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The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages

The Wiles Lecture given at the Queen's University of Belfast, 2006


Robert Bartlett


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

170 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-87832-6.


Reviewed by Wendy Harding

Université de Toulouse - Le Mirail


This learned study of medieval ways of conceptualising the distinctions between the natural and the supernatural is written in such a highly engaging manner that it will interest anyone concerned with medieval culture, the history of the natural sciences, or the history of ideas and mentalities. Originally presented as a series of lectures at the University of Belfast, the chapters in this book explore from various angles the ways in which medieval people positioned the natural in relation to the supernatural. The lecture format partly explains the eminently readable quality of this book. Though the book includes all the apparatus of scholarly work, with extensive explanatory notes and bibliography, it does so without weighing down the text. The very clear rhetorical structure and the frequent flashes of dry humour make reading pleasurable as well as instructive.

Bartlett begins by stating that the concept of nature ‘is usually defined against something’ [3]. The dyadic structure favoured in the Middle Ages contrasts the natural to the supernatural. The first chapter, ‘The Boundaries of the Supernatural’, documents and explains this paradigm, citing Scholastic theology as well as canonisation proceedings, trials by ordeal, and witchcraft trials to show the effort devoted to making distinctions between natural and supernatural phenomena. One of the aims of the book is to revise conventional ideas about medieval thinking. Chapter Two, ‘ “The Machine of this World”: Ideas of the Physical Universe’, shows how pre-Newtonian scientists also conceived of the world as consisting of matter in motion, though of course they imagined them in rather different configurations from their successors. With admirable clarity and acuity Bartlett examines how medieval thinkers theorised the interaction of the four elements of which the universe was thought to be composed. The explanations given for such phenomena as the distribution of the elements in the globe and the movement of planets are fascinating. Not only do they show curiosity and the ingenuity of the minds that conceive them, they also reveal the fluctuating boundaries between science and theology.

Respecting the lecturer’s imperative of holding his audience’s attention, Bartlett chooses examples that are surprising, even amusing. Chapter Three, 'Dogs and Dog-heads: The Inhabitants of the World’ is a case in point. This chapter deals with ‘creatures that seem to have been believed in by many people in the Middle Ages but are not by many people in the modern Western world’ [71].  Dragons, angels, demons, and dog-headed people are among the concerns of this chapter. Classifying and understanding these creatures has to do with establishing and policing the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural. Did women simply imagine or dream that they consorted with demons, or did they actually do the things they confessed to? Establishing the truth of the matter was vital to medieval confessors. Were dog-headed individuals men or animals? For missionaries, pinpointing the difference was essential. Bartlett’s investigates these phenomena without any condescension towards his medieval sources. On the contrary, he places them in perspective through occasional references to modern conceptions and a consistent stance of tolerant understanding. He points out, for example, how these marvels were often located in unexplored zones. Travel worked to contract the spaces where ‘hybrids, monsters, and marvels could be located’ [108].

Departing from the wide-ranging scope of the first three chapters, the final chapter of the book concentrates on one particular thinker, the thirteenth-century Franciscan, Roger Bacon. This chapter explores the contradictions in the work of this figure, remembered paradoxically as not only ‘the “precursor of modern science” but also famously mythologised as Friar Bacon the magician’ [112].  Bartlett shows the surprising extent of Bacon’s experimental science, but also its limits. The writings of the thirteenth-century thinker reveal certain values and attitudes that modern-day Englishmen might share, but also some that are very alien. Bartlett addresses all these fascinating differences and similarities with an admirable depth of anthropological and historical understanding. The result is a book that is both profound and stimulating, and finally very humane in its appreciation of the variety and complexity of medieval thought about the natural and the supernatural.




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