Laura Sangha, Angels and Belief in England, 1480-1700, Pickering and Chatto, London, 2012. £60.00, ISBN 978 1 84893 145 9 (hardback), pp. ix + 265
Reviewed by: Francis Young, April 2014
Laura Sangha’s Angels and Belief in England undoubtedly fills a gap in the historiography of the English Reformation, and will be of use to graduate and undergraduate students alike in History and English Literature. Sangha argues that if Stuart Clark’s ‘thinking with demons’ has the potential to illuminate the early modern world, then so does thinking with angels. Angels are ‘an excellent unit of historical enquiry’ (p. 3). She picks up on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s observation that the study of angels might be even more important than research into witchcraft, and provides a thorough survey of the rather meagre scholarly literature that already exists in this area. Using an interdisciplinary approach that is generally successful, Sangha makes a convincing argument for the study of angels alongside other supernatural beliefs in the early modern world, and her book reveals the inherent ambiguity of angels for Protestants. On the one hand, angels had a strong scriptural warrant that the saints lacked; on the other hand, they were the focus of some of the Catholic practices most objectionable to reformers, such as prayer and adoration.
Sangha moves from a consideration of angels in the late Middle Ages (c. 1480 to 1530) to the redefinition of angels in the early part of the ‘Long Reformation’, c. 1530 to 1580. She then examines the ways in which angels were deployed in defence of conformity, and argues that an ‘official’ Church of England angelology emerged in the period 1580 to 1700. Sangha includes a chapter on Catholic use of angels in the reign of Mary I and subsequent post-Reformation Catholic attitudes, before passing to a consideration of angels in ‘popular religion’ in her chapter on ‘The People’s Angel’. The final chapter deals with late seventeenth-century, anti-Sadducist attempts to defend angels and the concomitant decline in belief in celestial beings.
Sangha’s first chapter presents the evidence for late medieval devotion to, and interest in, the angels. She makes a persuasive case that medieval angels, whether in architecture, art or hagiographical literature, were more than just decorative features and narrative ciphers. However, Sangha’s decision to engage solely with late medieval devotional material in English, such as John Mirk’s Festial, leaves aside the vast quantity of late medieval English writing on angels in the universities, which took the form of Latin Summas. Sangha uses the term ‘angelology’, and refers to the work of David Keck, without acknowledging that ‘angelology’ had a technical meaning throughout the period in question, as the branch of philosophy or theology that dealt with angels. ‘Angelology’ may be used as a catch-all term for interest in angels today, but this was not so in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Had Sangha defined her use of the term ‘angelology’, and argued the case for leaving aside this large body of philosophical material rather than silently ignoring it, her chapter on the medieval angel might have been stronger.
Sangha’s treatment of angels during the Reformation period deftly and successfully brings together angels in visual culture (including the issue of iconoclasm) with changing doctrinal attitudes towards angels. Her critique of Patrick Collinson’s charge of ‘visual anorexia’ against late sixteenth-century England is compelling, and she manages to convey the ambiguity of angels as far as Protestants were concerned. Sangha briefly mentions the angels who appear on the frontispieces of Foxe’s Actes and Monuments and contemporary English Bibles (p. 60), and the continued appearance of Toby and Raphael in chapbooks (pp. 68-9), but it is a shame that there is no deeper examination of illustrated angels in Protestant print culture. Sangha also omits to mention the English state’s continued official representation of St Michael on coinage. The gold ‘angel’, featuring an image of a standing St Michael piercing a dragon, was minted as currency until the Civil War, and thereafter angels were minted as touch pieces, gold tokens presented to sufferers from the king’s evil. The design remained essentially unchanged until the practice was discontinued at the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
By treating Laudian and radical Protestant approaches to angels together in her chapter on ‘The Confessionalized Angel’, Sangha accomplishes something new and fulfils the promise of her idea of ‘thinking with angels’. She contrasts the ‘excesses’ of Laudian angelology in the direction of Catholicism with the ‘excesses’ of radical prophetic movements in the mid-seventeenth century, two themes that have never been treated together before, and demonstrates that attitudes to heavenly beings really were an important barometer of avant garde religious views during the period. One of the most interesting conclusions of Sangha’s study, which is well supported by her evidence, is that it was surprisingly difficult to determine an individual’s theological allegiance from their attitudes to angels alone. In defiance of Calvin himself, many Calvinists persisted in believing in individual guardian angels, while Marian Catholics like Edmund Bonner self-consciously distanced themselves from the over-developed angelology of the Golden Legend.
Sangha’s chapter on post-Reformation Catholic angelology, while I suspect that it only scratches the surface of the subject, further supports revisionist accounts of Mary’s reign as a harbinger of the Tridentine Counter-Reformation. Her decision to deal with ‘popular religion’ by discussing belief in angels outside overtly ecclesiastical contexts is a bold one. In spite of the evidential problems presented by the types of sources she relies on, she manages to present a coherent and convincing account of angelic belief across a range of individuals and spectra of belief. The integration of literary material, such as Thomas Dekker’s play on St Dorothy, The Virgin Martyr, is especially effective and illuminating. Her suggestion that the literary trope of the guardian angel was influenced by Greek and Roman ideas of the daemon or genius is particularly insightful. I was disappointed that there was no serious analysis of one of the most significant angelological treatises, John Salkeld’s Treatise of Angels (1613), beyond the observation that it stands out as an anomaly and is ‘crypto-Catholic’ (p. 108). While the former is certainly true, Salkeld’s treatise is best described as a Protestant text under a Catholic form rather than a crypto-Catholic one.
The book’s most problematic chapter is its last one, on ‘The Empirical Angel’. The reader of a book on early modern angelology would expect the author to touch on reasons for the decline of literal belief in angels, and Sangha skilfully delivers an account of the philosophical debates of the period. Unfortunately, the intellectual history that forms the core of her research in this chapter is at odds with her approach in the rest of the book, where philosophical theology is left entirely to one side. The reader is left wondering how the ideas of the defenders and detractors of angel-belief in the late Seventeenth Century contrasted with earlier philosophical accounts of angels, and might be forgiven for thinking that none existed. We are told that there was a ‘breakdown of consensus over Aristotelian cosmology and demonology’ (p. 185), but at no point in the book does Sangha elaborate on what ‘Aristotelian’ views of angels were, and how far they affected angelology in England. This final chapter can certainly stand as a fine piece of research on its own merits, but it does not sit well with the rest of the book as a coherent whole.
Overall, Sangha’s book is a valuable contribution to the ongoing project of reconstructing the early modern landscape of belief, and she succeeds in showing that angels were ‘a load-bearing element of religious cultures’ (p. 193). The book takes the study of early modern belief in angels in a particular direction, and there are significant areas that the author (perhaps quite rightly) has largely passed over, such as the role of angels in popular and ceremonial magic. She certainly leaves room for further studies by other scholars with a different emphasis. The book is pleasingly free from typographical errors.