14.05.04, de Nie, Poetics of Wonder

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Lisa Bitel

The Medieval Review 14.05.04

de Nie, Giselle. Poetics of Wonder: Testimonies of the New Christian Miracles in the Late Antique Latin World. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 31. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. xii, 530. ISBN: 978-2-503-53148-9.

Reviewed by:
Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

In previous works, Giselle de Nie has guided readers through the otherworld of late antique/early medieval miracles and wonders. In her new book, de Nie visits the period when not all Jesus followers believed in miracles, seeking to explain how a "miracle-embracing mentality" descended upon Western Christians. The earliest Christian writers were ambivalent about miracles, which reminded them of pagan healing shrines; they only began to circulate stories of miracles in the late fourth century. Texts from the fourth and fifth centuries contain arguments for and against belief in miracles, but read together the same texts reveal an emerging imaginaire, of miracles that has permeated Christianity to the present day. Other historians have studied the social and cultural contexts of Christian miracles in this period, but they have failed, according to de Nie, to track changing religious attitudes toward miracles, or ponder evidence for individual experience of miracles in late antiquity.

The book is deeply learned, sympathetic to religious experience, and only mildly flawed in the execution of its argument. It is long and dense, but this should not deter anyone from dipping into its detailed chapters. de Nie repeatedly summarizes her main points. It is also a brave book. de Nie confronts one of the most challenging problems of modern academics: How do we interpret reported evidence for historical experiences of religion, especially when the evidence refers to supernatural causes? Did, as Steven Justice has phrased it, the Middle Ages actually believe their miracles? [1] de Nie chooses as her case study for this problem a particular historical moment (386 C.E. to about 460), a single if complex faith tradition (Christianity), and a particular place (the Roman West). She probes the works of selected late antique authors for "comprehensive as well as in-depth explorations into the individual imagistic patternings" of reported miracle events, while assuming "the meditative/affective manner" that such texts demanded of Christian readers in the late antique West.

Modern experts on the pre-modern typical maintain an anthropological distance from evidence for miracles, prophecies, visions, and other wonders. Take Hildegard of Bingen's famous visions. Some interpreters have argued that Hildegard's visions represent a polymathic theology. Others have suggested that Hildegard suffered from migraines that produced her visions. Still others have understood Hildegard's opus as an act of resistance to the cura mulierum. All of these interpretations avoid the fundamental question, though, of whether Hildegard did or did not receive divine illumination.

de Nie tackles the reality of miracles head on, beginning with a brief review of relevant philosophical, psychological, and scientific literature about human perception. de Nie describes three existing scholarly approaches to the understanding of miracles: the traditional Christian position that miracles are divine interventions in the natural order; the scientific position, which posits natural causes for seemingly miraculous events; and a psychological approach via Jungian concepts of synchronicities and fluid self identity, which may or may not involve imagination or extra-sensory perception. de Nie attempts to learn from these various methods while maintaining a kind of sympathetic "wonder" in her interpretation (27-28).

de Nie is less interested in proof for miracles than in why they became so important in the late fourth century. Miracles initially went out of fashion, according to the author, after the first generations of Jesus followers. Early Christians read their savior's miracles as tools for conversion. According to their religious leaders, newly converted Christians no longer needed miracles--which smacked of pagan magic anyway--to believe, but only the words of their savior and the model of their martyrs. However, throughout late antiquity, pagans and Christians alike continued to patronize magicians and soothsayers, and to visit healing shrines. Once Christianity became legal and popular, its leaders were less threatened by magical practices from other disciplines. Christians began to visit the most holy dead at tombs and at shrines, and to seek the saints' help. In the late fourth century, believers began to circulate stories of miracles that demonstrated the intercessory powers of their saints. Theologians subsequently reconsidered the religious validity of miracles.

