Over the last few years I have neglected the website to focus on a number of projects about mysticism and prophecy in early modern Scotland. It’s time to update you.
My main project had been completing a book for Oxford University Press, on the moderate Episcopalians surrounding Robert Leighton. My first thoughts on the movement were given back in 2015 at the first ever academic conference on the history of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and were published in a last issue of the Records of the Scottish Church History Society published last year.You can also watch my 2017 talk about Scottish mystics at St Andrews. You may even spot the halo I put on for the occasion.
Readers of my blog will know that I have worked on the mission of prophets who toured Scotland between 1709 and 1715, which you can read about here. My subsequent work has involved placing the group in its historical setting and theological context.
In 2016, I was lucky enough to participate in a panel at Scientiae in Oxford on the discernment of spirits in early modern Europe, with an international group of scholars of mediaeval and early modern religion, including Nancy Caciola who wrote the book which showed why the question was so important. Nancy argued that debates over whether prophecies and other supernatural experiences came from God or the Devil constituted a discourse which allowed us as historians to understand apparently irrational people on rational terms. My paper to the conference showed why this question continued to be relevant in the early modern period. Medieval arguments about discernment were used by the Scottish mystics to challenge the prophets who came to Scotland in 1709. In a refreshingly quick turnaround, the paper was published last year in the collection, Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits, which contains many excellent contributions, including a study by my fellow Scottish historian, Martha McGIll, on how to distinguish good and bad angels.
I’ve now written a more expansive discussion of the prophets and their influence in Scotland, which will be published this October in the Scottish Historical Review. If you’re not convinced by my arguments, I have edited a selection of their prophecies and letters so you can test my theories – once they appear in the huge collection of early modern prophecies which is being produced under the direction of Lionel Laborie (Leiden) and Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths).
I believe that intellectual history is a subject that disciplines us to find sense in the nonsensical. The appeal of prophecy was that it appears to us as self-evidently irrational, superstitious, even ludicrous. It’s thus a perfect topic for the historian of ideas. I wanted to show that prophets were not just deluded fantasists – a view which is now re-entering the academy under the influence of psychohistory – but that prophecy was a rational discourse with its own language and logic.
This is how I approached my work on political prophecy, where I’ve shown that prophecy was not popular superstition, but an erudite discourse used by elites. This comes out in my study of the Whole Prophesie of Scotland, which was the widest-circulating collection of political prophecies in early modern Britain. I’ve demonstrated that the prophecies were initially written for Scottish courtiers, and were published in 1603 to win around a Scotophobic English audience to their new Scottish king. But the Stuarts could never control the spread of prophecy, and after James VI succession to the English crown as Janes I, the meanings of The Whole Prophesie became destabilised as both supporters of the Hanoverian succession and their Jacobite opponents appropriated it for their own, rather different, purposes. In “Political Prophecies and the Crowns of Britain”, I show that when the meaning of their prophecies became destabilised, political prophets lost their authority. Learned elites now laughed at their silly ancestors and what was once high political discourse was redescribed as vulgar superstition. You’ll be able to read my take in a Martha McGill and Julian Goodare’s collection on the Scottish supernatural, which should be available shortly from Manchester University Press.