The Ecphorizer

A Brewer of Miracles
John Cumming

Issue #08 (April 1982)

An 1884 compilation examines the legends of Christianity

In 1895, Lippincott issued a set of the best known works of E. Cobham Brewer, including the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Reader's Handbook, the Historic NoteBook, and the Dictionary of Miracles. Two years later

...there is something for everybody in religion.

the author was dead. He had lived for 87 years and wrote or edited over 40 titles; the work for which he is now remembered, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, had gone through 26 editions during his lifetime and is periodically updated and re-issued still.

[quoteright]The first three books of the set were compiled on a similar plan: they are all collections of facts thought interesting, or hard to find, by the author. But the Dictionary of Miracles (first published in 1884) is quite distinct. It is an extensive compilation of religious miracles, which Brewer assembled in an attempt to present to the reader a resource for understanding Western religious thought. The entries are grouped into three classes: Miracles of Saints in Imitation of Scripture Miracles; Realistic Miracles; and Miracles to Prove Church Dogmas. A typical example is the first entry in the last group:

"Apparitions for Ecclesiastical Purposes." The first apparition recounted is "The ghost of St. Anastasius reproves Areta for not paying honor to his relics (AD 628)." It seems that when the relics of Saint Anastasius were taken to Caesarea, in Palestine, the entire city turned out to do them honor, except one woman named Areta, a member of the aristocracy. She is said to have declined to attend because she "had no interest in the relics of a Persian." Thereupon the ghost of the saint visited her in the night and reproved her for her impiety. She was seized at the same time with violent pains and lost her power of speech. Seeking (on advice) to petition the saint, she went to the place where the relics were deposited, meeting the ghost again. After paying the relics the honors required, all her distresses lifted. That's the story, in brief. What husband would believe such a tale?

Under the category "Lifted Up in Prayer" are many entries, such as the fourth century miracle of Jamblichus, the Neoplatonist. When he prayed, he rose "ten cubits from the ground, and his body assumed the appearance of gold"!

There are many miracles of the back-to-life sort recounted, such as the one of "a child cut up and fried or roasted, restored by Saint Vincent Ferrier (AD 1357-1419)," or "the cooked pullets of the alcalde of La Calzada restored to life." Life was tough for children in those days, no doubt making necessary unusual efforts by holy men to ensure the survival of future generations. There are tales of kiddies boiled without injury, and of a child rescued by Saint Didacus from a heated oven.

Brewer recounts many miracles and legends of Sleepers in Death. Probably the most famous is "Arthur not dead, but only asleep, till the fullness of time is come." Other variations are "Barbarossa not dead, but only asleep" also Charlemagne Bobadil (et Chico last of the Moorish kings of Granada) and Brian, king of Ireland, among others.

Under the heading "Fasts Observed by Infants," Brewer relates that Msgr. Guerin claimed that Marianne de Paredes practiced fasting from the hour of her birth. She would take the breast only twice a day, at noon and midnight. On Wednesdays and Fridays, only once a day. Marianne, says Brewer, wrote her autobiography, "but with unusual good taste her confessor burnt the manuscript when she died." It is not know whether she sucked her thumb. On the further subject of infant miracles, Brewer offers some editorial comments:

"The lives of very little children are glaringly told from the standpoint of monks who know nothing of childlife. Their fasting from the breast, their voluntary seclusion, their fondness for church and prayer, their abstinence from all childish amusements and mirth, their ridiculous modesty, their prudery and priggishness, are dwelt on with lingering praise. Indeed, everything said about little children is unchildlike, and very much utterly repugnant."

The Dictionary of Miracles contains interesting sub-chapters. The one on Symbols lists the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost, and the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of Mary, as well as the Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Virtues of the Virgin. A sub-chapter titled "Inferences Deducible" summarizes the religious significance of various miracles and provides a concise statement of the thinking of religious men who learned from studying them. A chilling section on "Instruments of Torture Alluded To, With Illustrations" contains not just pictures, but often a too thorough description of the various ways in which the human form was rendered to suit the torturer.

As this book shows, there is something for everybody in religion. Here's a quote from the section on Punishments: "(from a religious viewpoint) it is wrong in civil magistrates to punish crimes by imprisonment, and a merit to release those who are imprisoned. The release of persons from prison is one of the most favorite 'miracles' of saints."

Of particular note is Brewer's own Introduction, wherein he discusses the phenomenon of miracles and quite reasonably attributes at least some of them to human eccentricity, gullibility, unreliability, and lying. Citing the dogma that the end justifies the means, he writes "It would matter little or nothing what deception was practiced, provided men were persuaded thereby to abandon their idols and be baptized. Origen lays it down as an axiom that 'falsehood is quite lawful, when told to promote the cause of Christianity.'"

But Brewer is unwilling to put down the entire corpus of miracles to "lying craft and ocular deception." He notes, for example, that in religious houses it was customary for someone to read aloud during meal times, "and a favorite amusement was to adapt a heathen tale and spiritualize it. time these adaptations would be lifted into the national hagiography." He also notes that many miraculous stories doubtless arose from the fevered brains of religious recluses who, starving themselves and focusing their thoughts on one subject, were put by their actions in a state bound to "fatally handicap the discernment of the mind." Perhaps if the early saints had espoused jogging and good nutrition, the Dictionary of Miracles might never have been written. 

His love of reference works is based on a feeling that acquiring knowledge for its own sake is a waste of time, thus making it an ideal hobby.

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