As a young scholar, Fleming was a student of D.W. Robertson Jr., renowned for the theological learning he brought to bear when interpreting medieval literature. (For examples of his method, see Robertson’s modest-sounding but truly magisterial “A Preface to Chaucer.”) So it’s no surprise that Fleming is at his best when he draws on his knowledge of Christian doctrine and belief. For instance, in his opening pages on Valentine Greatrakes, who effected seemingly miraculous cures by the laying on of hands, Fleming notes that “the Stroker” was said to smell like violets. He explains the implicit significance of this fragrant sweetness:
“For us, the phrase ‘odor of sanctity’ has only a metaphoric meaning, if it has any meaning at all. But the odor of sanctity was a real odor, sweet and floral, and in the old hagiographic texts, whether emanating from the living or the dead, was among the more common physical manifestations of divine spiritual approval.”
Throughout, Fleming consistently views the occult — i.e., the “hidden” — in spiritual terms. One early chapter, for instance, discusses “enthusiasm,” the emotional, impulsive side of religion that we associate with snake handlers and Holy Rollers. In “The Convulsionists” chapter, he interlaces accounts of miracles attributed to a saintly Francois de Paris with a precis of the antagonisms between the worldly Jesuits and the more austerely devout Jansenists. Speaking of a Bishop Massillon’s alarming sermon “On the Smallness of the Number of Those to Be Saved,” he writes:
“Massillon was no Jansenist, but it would be hard to distinguish his view of a Heaven with a population density roughly that of the Gobi Desert from the views of Augustine at his gloomiest.”
That’s neatly phrased, but sometimes Fleming comes across as offhand and flippant. When discussing magic, cabala, astrology and other recondite “sciences,” he tends to paraphrase and seldom conveys a sense of actual historical practice. Still, in a chapter on alchemy, he forcefully underscores that “the project of purification, amelioration, and transformation externally manifested at the forge betokened an inner transformation of the alchemist’s spirit.” In effect, the turning of base metal into gold (the technical term is spagyria) or the search for an elixir of life is secondary to true alchemy; what matters is self-exploration and self-transcendence. Just so, the Freemasons and Rosicrucians — whatever the actual origins of these secret societies — were initially churchlike sodalities devoted to the spiritual advancement of their members.