Signs and Wonders and the English Civil War

Chris Durston records how the monstrous and the supernatural were seized on by political and religious factions in seventeenth century England as signs of judgment.

During the seventeenth century, thousands of Englishmen and women were fascinated, intrigued and often appalled by reports of inexplicable miraculous or prodigious happenings. In the 1640s and 1650s in particular, the breakdown of effective press censorship produced an avalanche of almanacs, prophecies and miracle reports. Writing in 1660, John Gadbury defined a wonder, or prodigy as, 'a thing (generally) that comes to pass beyond the altitude of man's imagination and begets in him a miraculous contemplation, yea, often-times horror and amazement'.

By their very nature, such incidents could take a wide variety of forms, but in the many published reports, they fall into several distinct categories. The most common 'celestial wonders', or unusual sights in the air, involved apparitions of pitched battles, church steeples, swords and balls of fire; there were also frequent reports of irregular planetary occurrences, such as duplicate suns and moons, rainbows at night, and the appearance of comets, meteors and blazing stars. Terrestrial or earthly wonders included freak weather conditions, such as rain turning to blood. Accounts of the births of deformed nr 'monstrous' animals and children were popular, and often luridly detailed, and a further category concerned the 'strange and remarkable accidents', usually involving sudden or painful illness and death, which were visited upon individuals as punishments from God.

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