Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Dictionary of Miracles

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer - A Dictionary of Miracles (1884)

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Another one that I didn't find.  Instead an article by Neil Gaiman discussing his collaboration with Terry Pratchett mentioned they discovered a mutual interest in the reference books of E. Cobham Brewer.  Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of those many titles that booklovers have seen frequently and like most I'd dismissed it solely on that title.  A 19th century guide to myths and various sayings?  Yawn.

And of course I was completely wrong.  Brewer's books are enormously entertaining compendia from a well-read, obsessively detail-fixated, eccentric polymath.  About the many works in various languages he consulted for this book Brewer says "I had prepared a list, but have suppressed its publication at the last minute, fearing it may savour of vanity."  I may post about the others later (Phrase and Fable is still being updated but find an edition from around the turn of the century before Brewer was diluted) though for now A Dictionary of Miracles seems like a good start.

For one thing this is an awful lot of miracles - some 600 pages of small type.  Brewer was an Baptist reverend though he doesn't appear to have led any church (this unbelieving blogger doesn't even really know the right wording) and probably approached this project with the thought nothing should be wasted.  The sheer volume of material is pretty astonishing, at least for those of us who have rarely dipped into the vast mass of saints' lives.  (Blaise Cendrars of all people used to plow through the many, many volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina.)

Brewer's organizational principle seems odd though for all I know it's how this type of thing is usually done and in any case is certainly more useful than straight chronology.  Generally he groups the miracles of a similar nature together but often goes a step further and indicates that many are "imitative" of ones in canonical scriptures. A second section of "realistic" miracles are illustrations of Biblical material that's really not much different.  The final section are miracles that support Catholic dogma such as celibacy and festival days.

Overall Brewer is, if not a skeptic, then clear that most of these accounts are "delusions" and "deceptions".  There's certainly a bit of Protestant anti-Catholicism underlying this more than straight scientific reasoning but Brewer, trained as a lawyer rather than a historian, is overall fairly clear-headed.  Like most Protestants he's particularly dismissive of relics and can't reasonably omit them given the book's subject but frequently indicates that this time a line has been crossed.  (Page 274 has an illustration of where various parts of John the Baptist's head went - scalp to Amiens, brains to Tyron, chin to Lyonnais.)

And what an array of stories.  Some sample groups include "Head Carried After Decapitation" (a surprising number - St. Hilarian even gave his head to his mother), "Elijah Feed by Ravens" (saints fed by pigeons, mice, sparrows, eagles and bears), "Apparitions to Give Directions About Their Dead Bodies" (St. Januarius told where to find just his missing finger), "Dragons Subjected or Subdued" (many more examples than I would have thought - St. Bernard of Menthon (of the dog fame) subdued one in the Alps), "Men Like Trees" (alas only one example), "Glass and Pottery Miracles" (seems like a waste of divine power but several saints mended broken vessels).  The section on "Christ as a Child" lists some visitations but overlooks the bizarre infancy gospels (unless they're elsewhere in the book).  There are also groups of odd stories.  I'd never heard that Luke the Evangelist was by tradition considered a painter and that some of his supposed works still exist.  And the ghost of Thomas Aquinas helping a living saint onto his horse?  He didn't have anything better to do?

It's not all so amusing.  The heading "Herod and the Innocents" actually contains numerous anti-Semitic accounts of murderous Jews which seems to be more indicative of the original material than Brewer himself (who doesn't entirely disown this but does indicate doubts and in a couple of cases outright denies the stories' truth).

Admittedly A Dictionary of Miracles has more limited appeal than the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable but then it also covers less familiar material.  It's a glimpse into different ways of thinking, starkly at odds with how most people today conceive of religion and if nothing else is a vast trove of stories.