to see connections made between the author of ‘A Relation of the Apparition of a Soul in Purgatory’, found in the Carmelite Margaret Mostyn’s personal papers after her death, and William Atkins, Rector of the Jesuit College of St Aloysius who was involved in an attempted exorcism in the same house as the ‘apparition’ appeared in Cannock in 1658 (p. 93; pp. 217-8), especially given Mostyn’s own alleged demonic possession and her experience at the hands of her confessor-exorcist Edmund Bedingfield in 1651. There is another fascinating ghost story here with similar familial connections in the Eighteenth Century, one that will surely appeal to Historians of Women Religious among others. It relates to pictorial forms of telling by the Bedingfield and Gage families; one is memorialized in an 1807 engraving of an apparition of the ghosts of two nuns in the great hall at Coldham Hall, Suffolk, recording the occasion when two women had, according to a drunken servant, walked out of ‘their picture frame’ into the room (pp. 105-7). There have been several attempts to identify the nuns; one is thought to be Frances of St Ignatius Cary, a Liège Sepulchrine, (1619-59) though Young notes their dress in the picture looks secular rather than religious. The Bedingfields, along with the Plowdens and Jerninghams, also feature in another tale of premonitory dreams (pp. 111-15). Such anecdotes bring this section of the book to creepy life, and illustrate the very human-ness of ghostly encounter.

The following two chapters explore Catholicism and witchcraft. Understandably, since Young identified this as the gap that drove his research, the topic receives relatively extensive review. In Chapter 4, he discusses both Catholic community perspectives and ‘external perceptions of the relationship between witchcraft and Catholicism by non-Catholics’ (p. 117). There is some apparent contradiction here between claims that Catholic and Protestant beliefs cannot be directly compared since their cultural contexts differed, and yet that ‘witchcraft belief transcended denominational boundaries’ (p. 121). The idea that Catholic experience in England was necessarily secret is illustrated by the account of the bewitchment of the Earl of Rutland and his family at Belvoir castle in 1618, and there is also interesting discussion of connections between alleged witchcraft and heresy. Clearly such association relates to attempts to control dissidence, and Young mentions accusations made against Mary Percy at the English Benedictine convent in Brussels (p. 123). Although he notes ‘marginalization of the spiritual testimony of women’, and the ‘permission’ to challenge authority given to them by possession (p. 122), he does not always seem to attend to the niceties of gender- and class-related distributions of power more widely – understandably, given his resistance to the idea of possession ‘as a mechanism for the self-expression of the disenfranchised’ and the demonized as ‘ciphers for other forms of subversion’ (p. 23). It is, after all, a complicated matter, and Young puts his finger not only on the ‘boundary between exorcism and unwitching’ (p. 153) but also on the differential responses to both, even within Catholicism. Such considerations could helpfully have informed his discussion of exorcism too, to allow that what Young terms as ‘the ultimate solution to problems generated by non-divine supernatural forces’ (p. 191) had its own internal Catholic history. At times, after all, priests expressed doubts about the efficacy of the ritual; it was indeed usually a last resort though not necessarily only in terms of final effect.

Chapter 6 deals with ‘the Devil’, with exorcism described by the Benedictine Gregory Greenwood: to cope with obsession and possession in animals, humans and inanimate objects (p. 191). This is fascinating material, discussed with insight: ‘Since exorcism was an exercise of authority, every post-reformation exorcism was to some extent a political act’ (p. 192). It was also infused with local detail, inflected by partisan preferences. The Jesuits used the ‘water of St Ignatius’ whose feast day they claimed was especially auspicious for exorcisms (pp. 204-5). The section on ‘Catholic exorcism through Protestant eyes’ neatly highlights comparative positions, informed in both directions by the social energies of contradiction and counter-claim. Several pages are given to exorcism in religious communities, largely focused on the case of the Carmelite Mostyn sisters at Lierre in 1651 (pp. 209-16); and several to exorcisms of haunted houses (pp. 217-23).

It is here that the book comes to rather an abrupt halt. Although we do not necessarily need an overall conclusion, somehow we might expect a drawing together of threads.

Two appendices close the study, one a list of Catholic exorcisms in England, the other a transcript of Gregory Greenwood’s ‘Three Discourses of Witches’, interesting but without real explanation for its inclusion in this volume. The index is not entirely comprehensive, which is a shame as there is so much potential for cross-referencing, to allow readers to follow themes as well as people; some rich connections could easily be missed.

The book gives us new insight into the fraught and at times controversial understanding of the supernatural in Catholic communities. It also underlines the everyday-ness of experience, its reception often as radically un-dramatic. At times I would have welcomed a more sustained analysis of the style as well as content of Catholic accounts (always, I suppose, in the virtual if not real presence of Protestant contradiction, the shaping of counter-counter discourse), with more attention to the rhetorical construction of supernatural phenomenon (to finesse claims made about its authenticity and the reality of experience). For example, there is a provocative claim that differences between Catholic and Protestant works were ‘differences of imagery rather than attitude’ (p. 119). In a devotional contest which centralizes the Word and the performative power of language to transubstantiate substance, figurative forms are not only descriptive; they determine principles of faith. But I concede this is probably a literary, if not personal hang-up, and it does not in any way undermine the effectiveness of this useful book that makes an important contribution to our understanding of Catholic responses to the supernatural, and of early modern human experience when the seemingly invisible is made sometimes alarmingly apparent.