"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Signs and wonders in Aldeburgh: Reading notes from The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England by Darren Oldridge (2016)

THE PLACE ON THE EAST COAST which the reader is asked to consider is Seaburgh. It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations ; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse, inland. A long sea-front and a street: behind that a spacious church of flint, with a broad, solid western tower and a peal of six bells.     

     How well I remember their sound on a hot Sunday in August, as our party went slowly up the white, dusty slope of road toward them, for the church stands at the top of a short, steep incline. They rang with a flat clacking sort of sound on those hot days, but when the air was softer they were mellower too….

My mind went back to James's fine opening of "A Warning to the Curious" (1925) when I read the below paragraphs in Chapter Three of The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England by Darren Oldridge (2016).

James himself informed readers that "....Seaburgh in 'A Warning to the Curious' is Aldeburgh in Suffolk."

Oldridge has this to say about Aldeburgh:

     Among the most widely reported apparitions were spectral armies fighting in the sky. These were linked closely to the civil wars: indeed, they were sometimes presented as otherworldly re-enactments of its battles. In one early report of the phenomenon, from the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh in 1642, witnesses heard only the noise of an aerial conflict; and some pamphlets in the late 1650s reported the din of canon, muskets and drums without any visible source.65 The printed accounts always emphasised the cacophony of battle, and this seems to have been the most common way in which people experienced these events. But the clamour was sometimes accompanied by the sight of "incorporeal soldiers". Two months after the Battle of Edge Hill in October 1642, "visions of horror" were reported near the site, as armies bearing the colours of the king and the parliament joined in spectral combat. News of this wonder led the king to send observers to the scene, where they apparently witnessed the spectacle for themselves. A pamphlet on the apparition in January 1643 spelt out its meaning: the Lord was enraged by the tumult and slaughter of the war "and so had permitted these infernal armies to appear where the corporeal armies had shed so much blood". The unearthly combat was "a sign of His wrath against this land for these civil wars"; and the author evidently hoped that it would hasten their end.66

     The main interest of these and other reported marvels lies in the social world to which they belonged: the existence of an audience that apparently found them credible, and an intellectual context in which they made sense. Those who recorded wonderful events did not, as a rule, assume that their readers would accept them uncritically: on the contrary, they were careful to buttress their accounts with the names of "men of credit" who had witnessed the things they described. The spectral armies at Edge Hill, for example, were certified by named witnesses including a Justice of the Peace and the minister Samuel Marshall. Testimonials of this kind supported news of prodigious events that were not, within the intellectual framework of most early modern readers, inherently incredible. The large and sustained market for such narratives probably indicates their plausibility, as does the fact that they were frequently reported alongside this-worldly events in the pamphlets and newsbooks of Stuart England. The market for wonders depended on a providential view of the world and the acceptance of an unseen realm of spirits. "Signs and wonders" were the most spectacular products of this way of thinking, but probably not the most important: the invisible hand of God was experienced most often in the ordering of human lives….

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