Reason mingled with magic

19 December 2014

Adam Morton enjoys a lively challenge to conventional views of the Enlightenment

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 CT709 )

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 "empirical".

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 counts.

Dr Adam Morton is a post-doctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, in the University of Oxford.

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)