The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards,
alchemists, and spiritual seekers in the Age of Reason
John V. Fleming
W. W. Norton & Company £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code
THIS book is about the nature of writing history as much as about
the actual history that it covers. John V. Fleming - an eminent
historian of medieval Christianity - introduces the "darker" side
of the Enlightenment (sorcery, healing, alchemy, and so on) as a
means of challenging a series of commonplaces and categories with
which we label the past as a means of describing (or, rather,
edifying) the present.
That these thinkers were as much a part of the "Age of Reason"
as they were of that which came before, Fleming suggests, should
force us to reconsider the medieval as "superstitious",
"un-Enlightened", or just plain "bad", and to cease seeing the age
beginning with the Renaissance as an unremitting march towards
modernity, defined as "reasonable", "scientific", and
The situation was more complicated than these binary categories
suggest. Not only were the barriers between "reason" and
"superstition" both porous and problematic in the long 18th century
(c.1650-1800), but the very processes that made the
Enlightenment happen actually heightened awareness of, and
interaction with, its counterpoints.
This is, of course, a story that had been told before -
historians of the late-20th and early-21st centuries have been as
interested in charting continuities as much as they have change,
and are (for the most part) suspicious of thinking of history in
terms of progress.
Yet Fleming provides us with a particularly engrossing account.
This is not an attempt at a complete history of the Enlightenment
(readers looking for one could do worse than Roy Porter's eminently
readable study); nor is it a tightly wound thesis. It is, rather, a
tour guide of the Enlightenment's contradictions, structured around
a series of highly detailed case-studies, and introduced in
beautifully written, and often witty, prose.
Examples range from the Freemasons, the miracle healer Valentine
Greatrakes (who claimed to "stroke" illness out of his patient's
bodies), and the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, a healer,
alchemist, and séance leader whose peripatetic career covered
Brussels, The Hague, Vienna, London, Warsaw, and beyond, and who
caused trouble almost everywhere he popped up.
Each chapter takes the form of a self-contained account, which
in Fleming's hands becomes entertaining and enchanting.
The sign of good academic writing is the capacity to make
complex ideas and processes easily understandable; and the sign of
a good academic book is that it leaves the reader curious to know
more. The Dark Side of the Enlightenment succeeds on both
Dr Adam Morton is a post-doctoral Fellow in the Faculty of
Medieval and Modern Languages, in the University of