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My Research

The Significance of Angels in English Religious Cultures c.1480-1700


In recent decades historians of the early modern period have become increasingly interested in many aspects of the supernatural, and subjects such as prodigies, portents, miracles and ghost stories have all attracted greater notice, supplementing the already extensive scholarship on witchcraft and demonology. The result has been a rich body of literature that has greatly expanded our understanding and appreciation of the early modern world, and the beliefs and expectations that informed contemporary mentalities. However, within the existing literature angels are one aspect of the supernatural that have remained a diffusely handled topic.

Since it is a commonplace of early modern studies that the mental universe of contemporaries was infused by Aristotelian contraries, the neglect of the 'good' angels at the expense of the evil is particularly surprising. In Thinking with Demons, Stuart Clark's discussion of how the early modern mentality was organised around oppositional thought and expression, and his suggestion that contrariety was not only a 'universal principle of intelligibility', but was also profoundly influential for 'styles of argument and communication' was marshalled in support of his thesis that early modern demonism was coherent and rational in its own terms, not an exotic and marginal aberration. However, his contention that opposites 'require each other in order to form wholes and improve out understanding' might now be fruitfully revisited with regard to those supernatural beings found at the opposite pole to the demons in his study.

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Professor Peter Marshall


 Henry VII coin, depicting St Michael slaying the dragon