My name is Michael Riordan and I have fairly recently graduated from Cambridge with a PhD which explored mystics and prophets in Scotland during what we historians like to refer to as the long eighteenth century, the period running from the Revolution of 1688 to the Great Reform Act of 1832 (or something like that).
After living in libraries and archives for the last few years, I have finally decided to get out into the open, and embrace the electronic age. This is not my first blog post (I wrote one yonks ago while an intern at Index on Censorship), but I really haven’t embraced this digital humanities thing with the same relish as some of my colleagues, who will have to forgive the fact that I forgot to purchase blogroll prior to writing this.
On this site, and elsewhere, I have used my middle initial ‘B.’ (for ‘Benjamin’) to distinguish myself from a colleague at Oxford who works in a similar area.
I intend to use this place as a route in to the strange new world of cyberspace, to engage with both my fellow scholars and the general public. Hopefully we’ll all find something new and useful in the exercise.
My work: mad prophets and dull mystics
My early work looked at the French Prophets, a group of millenarian prophets who toured Britain in the early decades of the eighteenth century — delivering apocalyptic warnings in ecstatic trances which they claimed came direct from the mouth of God, much like modern Pentecostals in America (and increasingly China) do. The Prophets, as my friend Lionel Laborie has shown in his recent book (available here), were a captivating spectacle to early modern Londoners, and soon attracted the interest of religious movements all across the European continent. Lionel is lucky enough to be following them all the way to Turkey for his next book.
In my PhD, I examined what happened when the prophets arrived in Scotland, in the summer of 1709. In Edinburgh they took up with a group of self-proclaimed mystics. While prophets gave warnings of Christ’s imminent arrival in loud voices, often accompanied by ecstatic trances they claimed to receive from on high, the Scottish mystics (unlike the guy in the clip) felt that this was incompatible with the mystic’s call to find God within his or her heart.
I have a forthcoming article on the prophets and a collection of their letters. I’ll have something here on the subject shortly.
My interest in the prophets led naturally to an investigation of the Scottish mystics: I wanted to know exactly what they meant when they talked about ‘mysticism’. Like my colleague Liam Temple, over at Theosophical Transactions, I believe most people (we historians included) have been lazy about our use of words like ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism’. I have preferred to look at how the idea of mysticism developed in Britain, first among Catholics, like Augustine Baker and Serenus Cressy, and then among Protestants. Baker and Cressy saw Christian contemplation as something to be be practiced by monks and nuns in a monastery, so they described it ‘mystic’, meaning ‘secret’. My PhD argued that the Scots were responsible for ‘demystifying mysticism’ in the sense that they took it out of the monastery and made it popular even to the ‘meanest labourer’ as their translation of the work of the French mystic, Jeanne Guyon, had it.
Whereas other historians have accepted without comment that Protestants appropriated Catholic texts, I asked why they did so. Protestants, it seemed to me, were not only reading Catholic mystical texts, but engaged with Catholic arguments about the capacity of those texts to reform the people — away from a Christianity of dogma towards a religion of the heart, which focused less on Christian doctrine and church government, and more on Jesus’s injunctions about loving God and thy neighbour. By advancing towards the deity, we would give up our worldly desires and love God. This in turn, would lead us to act charitably towards those around us.
After some encouragement from my good friend, Jamie Reid-Baxter, I lighted on my next project, an examination of the group of theologians who surrounded Robert Leighton in Restoration Scotland. The ‘Leightonians’ believed that Catholic mysticism provided the best means of reforming the morals of the people, in Scotland, in England, and across the continent. I have written a book proposal, entitled The moral reformation in Scotland, and hope to complete the project by 2018 or 2019. The book suggests that the campaign by to reform the manners of the people — often interpreted simply as the desire of sex-obsessed Protestants to control pimps and prostitutes — needs to be understood by looking at the Scottish career of its most vocal supporter, Gilbert Burnet, who grew up with Leighton in Scotland, before heading to England. Seen in that context, the Societies for the Reformation of Manners set up in Britain in the 1690s look less like moral police forces and more like attempts to bring a practical Christianity to the people, based on the gospel message of love.
I hope in this blog to talk a little more about how these ideas of mysticism relate to the religious and even non-religious ideas today. It is worth noting, for a start, that the moral interpretation of mysticism is what attracted Evelyn Underhill, many centuries later, to pen her Practical mysticism, and more recently has been endorsed in the fine work of Jane Shaw and (less directly) by Rupert Shortt. What all these writers have in common is that they see the value of Christianity less in its truth claims about God, and more as it can provide the practical philosophy necessary for loving our fellow human beings. For the early modern mystics, similarly, Christians were divided over minor squabbles over doctrine (‘how many angels can dance on a pin’) and needed to retrain their focus on Jesus’s message of love, which they could do by directing their attention away from worldly affairs and towards God. By loving God, we would learn to love our neighbours.
This has been a very ‘nuts and bolts’ kind of post. I hope, in the coming weeks and months, to talk a bit more about how and why I work, and to delve into areas outside my specialism. Any suggestions from you, my readers, would be greatly appreciated below the line or on Twitter @michael_riordan (though, as you’ll see, I’m a bit of a novice on that front too).
For the academically-inclined among you, a list of my recent conference papers is over on my academia.edu profile.