de Nie asks more precisely, how did major thinkers come to embrace miracles? It started with Ambrose, who cautiously promoted the acquisition of saintly relics and their wonder-working powers as part of his campaign to retain control of the church in Milan, after Arians tried to wrest it from him. de Nie explicates Ambrose's works and career, then moves systematically through similarly close readings of works by Sulpicius Severus, Paulinus of Nola, Augustine, and Paulinus of Périgueux, as well as many of their associates and critical opponents (notably Donatists). She traces each writer's evolving, sometimes conflicted position on the validity of miracles, sermon by sermon, line by line, as each wondered: Were miracles a pagan illusion or a Christian event? Real or imagined? Tangible and visible wonders wrought by the most holy dead, or signs of divine intention obvious only to the sensitive viewer? The thoroughness with which de Nie dogs these discussions through letters, doctrinal and theological tracts, hagiography, and many other sources is utterly persuasive, yet also makes for exhausting reading--kind of like watching a cinema verité film about a scholar immersed in thought. de Nie's language is a sometimes overwrought and her sentences convoluted. Her explication of evidence is occasionally repetitive. She indulges in learned diversions, some of which entertain but also occlude her main argument (although I admittedly enjoyed the two-page discussion of dance as metaphor in the De laude of Victricious of Rouen, which led to an explanation of the Processional Three-step, 83-84).

On the other hand, if de Nie had streamlined her prose, readers would lose a valuable lesson in scholarly method: the parsing, almost word by word, of sermon after sermon of Augustine; the pondering of derivations and translations; the identification of slight shifts in opinion by some of Christianity's greatest minds. de Nie depends upon the qualifications and seeming contradictions apparent within each writer's works in order to demonstrate his changing understanding of miracles in the cosmic scheme. Her discussion of events at Uzalis, as rendered by Augustine's sermons on miraculous healing (347-357), offer a good example. de Nie does not reimagine the sequence of Augustine's ideas so much as think with the Bishop of Hippo as he witnesses the cure of two pilgrims to Saint Stephen's shrine over several days. Augustine first insisted that the saints served only as spiritual models for other Christians; he then began to admit the value of saintly intercession, and finally to appreciate visible wonders that occurred at the saint's tomb. Augustine, de Nie explains, taught himself to "read" these miracles even as he witnessed them with his eyes. The sight of an afflicted pilgrim rising, completely healed, from the floor of a shrine, was for Augustine like reading a sermon on divine mysteries. The words on the page and the pilgrim's dance were at once events caused by saints and signs of Christian truth sent by God to receptive believers. Visible wonders reaffirmed invisible transformations of the pilgrim's heart and Augustine's beliefs. Eventually, Augustine chastised fellow Christians who complained about getting no answers to their prayers to the saints. How do you know, the bishop demanded, that you have not experienced an interior miracle that has cured you of unseen ills? Later writers, such as Paulinus of Périgueux, used Augustine's ideas as the basis for a more fully developed poetics of miracles, thus creating a model for the experience of miracles that still endures among Catholics.

I have learned much from this book. I am extremely grateful for the sources cited in de Nie's 2017 footnotes. I agree with her that we will never understand religions of the past until we can maintain wonder at what we do not understand--whether because we lack evidence or because we refuse to believe it. Yet we cannot pretend to understand medieval mentalities while we purposely misread the evidence that does exist, such as explicit discussions of supernatural phenomena and extraordinary religious experience. To render such experience in purely non-religious terms is anachronistic and reductive. Even de Nie cannot resist explaining some reports of healing miracles with neurological causes. With the notable exception of Jeffrey Kripal, [2] few scholars dare to cite evidence for paranormal experience in their critical analyses of religious phenomena. We still fear the doctrinal blinders of pre-Enlightenment scholarship and we know--from experience, from history, or from common sense--how easy it is to fake evidence and trick other people into believing what they see.

Isn't that what the Apostle Thomas worried about, though? The surprise is that rational doubt also pervaded late antique discussions of Christian wonders. No one in the late fourth century expected miracles just because Jesus had reputedly performed them. Christ's followers did not accept the existence of miracles without argument. Instead, they negotiated the possibility of miracles as they debated the intercessory potential of the most holy dead. Late antique Christians were not born into a world already filled with God's marvels and messengers. Like Augustine and Ambrose, they had to train themselves to see miracles and to read them as purposeful irruptions of material reality by an invisible God.



1. Steven Justice, "Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles?," Representations103 (2008): 1-29.

2. Jeffrey J. Kripal, "Visions of the Impossible: How 'fantastic' stories unlock the nature of consciousness," Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Review (Mar. 31, 2014); online at http://chronicle.com/article/Embrace-the-Unexplained/145557/.

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Author Biography

Lisa Bitel

University of Southern California