New online tool helps examine miracles over time



A unique online catalogue, which will for the first time make it possible to look at when, where and how miracles have occurred through the ages, has been launched by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The aim of the project, which was led by MA students Simon Lax and Hannah Probert from the Department of History at the University, was to transform the extensive number of miracle recordings in medieval texts, into a quantitative format.

The database will enable people to explore possible links between each record including patterns between the saints bestowing the miracles, locations of miracle occurrences, the gender and social standing of the miracle beneficiaries and the type and outcome of the miracle.

The invaluable resource includes data from over six collections of miracle stories and includes over 600 miracles, spanning three continents and 800 years of history.

For Medieval historians, miracles are one of the defining features of the European Middle Ages and are often seen as the period´s commitment to Christianity. They distinguish medieval society from the later, and more skeptical post-Reformation world. The project has provided the first central resource, documenting how miracles have changed over time and enabling the public to freely search and connect miracles.

The database has produced several key findings, including:

Miracles became more complex and diversified over the years

The earliest miracles in the collection, from the third century AD, typically consisted of individual visions and prophecies, however by the Twelfth Century; most miracles include at least three aspects, usually involving some kind of healing. This suggests that the significance of miracles to their beneficiaries and the way in which people experienced Christianity, changed drastically over the period.

The lower-classes are treated more favourably by the saints

Of the 79 miracles which can be attributed to the upper classes, over a quarter are divine retribution, predominantly resulting in the fatal smiting of the beneficiary. Amongst the lower classes, only 14 per cent of the miracles are divine retribution, with most smiting being non-fatal. Whilst the reasons for this are unclear, the discrepancy suggests the upper classes were subject to much harsher punishments.

The types of healing miracle broaden significantly over time

In the early works, the healing of the blind is the predominant type of healing miracle, with the healing of fevers, such as the plague, only being recorded a couple of times. The later works exhibit a broader range of healing miracles with the saints curing people of illnesses such as deafness, deformity, and skin disease in far greater numbers than before.

Simon said: \”The database offers access to the medieval history of people lower down the social spectrum, which is usually unavailable to historians. The relative lack of sources from the period regarding those people who made up 90 per cent of the populace, will hopefully drive research both within the academic community and help the education of students at universities across the country. The innovative way in which this database treats essentially qualitative data as quantitative will allow people from all over the world to easily search for and connect miracle occurrences across time.\”

Hannah said: \”The project has demonstrated the possibility of using databasing, graphing and mapping technologies as a way of exploring complex qualitative data, therefore modernising the way in which we interact with history. The database has offered fresh insights into the exciting ways in which we can not only use technological developments to gain insights into medieval society, but also use these developments to represent history in new ways to audiences new and old.\”