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Protestant Culture: Milton's Angels

Though Protestants sought to distance themselves from Roman Catholics on the subject, angels  played a key role in Protestant culture as a means by which to understand humans and their place in the universe, explains Joad Raymond.

The medieval screen depicting the nine orders was defaced by William Dowsing at the church of St Edmund, Southwold, Suffolk. 'We brake 130 superstitious pictures,' he wrote of his visit there, in April 1643.

How many angels can dance on a pinhead? Even today the question is immediately recognisable – it is emblematic of the unworldliness of medieval discussions of angels and of the foolishness of scholastic theology. It was, however, a Protestant slur on Roman Catholicism coined by 17th-century Englishmen. Its earliest use is by the Protestant clergyman William Chillingworth in 1638. The question then assumed its modern form in 1659 when Henry More mocked those who ‘dispute how many of them booted and spur’d may dance on a needle’s point at once’.

From the 13th century onwards theologians trying to explain how to understand something beyond man’s finite capacities nearly always turned to angels in their interpretations. The pinhead question was absurd to More because medieval philosophers had already decided that spirits were immaterial and therefore had no extension (i.e. physical dimension) in this world. The proposition was therefore a non-question: if angels do not materially exist, then any number could dance on a pinhead without occupying the same space. More thought the problem was a complicated one because he believed that angels were not purely immaterial but had ethereal or fiery bodies. His scepticism was in some ways representative of Protestant theologians and natural philosophers.

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