Cotton Mather and the Preternatural

Boston minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) may have used preternature more than any other early modern writer in the British Atlantic world. Mather employed the term preternatural frequently in his description of the events at Salem which he published in his massive treatise Magnalia Christi Americana in 1702. In fact, he wrote “preternatural” six times in a single page of text. The above image contains five uses of the term within two paragraphs.

He noted that the troubles in Salem began with people afflicted with “Preternatural Vexations upon their Bodies, and a variety of cruel Torments, which were evidently inflicted from the Dæmons, of the Invisible World.” Mather explained the distinction between natural and preternatural in his discussion of how the afflicted were bewitched. He wrote:

it was found, that various kinds of natural Actions, done by many of the accused in or to their own Bodies, as Leaning, Bending, Turning Awry, or Squeezing their Hands, or the like, were presently attended with the like things preternaturally done upon the Bodies of the afflicted, though they were so far asunder, that the afflicted could not at all observe the accused.

-Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Book II, p. 60.

He used preternatural in this treatise to mean something that was extraordinary and beyond the powers of nature, caused by invisible forces, and associated with diabolic witchcraft. Mather addressed the skeptics of such “odd Phænomena” by instructing them that there were “Hundreds of the most sober People” who had witnessed these events. Mather’s works show how the preternatural could function as both a category of thought and a set of interrelated beliefs about how the invisible world operated, and he made significant contributions to the transatlantic debate over preternature from his home in New England.

Data visualization for the term “preternatural”

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer to explore the frequency and usage of the term “preternatural” in English language books published between 1600 and 1850 yields interesting results. Of course we should be cautious about drawing conclusions from these results for a variety of reasons (for one thing, this only searches books that have been digitized, and OCR is still difficult for early modern printed materials).

The word appeared most frequently in the second half of the seventeenth century. There were spikes again in the 1740s and 1780s. After 1800, the word preternatural was used much less often in print.

Before 1700, many writers were using preternatural to refer to phenomena associated with apparitions, witchcraft, magic, or demons. One example is Increase Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) in which he described “things praeternatural which have hapned in New-England” and included accounts of witches, demonic possession, and apparitions. After around the turn of the eighteenth century, the term loses those associations and was more frequently used in a medical context to indicate something unusual or idiopathic. The medical usage of preternature can also be found prior to 1700.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined preternature as “different from what is natural; irregular.” His examples of usage in quotations show no association with demons or magic at all. However, under the entry for “metaphysical” he noted an earlier meaning: “In Shakespeare it [metaphysical] means supernatural or preternatural.”

Another dictionary from this period, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, defined preternatural as “beside or out of the Course of Nature, extraordinary.” In addition, it defined prodigy as “an Effect beyond Nature, a monstrous or preternatural Thing.”

A treatise published in 1823 by a medical doctor used preternatural with its older associations in An Essay on Apparitions, in which their appearance is accounted for by causes wholly independent of preternatural agency. The author acknowledged that ghost belief is universal, but argued that they had natural causes (such as hallucinations) rather than preternatural ones (such as being the returned spirits of the dead).

He wrote: “A celebrated conjuror, or mystic mason, with whom I had a conversation some years ago, told me, he could give me a receipt for a preparation of antimony, sulphur, &c., which, when burnt in a confined room, would so effect the person shut up in it, that he would fancy that he saw spectres and apparitions; and that, by throwing his voice into a particular part of the room, he could make the person believe he was holding converse with spirits” (Alderson, Essay on Apparitions, 46).

Strange shall be the wonders: Preternature in the Early Modern English Atlantic 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.