Review: Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain

Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain, by William A. Christian Jr., (Princeton University Press; Reprint edition, February 1989, 368 pp., ISBN: 0691008264). Reviewed by Donal Anthony Foley.

Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain is written from the perspective of nonacceptance of the supernatural with regard to alleged Marian apparitions, but despite this it is for the most part a thoughtful book, and one which provides some very useful resources for those seriously interested in studying such phenomena. The author, William A. Christian Jr., is described as an “independent scholar,” and it clear from the text that he is passionately involved in his subject, to the extent that he traveled widely around Spain in order to research this book, utilizing material from various churches and archives.

Because of this, his findings shed much light on both historical episodes and contemporary claims that Marian apparitions continue to this day. For example, he recounts how the “story of an apparition that occurred in a Segovian village around 1490 was quite fresh when recounted to an ecclesiastical investigator over 120 years later.” This gives us an interesting insight into some approved apparitions, such as Guadalupe in Mexico, where there was also something of a gap between the event and it being recorded in written form by a later Church investigation, although there is evidence of early written records apart from this.

Christian essentially deals, in several long chapters, with a series of Spanish apparitions from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in Castile and Catalonia, before looking at the activities of the Inquisition in the sixteenth century and how this body regarded reports of apparitions, which as he indicates, was generally in a negative light. He then concludes with a chapter on the general subject of visions in relation to society and religious belief. The appendix contains the apparition accounts in the original Spanish.

The main body of the work is given over to detailed transcriptions of the investigations made into the various reports of apparitions during this long period, and it is this detail which makes this work most useful. It is clear, though, that he is approaching this subject from a position of non-belief in the supernatural, since his definition of an apparition taking place is not that it was a real event, but that for the people who experienced it was, in their eyes, real. He contrasts this with “legendary” apparitions, those stories for which there is “no contemporary report.” To a large extent then, authenticity, for Christian, is bound up with the existence and preservation of contemporary statements about a particular apparition event.

The main chapters also give the religious and cultural background to the various apparition episodes, but understood from an agnostic position with regard to religious belief. The weakness of this approach is that there is probably too much of an emphasis on statistical analyses of the age,, and occupation of the various seers, and the physical locations of their experiences. But he does make the interesting point, which this reviewer would agree with, that the evidence suggests that by far the majority of reports of alleged apparitions and visions are probably false (p. 25).

In this respect he cites a thirteenth century document which speaks of men who “influenced by dreams or empty phantoms which appear to them, erect altars and pretend to discover them …” (p. 37). He actually gives a figure of “one in a hundred” for “real” apparitions, which may, or may not, be close to the mark. But that still leaves us with that awkward “one per cent” which are quite probably genuine, and genuine in the sense that they really were visitations from a supernatural being, and not just “real” for the persons who experienced them.

The apparition transcripts themselves are full of interesting details and some have a ring of authenticity about them, in that they seem very similar to accounts of more recent Church approved apparitions, such as Lourdes. The fact that in some cases they also obtained official Church support, and even in some cases were backed up with papal bulls, and have given rise to devotions which have endured practically to the present day, are also indications that they are probably genuine.

Christian points out that many of the accounts have broadly similar details, on particulars such as the type of person who saw the apparition—often poor shepherds or herders—and a rural location. But the same could be said of the more modern approved apparitions, which also follow basically the same pattern. That is not, though, necessarily a reason for rejecting them.

His “anthropological” approach is not without merit, however, and it does highlight some common themes in the various apparitions, whether they really happened or not, which are worth noting. For example he points out how they can often be understood against the backdrop of a society facing some sort of threat from an enemy, be it the Moors during the late Middle Ages, or heretics later on. This is probably a good explanation for many false apparitions, which will have been produced in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainly, but again it cannot really, on its own, explain genuine apparitions.

Overall, then, anyone interested in an in-depth investigation of various apparitions and other phenomena in a Catholic society, during the long period straddling the Reformation, will find William Christian’s Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain invaluable. It’s weakness from a Catholic perspective is that it seems to rule out the idea that any apparitions can be thought of as genuine. But in giving first hand accounts of these events, at least the reader is in a position to come to their own conclusions.

Certainly, for this reviewer, the major importance of this book lies in the fact that it indicates the size of the problem created by those claiming, almost certainly falsely, that they had seen some sort of divine apparition, and the light this throws on the contemporary situation where we also find a large number of such claims, which equally, are very questionable.