Edmund Jones. The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004. xii + 164 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7083-1855-3; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7083-1854-6.
Reviewed by Kathryn Brammall (Department of History, Truman State University)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2006)
A Preacher's Demons
This short work is editor John Harvey's tribute to a local hero, Edmund Jones, a "shadowy prophetlike chronicler" of Welsh preternatural history. The Welsh countryside is rich with legend and mystery, thick with stories of fairies, ghosts, apparitions, and bodiless voices and Harvey claims that the nonconformist preacher, who tirelessly crisscrossed Wales from the 1730s until shortly before his death in 1793, is responsible for the survival of much of this tradition. Harvey's intention is somewhat to rehabilitate Jones's reputation by explaining why an intelligent, self-taught, eighteenth-century "great Lover of Books" would unhesitatingly accept the existence of spirits and demons.
Over the course of his career, Jones published a number of works, under both his own name and a pseudonym, Solomon Owen Caradoc, including several sermons, an autobiography, a geography and history of Aberystruth, and two on the occult (the first in 1767--now lost--and the second in 1780). Harvey suggests that though it might seem incongruous for a religious, enlightened scholar to believe in ghosts, in fact it was precisely Jones's religious convictions that convinced the preacher that the spirit world was real and ubiquitous. For Jones, the appearance of spirits was akin to the occurrence of miracles and demonstrated the reality of the afterlife, an issue that was central to his religion. At a time when the popularity of Deism, "Sadducism," and atheism was on the rise, when more and more people demanded proof of God's existence as the price of their "faith," when materialism was fast becoming the new prophet, many Christians felt pressured to help reinvigorate a "spiritually dark age" (p. 6). This mission was not a simple one and it was fraught on all sides by dangers. So, as a devout, albeit independent, nonconforming British Protestant, one wanted to avoid the specter of Roman Catholic superstition. In addition, an educated mind could not escape the requirements for proof demanded in an increasingly scientifically enlightened age.
Harvey claims that in response to these imperatives, Anglicans and Dissenters who argued for the existence of apparitions "developed criteria to distinguish between authentic sightings and those that were inventions of deceit or mania" (p. 6). They wanted to identify what precisely such creatures were, what they could and would do, and how these elements reflected the will and glory of God. The accounts Jones reproduces fall squarely in this tradition and he is careful never to include what might be considered naïve, unsupported rantings of a disturbed mind. He is also careful to provide evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony whenever possible. This testimony, according to Harvey, is one of the most valuable features of Jones's work because his sources span the social scale in a way unusual for premodern texts. In part this is true, though Harvey both overstates and contradicts himself when he claims that the majority of Jones's witnesses come from the "servile and labouring classes" (p. 2). Jones's inclusion of testimony from women, tailors, a turner, and other such artisans is virtually unique, and therefore valuable, but the majority of his eyewitnesses (58 references over 134 stories) come from worthy, frequently gentry, or clerical sources and Jones frequently states that he personally can verify the morality and honesty of his sources. Furthermore, there are no stories from the criminal or permanently itinerant ranks that dominate the absolute lowest levels of society.
This and other elements of Harvey's analysis as laid out in the introduction need to be read cautiously, but they bear consideration, even though the reader might ultimately reach different conclusions. Harvey makes claims regarding the book's value for the study of popular culture, intellectual and religious antagonisms resulting from the spread of Enlightenment ideals, as well as Jones's antiquarian agenda and didactic, prophetic approach, and even highlights how Jones reveals the connectivity between the visual and literary in the common mind. More problematic, at least for this reader, are some of the editorial choices Harvey makes. He himself admits that the extent to which he modernized the wording, spelling, and sentence structure results in an "edition that constitutes something approaching a translation rather more than a direct transcription of the source texts." This can be justified, however, since his aim was to "allow the general reader immediate and uninterrupted access to the accounts" (p. 40).
What is less understandable and, ultimately more troublesome for the historian, is Harvey's decisions on what to include in this edition and his overall organization. Harvey chose to include not only the text of the surviving "sequel" published in 1780; he inserts what he claims (without sufficient supporting evidence) are the now lost tales from 1767. He further adds several accounts from Jones's 1779 A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth. But the editor's manipulation of the text does not stop there. Once he has increased the total number of stories by about a third, he then groups the tales alphabetically by county and parish and according to type. Though one might be sympathetic to a desire to include as many "illuminating testimonies" as possible, from whatever source, in an organization that flows in a pattern easily grasped by the modern reader, doing so can undermine precisely the value of the historical voice that Harvey claims is so unique and valuable. By making such choices it is difficult to imagine how Jones's "charmingly idiosyncratic" approach survives; surely part of his agenda, and what he considered most convincing within his arguments is communicated in his own organization structure and what he chose to publish when and where. Moreover, we lose the sense of geographic meandering and the resultant cultural interaction that was so much a part of Jones's exploration of his Wales.
The above is not meant to suggest that Harvey's editorial choices have created a book lacking historical rigor and merit; rather it is a reminder, once again, to read this text carefully, keeping in mind what it can communicate and what it cannot. It is a lovely book to read because the editor's writing is clear and its production values are high (thick glossy paper, vibrant color plates), it provides a picture of Welsh culture that reinforces the notion that popular beliefs might not always be at odds with those of social and intellectual elites (even at the end of the eighteenth century), and it reminds us that religious devotion was as widespread during the Enlightenment as skepticism and rational inquiry.
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Kathryn Brammall. Review of Jones, Edmund, The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales.
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