Lydia McCutcheon reflects on the challenges and opportunities of studying accounts of divine intervention.
‘Do miracles really happen? Is there a God or gods who actively intervene in human history?’
These were questions that Professor Rachel Koopmans, now a leading expert on medieval miracle collections, asked at the beginning of her PhD thesis twenty years ago. Miracle collections tell the stories of miraculous interventions by a Saint in the lives of people from every sphere of society. They usually had monastic authors because monasteries were often invested in looking after the places where saints were venerated, and making them more widely known. The questions I quoted above were pertinent to Koopman’s historical study of miracle collections because of the supernatural events at the heart of them. However, she goes on to describe the almost universal reluctance on the partof historians to include miraculous events in the historical record.
When I began my own research into the miracle stories of St Thomas Becket as a master’s student in 2019, I also had questions about where their value truly lay. Is there any room for faith in an academic examination of these accounts? Does believing in the veracity, or potential veracity, of these stories make someone a less rigorous historian? Do these stories have any relevance for contemporary society, or any resonance for Christians today? I continue to ask
these questions and more, but have found the following ideas helpful.
It struck me that there are similarities between the ‘calling’ of a historian and a Christian — both need discernment. When examining the claims made by the monastic authors, we should examine their bias and how that might affect their writing. We know that not everything that claims to be of God is Godly, and people will set out to deceive us (Matthew 7:15). But in many ways, these narratives are everything a historian could hope for. The authors regularly explain they used the testimony of the individuals involved and independent eyewitnesses to tell us what happened. Nonetheless, as Rachel Koopmans points out, ‘in the case of miracles, historians suspend the rules of source criticism’. The collections are suspect purely because of their subject matter; a similar line of argument is sometimes used to discredit the Bible as historical evidence. Each medieval miracle story must be weighed up on its own merits, but cannot, I suggest, be disregarded wholesale.
I come across a lack of faith in the ordinary people of the medieval world just as much as, if not more often than, the miracles themselves. The uncritical assumption that the laity were gullible, and would therefore believe anything (especially if told by the Church), is one you will often hear in contemporary media and society, and even sometimes in academia. However, the evidence from the period suggests that, just as today, some people were cynical and some were naive, some observant and some blinkered, some streetwise and some lacking intelligence. To my mind, this viewpoint puts the testimony of ordinary people, including those testifying to miraculous events, in a much more favourable and accurate light.
Reading the collections today, it is hard not to be moved by the faith of the ordinary men, women and children who are at the centre of events. Whilst the authorial voice is undoubtedly the strongest — it is their interpretation of what has been reported to them — the stories are still able to bring us closer to the priorities, desires and beliefs of ordinary people. For historians and Christians alike, this is hugely valuable. To be open to the possibility that there is at least some truth to these accounts affirms the belief that God can and will move in supernatural ways in the lives of ordinary people. For historians of all faiths, to allow yourself be moved by the narratives of these stories is to move closer to the heart of them.
Lydia McCutcheon is reading for an MA in Heritage Management at Queen Mary University of London and Historic Royal Palaces. She previously studied at the University of Kent and the University of Oxford, reading History and Medieval Studies, respectively. Her research focuses on the multiple uses of sacred space, both in the medieval period and the present day.