By Martyn Lyons
While researching in the Archive of Everyday Writings (Archivo de las Escrituras Cotidianas) in Alcalá de Henares, I came across a very curious manuscript. It was the copy of a letter from God which, it claimed, had descended to earth during a Mass held in St. Peter’s in Rome. It had been picked up by a deaf-mute boy called Angel, who miraculously began to read it aloud. The letter exhorted the faithful to observe the Sabbath and live a Godly life, because otherwise God in his vengeance would send war, disease and ferocious dogs to tear apart all those who disobeyed Him. The letter went on to suggest the best remedy against these awful consequences; it urged its readers and listeners to copy it and broadcast the message as widely as possible. It offered a magical incentive: the letter had the power to guarantee a successful childbirth to any pregnant woman who kept a copy.
The letter was a mystery. It was an isolated document, and apart from the date of 1896 there was no context to help me interpret it. No one could even tell me who had donated it to the archive. I knew that ordinary people often wrote prayers to God, and they still do so today. In the Church of Notre Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse, I had seen the book left open for the faithful to inscribe their desperate and grateful prayers to the Black Virgin. But I was not previously aware that corresponding with heaven was a two-way process. My search for other examples of this strange genre bore fruit when after googling various keywords in the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France I turned up several dozen printed versions of celestial letters.
I discovered that many of them had unfortunately gone missing. Perhaps they had been removed from the library by an over-zealous collector, or perhaps these single sheets or small leaflets had simply been swallowed up amongst the library’s millions of documents. What remained of them was kept in the rare book section. I managed to assemble a corpus of 40 celestial letters dating from the nineteenth century, all of them printed except for the Alcalá version which had originally sparked my curiosity.
The letters from heaven followed a common pattern; they told the story of their own miraculous appearance, in which a young and possibly dumb child was empowered to speak and interpret the written word of God. In some versions the letter could not easily be opened. I called this version the ‘Excalibur narrative’, because like the Sword in the Stone, someone special was needed to extract it. In the case of the letters from heaven, that ‘someone special’ was a bishop or a Pope. The letters would allegedly appear at high points in the Christian calendar, like Easter or Assumption Day (15 August), and in sacred locations like St. Peter’s or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Sometimes the letter was allegedly written in gold, and at other times in the blood of Christ.
The letters from heaven had two faces. On one hand they resembled sermons, urging obedience to the Commandments, Sunday observance, penitence and generous charity to the poor. Like medieval fire-and-brimstone sermons, they threatened plagues, natural disasters and the wrath of God if Christians did not follow the straight and narrow path. All this suggested to me that the letters were authorised or written by the clergy to maintain Christian discipline amongst their flocks. At the same time, letters from God had a more unorthodox character. They were sacred objects which protected the bearer from the evil eye. The magical powers which the letters claimed for themselves betrayed common fears and neuroses, especially about death. For example, the fear of sudden accidental death, which might arrive by drowning or in a fire, could be avoided, and many letters specifically added that the reader who used the letter wisely would not die without confession. I found some letters from heaven which promised the bearer that a vision of the Virgin would appear shortly before his or her death; so the reader would have a little time to prepare for departure. The celestial letter was a form of insurance policy; if you kept it safely in your house, it would not burn down, nor would it be visited by les malins esprits (evil spirits).
The most curious aspect of all was the emphasis on copying the letter and distributing it. Anyone who failed to do this would be damned. According to the letters, the same fate awaited any sceptics who refused to believe that the letter had divine authorship. The letters from heaven had to be copied out and passed on, very much like the chain letters of the late twentieth century of which they were perhaps ancestors. To copy was to be saved and the copyist would be eligible for good luck, a miraculous cure or a win in the lottery.
My search for correspondence from God had started with the intriguing Alcalá letter and brought me via a parish church in Toulouse to the rare book room of the BNF in Paris. The journey had shown me one important thing: it convinced me that even in the nineteenth century ordinary people believed in the magical power of writing. Writing was accorded sacred and magical properties in a world where it was taken for granted that supernatural beings and objects could act directly on people’s daily lives.
Martyn Lyons was born in London and in 1977 moved to Sydney, where he is now Emeritus Professor of History. He research and publish work on the history or reading and writing in modern Europe and Australia. He is the author of “Celestial Letters: Morals and Magic in Nineteenth-Century France” in French History, which is available to read for free for a limited time.
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Image credit: The Black Virgin of the Daurade, Toulouse. Image courtesy of Martyn Lyons. Do not reproduce without permission.