09.12.18, Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural

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Peter Dendle

The Medieval Review 09.12.18

Bartlett, Robert. The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages. The Wiles Lectures given at the Queen's University of Belfast, 2006.. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 170. ISBN: 978-0-521-70255-3.

Reviewed by:
Peter Dendle
Pennsylvania State University

This eminently readable volume makes available the four lectures delivered by Robert Bartlett for the Wiles Lectures at Queen's University, Belfast, in 2006. The Wiles Lectures represent a highly prestigious forum, in which a scholar is invited to summarize and communicate research findings in a series of four talks intended for the general public as well as specialists. Speaking to academics and the public alike is not an easy feat, but Bartlett has found an intelligent and engaging way to strike such a balance, in these meditations on the shifting boundaries between the "natural" and the "supernatural" over a number of centuries and in diverse intellectual milieus.

Rather than providing a chronological or evolutionary overview of categories concerning the "supernatural," or situating theological or physical views of "nature" in the medieval West against Classical, Late Antique, or non-Western paradigms, Bartlett quickly acknowledges the impossible ambition of the lectures' central topic (and the book's title). This frees him instead to present a series of general meditations, in which, over the course of the four essays, unifying threads nonetheless reemerge periodically to provide a sense of cohesiveness. His primary method is to find points of tension within medieval categories of nature, science, and magic, through close explication of points of disagreement among medieval scholars in dialogue with each other.

The first essay provides a very helpful discussion of the "supernatural" as a category that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a category with fluid and historically contingent boundaries. He reviews some Scholastic debates over miracula ("miracle"), mirabilu ("wonder"), and other dynamic points of controversy. The categorical shift of demonic and magical efficacy from "supernatural or preternatural" to "natural" (as found in Aquinas, for example), "was to have a long future, forming the cornerstone of conventional demonological thinking in the era of the great witch-hunt" (20). Corresponding to this growth of phenomena considered natural, the realm of the supernatural, Bartlett argues, contracted during the period 1000-1500 (27).

The second lecture focuses on the composition of the natural world in medieval physics (the four elements and how they are naturally disposed, the habitable and uninhabitable regions of the globe, etc.). Eclipses prove an interesting test case for the boundaries of the supernatural, especially since this pitted the illiterate populace-- who believed eclipses were brought on by witchcraft or through the attacks of monsters trying to devour it, and who thus responded sometimes by crying out loudly at the moon or by throwing spears and shooting arrows at it (57)--against the educated elite, who were horrified by these superstitious spectacles. For intellectuals, even though eclipses were natural and predictable, nonetheless they could simultaneously portend unhappy events to come. The two main topics of this essay, the distribution of land and water on the globe and eclipses, "show what lively discussion arose from the controversial question of how far purely physical explanations could account for the machine of this world" (69).

In the third chapter Bartlett tackles the question of medieval credulity and skepticism, through a discussion of various marginal populations (including demons, witches, and the "dog-heads" allegedly inhabiting exotic lands to the east). Reviewing medieval statutes that seem to imply skepticism toward popular belief in witchcraft (for example, the famous canon Episcopi which insists that nighttime visits to worship Diana in a sabbat are mere phantasmata, 80), he observes that these are better thought of as questions of agency rather than expressions of skepticism. The statutes still presuppose the reality of demonic instigation and harmful magic (84). These texts exhibit slippage between the margins of the real, the phantasmal, and the non-existent. Similarly, the "dog-headed people" (cynocephali) problematized the boundary between human and animal. Bartlett concludes, "as European culture expanded, becoming familiar with this sphere of earth and water we inhabit, it pushed enchanted Lost Worlds into Tibet or the Matto Grosso. It did not, however, simultaneously free itself from its own demons" (109).

The final essay focuses on Roger Bacon. Bacon advanced a theory which can be described as "universal radiation," in which every point of the universe emits "rays" of a sort to every point, and receives them from all other points also (116). This relates back to the "machine of the world" model discussed in other chapters as well, but Bartlett uses Bacon rather as a window into broader trends of intellectual culture and into the idiosyncrasies of individual thinkers. Bacon operated in one of the first generations to fully incorporate the Greek and Arabic materials translated into Latin beginning in the twelfth century. Bartlett explores Bacon's complicated relationship with authorities both ancient and contemporary, and his nuanced approach to the place of "science" in culture, technology, trade, and warfare. Bacon is "a voluble, courageous, and deeply obsessive personality" (145-46). Bartlett draws agile connections between Bacon's time and ours, including public expressions lamenting the dearth of Arabic translators in the European West (111, 137) and the need for greater state funding of science (130).

Despite the fine distinctions sometimes made (necessarily so), and despite the impressive range of texts both canonical and obscure introduced into the discussion, Bartlett nevertheless keeps the tone light and the language accessible. Peter Lombard is not discussed without a few words first concerning who he was and why he is important. Monty Python is brought in alongside William of Auvergne; Allan Quatermain and Tintin appear alongside Thietmar of Merseburg. Bartlett structures his meditations in the form of an ongoing textual dialogue among the Late Antique and medieval authors, creating a sense of unfolding narratives rather than a dry rehearsal of intellectual history. By the end of the work, the reader will have met with a number of important writers and fascinating ideas, without the impression of having exerted any effort, thanks to Bartlett's animated pace and natural, fluid writing style.

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Peter Dendle

Pennsylvania State University