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Martha McGill

This chapter discusses conceptions of angels in early modern Scotland. Scholars working on England have tended to underline angels’ protective functions, depicting them as a ‘comforting’ presence in popular culture. But angels had a range of roles in early modern society, and might be every bit as frightening as they were consoling.

Prior to the Reformation, angels had a prominent place in Scottish culture. Stories of angelic visitations circulated; angels appeared in pageants and songs; and they had a significant visual presence, ornamenting church walls, gravestones, prayer books and shop signs. Despite Protestant unease, depictions of angels remained after the Reformation and there persisted cases of individuals who claimed to have met with angels. Across these varied source types, angels appeared to defend Christians, but also to offer instruction or to cast judgement on sinners. Andrew Man, who was tried for witchcraft in 1598, had an enigmatic angelic advisor by the name of Christsonday. Christsonday had fallen out with God, and was not above employing his angelic sagacity to trick mortals. Seventeenth-century Presbyterian visionaries encountered protective angels, but also angels who brandished swords and called humankind to repentance.

As the eighteenth century progressed, portrayals of angels became softer and more feminised. The guardian angel became the dominant archetype, reflecting the developing emphasis on God’s love and benevolence. But for most of the early modern period, angels represented a supernatural world that was beautiful and joyful, but also threatened dreadful retribution for human sinfulness.

in The supernatural in early modern Scotland

Supernatural beliefs have been vital to Scottish cultural development. In the early modern period, the Kirk played an all-important role in parish life, schooling the Scots on how to interpret the invisible world. Theologians and philosophers mused about the nature of God’s providence and the wiles of the Devil. Folk tradition peopled the landscape with fairies and nature spirits. The witch trials displayed the very real consequences of belief systems that would later be reframed as fantastical.

This book analyses the Scottish supernatural between about 1500 and 1800. Drawing together an international range of scholars with expertise in history, ethnology and literary studies, it explores the diverse ways in which Scots understood and experienced magical beings and extraordinary events. There are chapters on trance experiences, spirit-guides, angels, preaching on the supernatural, political prophecies, providence, astrology, Second Sight and the Enlightenment’s encounter with the paganism of classical antiquity. The book’s historical material is framed by two literary chapters: one on the ‘elrich’ supernatural in the poetry of the early sixteenth century, and one on the political supernatural in the poetry of the eighteenth century.

Overall, the book examines the cultural function of supernatural beliefs, and assesses how these beliefs evolved amid the upheaval of the Reformation, political and religious revolution, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the beginnings of romanticism.

Julian Goodare and Martha McGill

This introductory chapter surveys existing scholarship on the supernatural and clarifies the book’s field of enquiry. We use the term ‘supernatural’ to refer to events or beings that transcend the natural order. This includes orthodox elements of Protestantism, as explored in chapters on providence and the supernatural in sermons. Then there were beliefs that almost all educated folk would have rejected as superstitious, such as pagan gods or ghostly spirit-guides. In between these were borderline cases, including astrology and prophecy. The chapter discusses how early modern people formulated the boundaries between natural and supernatural. It also reflects on the problems historians encounter when setting out to write about early modern beliefs.

Thereafter, the chapter outlines the book’s central themes. It explores how early modern Scots formed concepts of the supernatural, looking first at the influence of literary works, before considering the emotional and cognitive dimensions of reported supernatural encounters. It discusses areas of overlap and divergence between popular and elite ways of envisaging the supernatural world and highlights the importance of binary classifications such as orthodox/unorthodox, good/evil and superstitious/demonic. Lastly, it reflects on how understandings of the supernatural changed over the course of the early modern period, with particular reference to Max Weber’s controversial theory of disenchantment.

in The supernatural in early modern Scotland
Martha McGill and Alasdair Raffe

For early modern Scots, the concept of providence infused life with religious significance. Everyday experiences such as nosebleeds, hailstorms and unexpected encounters with owls were understood as special providences, acts of divine intervention. Through the notion of general providence, moreover, the entire course of history could be perceived as an expression of the divine will. Focusing on the period from 1560 to c.1800, this chapter shows how providence enlaced the natural and supernatural worlds.

Uses of providence ranged from the personal to the global. Individuals often understood their lives in providential terms. Covenanting culture placed particular emphasis on recording ‘rare and remarkable passagis’, and, after the 1660 Restoration, dispossessed Presbyterians assiduously catalogued manifestations of divine favour. The concept of providence offered comfort in the face of adversity, but also meant that hardships might be interpreted as divine punishment. Long after the reinstatement of Presbyterianism in 1690, this picture of God as ‘a Smiting and a frowning Beloved’ continued to shape religious experience.

The chapter concludes by showing that providence could also be viewed on a grander scale. Writers from John Knox to William Robertson situated Scottish history within a providential framework. The minister Robert Wodrow collected special providences to demonstrate that God had manifested himself ‘in poor Scotland ... as much as any where since the primitive times’. Though their ways of understanding the world and writing its history changed over the period, early modern Scots consistently found in providence a useful expository and monitory framework.

in The supernatural in early modern Scotland