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Invisible Worlds: Death, religion and the supernatural in England, 1500-1700 by Peter Marshall

21 December 2017

Tracey Sowerby looks at how ghosts and fairies still fitted in


THIS book draws together 11 essays by one of the leading historians of the English Reformation. SPCK has done a service in making these previously published but lightly revised essays more widely available.

Peter Marshall has explored many aspects of the English Reformation and its impact on society and the Church. In this collection, his focus is on how and why attitudes to the supernatural — particularly, but not exclusively angels, ghosts, and fairies — changed as a result of the Reformation, and with what consequences. Marshall is concerned to explore the “the wanderings and fixations of the religious and cultural imagination”. Consequently, the perspective ranges from theological debates and the pronouncements of leading religious writers such as Richard Baxter, Joseph Glanvill, and William Perkins to the experiences of many ordinary and extraordinary parishioners, such as the self-professed visionary Ellis Hall.

Part one largely examines the frameworks of belief and practice which underpinned broader attitudes to the supernatural. Individual chapters grapple with continuities and changes in the commemoration of the dead in post-Reformation churches; what churchmen thought about the location of hell; how hell’s reconceptualisation by Protestant theologians helped to lay the groundwork for hell to become less “real” to believers; and how expositions of heaven imagined collective non-hierarchical worship and often played down notions of reunions with family or friends.

In part two, several essays survey the plethora of opinions surrounding the part played by angels when humans died; whether humans had guardian angels (and, if so, which humans, how many angels, and for how long); and how a theology that denied purgatory could be reconciled with continued belief in ghostly apparitions among both the laity and some members of the clergy. These are paired with case studies that examine how individual laymen and women negotiated the supernatural.

While this may seem an admirably diverse range of topics for a single book, several recurring themes provide a strong thematic core. These include the sheer messiness of early modern belief, and the relationship between the body and soul, and how conceptions of this conditioned the interpretation of various supernatural phenomena. Other prominent themes arise from the very anomalous and problematic nature of the supernatural beings discussed in the second half of the volume.

Precisely because belief in creatures such as fairies and ghosts was difficult to reconcile with core elements of Protestant theology, discussions of them offer important insights into the religious imagination of early modern England. They became the sites of theological controversies as clerics sought to fit them into neater demonic and/or angelic categories. They were scrutinised by those who sought to affirm belief in the supernatural by providing empirical investigations into it. And the ways in which lay people engaged with them are revealing of broader continuities and changes in the tapestry of post-Reformation beliefs.

Scholars and students of the Reformation will welcome the gathering of Marshall’s rich and vibrant essays in one place. But this volume deserves to reach a broader audience. Marshall writes so engagingly and accessibly that readers from all backgrounds will enjoy the Invisible Worlds that Marshall has so admirably excavated.


Dr Tracey A. Sowerby is Senior College Lecturer at Keble College, Oxford. Her recent book, co-edited with Jan Hennings, is Practices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World c.1410-1800 (Routledge, 2017).


Invisible Worlds: Death, religion and the supernatural in England, 1500-1700
Peter Marshall
SPCK £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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