I’ve had a chapter published in a new volume on Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Enlightenment out earlier this year from Routledge. There are some fascinating essays here worth checking out.
Here’s an abstract of my chapter, “Invisible Worlds: Magic Spirits and Experience in the Early Enlightenment” and a link to read the first few pages.
At the turn of the eighteenth century, apparitions could be explained in many ways: as spirits sent out by witches, as demons summoned by magicians, as ghosts of the dead, or as an illusion or a symptom of affliction. While prescriptive literature instructed readers in how they should understand these phenomena, in practice people could use their own senses to resolve uncertainties in interpretation. One such case is John Beaumont (c.1640–1731), a member of the Royal Society who struggled to explain his visual and auditory encounters with spirits. He published his theories about the nature of spirits and described his personal experiences in brief but vivid detail. Although he demonstrated familiarity with occult texts, he was careful to note that he never summoned the spirits by magical means but rather was surprised each time they appeared to him unsolicited. Beaumont’s writings provide a rare opportunity to examine how a natural philosopher interpreted his own experiences with the preternatural during the early Enlightenment, when competing explanations provided ambiguity rather than clarity about the invisible world.
My 2015 doctoral dissertation (University of New Hampshire) was titled “Strange shall be the wonders: Preternature in the Early Modern English Atlantic World.”
The preternatural—magic, witchcraft, wonders, apparitions, demons, and other unusual phenomena—was a powerful component of early modern culture. It functioned as a category of thought and as a set of interrelated beliefs. Preternature served an important ontological role in theology and natural philosophy as an intermediary category for phenomena that were not caused by direct divine agency but had no definitive natural cause. Attempts to mark the boundaries between the visible and invisible worlds were fraught with difficulty. Moreover, the social and political changes that took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generated an influx of information that transformed the way early moderns understood their universe. By examining the literary debates and analyzing the impact of learned thought on popular experiences with unusual phenomena, this dissertation argues for the centrality of preternature to early modern ways of knowing. In addition, exploring how the boundaries of preternature were challenged by New World encounters, colonial witchcraft trials, and the dissemination of natural knowledge by institutions such as the Royal Society reveals the complex process by which the category of the preternatural ultimately disappeared from modern thought.