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Revising the Supernatural: The Inquiry on Miracles in Early Modern Canonisation Trials

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posted on 24.09.2018, 09:49 by Alessandro Laverda
Making use of both published treatises and archival documents, this dissertation explains the reasons for the birth of a new concept of miracle in early modern canonisation trials held in Papal Rome. From the twelfth century, Catholic tradition had long defined a miracle as an event exceeding the whole of the order of nature, which meant both the visible and corporeal as well as the invisible and spiritual order. However, during the seventeenth century, Aristotelian physics was replaced by a new way of investigating nature, focused on mathematics as a method of inquiry, on mechanical explanations and on a new idea of matter based on corpuscular philosophy and atomism. This led to a new idea of nature. In the canonisation process, alleged miracles were assessed by a committee, who engaged medical experts with the role of evaluating any possibility that the events had natural causes. Between the end of seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Roman physicians largely employed mechanical physics to investigate nature. This caused a short circuit: the new idea of nature implicit in the medical experts’ investigations did not coincide with the idea of nature from which the medieval definition of miracle had developed. As a result of his direct involvement in canonisation processes, Prospero Lambertini, Promoter of the Faith and future Pope Benedict XIV, became aware of this and adapted the definition of miracle to the new idea of nature. In addition, there was a perceived need to counteract atheists and deists who denied the existence of miracles. The modification of the concept of miracle reveals a deeper and radical change in the early modern world picture, in which the new boundaries of the natural led to the end of any dialectical relationship between the natural and the supernatural, condemning the latter to a blurred presence.



Gentilcore, David; Aston, Nigel

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School of Historical Studies

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University of Leicester

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