Beyond nature

“You and I, fortunately, are not being mauled at this moment by a ferocious tiger,” says Dr. Richard Raiswell, assistant professor of History and co-editor of the newly re-launched journal of the supernatural, Preternature.  “And so, by medieval reckoning, I could say this desk in front of me prevents tiger attacks."

 "Since about the 17th century, our thinking has changed and we know this line of logic to be problematic," continues Raiswell. "We look for evidence of different sorts of connections between cause and effect.” 

Raiswell’s research areas include the history of the occult and demonic possession in early modern Europe—topics seemingly far away from our understanding of what’s ”normal.” But, Raiswell argues, these areas help us better understand and define normal.

“People don’t tend to discuss or record what they believe normal to be. So it’s very difficult for historians to understand how people in the 17th century viewed the world around them,” says Raiswell. “On the other hand, people write extensively about the things around them they consider to be odd, or abnormal. By studying this, we can indirectly understand what it was they actually viewed as normal.”

Raiswell says many accepted modern areas of study stemmed out of subjects that were once considered the occult. Alchemy became chemistry. Astrology fed into astronomy. The study of monsters—abnormal beings—were integral to the development of medicine, biology, and geography.

“And much of this evolution happened around the 17th century,” says Raiswell. “By this time, God’s powers had been elevated to such a high level, he ceased to be a meaningful explanation for the phenomena around us. God’s role was pushed so high above us, it gave us room to ask some new questions about our world, and how it works, free from a host of ancient assumptions and superstitions.”

That’s partially where Preternature comes from. The name literally means “beyond nature.” The journal will publish works that contribute to our understanding of how people in the past understood the supernatural, the strange, and even monsters.

“We all know about the journal Nature,” says Raiswell with a smile. “Well, we’ll look beyond that.”

The editorial collaboration behind Preternature began at a conference Raiswell co-hosted in 2008 at the University of Toronto, co-sponsored by UPEI and Penn State. Raiswell’s partner in that conference, Dr. Peter Dendle of Penn State, was approached to edit the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic. He accepted, and invited Raiswell and Dr. Kirsten Uszkalo at the University of Illinois to come along as co-editors. Together, they’re expanding the scope of the journal, and re-launching it as Preternature.

Raiswell expects the first issue to be published later this year.