Conversations with Angels: Essays towards a History of Spiritual Communication, 1100–1700. Edited by Joad Raymond . Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. xiii + 349pp. £65.00.


From Jacob's wrestlings through to the ‘conscious communion’ sought by Newman's Gerontius, mankind has not only been perplexed by the existence of angels, but even more perplexed by whether mortal communication with them is either possible or desirable. The fourteen essays in this collection, focused particularly on the period after 1500, seek to connect such perplexities to the wider fears and doubts of what is portrayed here as a Reformation age of anxiety. Behind all of this lies a more significant albeit largely silent agenda: to what extent might communication with angels supply a counterpart to the over-ploughed field of witchcraft, commerce with the Devil and the Satanic pact? Since David Keck's 1998 monograph is accepted here as a definitive approach to medieval angelology, only two essays deal at length with medieval themes. James Steven Byrne fleshes out the scientific details, revealing that the old chestnut invented in the 1630s in mockery of medieval scholasticism (‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’) is a question that reflected significant responses, from Augustine to Ockham, in respect to mathematical infinity, the definition of place and space, and the hylomorphic relation between matter and form. Sophie Page explains the origins of communications and conjurations with spirits in the fusing of Hermetic and Solomonic magic, before examining the often emotive language that by the fifteenth century bound the corporeal and the incorporeal. It is worth questioning here whether such language was itself a reflection of the belief in love as an incorporeal yet magnetic force between lover and beloved. In this reading, spirits themselves might be regarded as the materializations of emotions for an age terrified of the invisible or the unknown. From this we move to the particular beliefs or angelic visitations vouchsafed to the Protestants John Dee (Stephen Clucas), Isaac Newton and his admirers (Simon Schaffer) and the radically deluded John Pordage (Joad Raymond), set against such Catholic counterparts as the Jesuit Athanasius Kirchner (Ingrid D. Rowland) or the English Catholic missionaries who from the 1570s onwards (Alexandra Walsham) presented angels as the protectors of the recusant faithful. As Peter Marshall reveals in a wider consideration of Protestant approaches to guardian angels, there was a willingness, across confessional divides, to accept the existence of beings that, as Stephen Clucas has already shown in his essay on Dr Dee, were the focus of anxieties in an age robbed of many of the comforts of late medieval piety. The discovery of vast planetary spaces, as in Simon Schaffer's contribution, allowed William Whiston and others to people the void with a vast army of angels and superlunary beings. Galileo (as noticed in an essay by Nick Wilding), whatever his personal belief in angels, used angelic agency as a metaphor to explain the wonders of the telescope. Even after the condemnations of Galileo, Copernicus and Giordano Bruno, Athanasius Kirchner was able to use the conceit of a dialogue with angels to smuggle a large part of Bruno's cosmology past the censors of counter-Reformation Rome. There are many good things here, albeit that rather more communication between the authors, angelic or otherwise, might have led to the avoidance of repetition and the ironing out of contradictions. Thus Walter Stevens, in a wide-ranging and perhaps too systematic essay on inter-species communication, alludes to the fact that in the middle ages demonic possession was a proof of the existence of evil spirits and hence of the reality of angels. Yet the significance of this is lost on Peter Marshall for the period after the 1540s, when Protestant writers with a confirmed belief in the Devil and his instruments could hardly discard a belief in angels, however tarnished angels might have become by their association with Catholicism and late medieval angelology. Likewise, Marshall's description of the debates over guardian angels and their availability to each individual human soul would have benefited from references both to Byrne's angelic mathematics and to Rowland or Schaffer on the discovery of an infinite cosmos. Two of the essays here, by William T. Flynn and by Jessie Ann Owens, address the question of angelic music and the attempts at its reproduction by composers from Hildegard of Bingen to Alessandro Grandi. Neither essay is supplied with musical examples. Both are framed within a collection that proclaims that the Victorians ‘had little time for angelic apparitions’ (p. 6). In the nineteenth century, we are told, ‘angels would be subsumed into Victorian kitsch’ (p. 11). Newman, Elgar and Burne-Jones might not have agreed with this assessment. They also supply a potent reminder that the voices of angels are preserved not just in scratchy medieval or early modern recordings, but in fully nineteenth- and twentieth-century stereophonics. As Nick Wilding reminds us, in one of the wisest sentences in this collection, ‘Enlightenment angelicide has been much overstated’ (p. 68).