History students warned accounts of religious miracles may disturb them

·3-min read
The relic believed to be the mummified hand of St James the apostle - Hulton Archive
The relic believed to be the mummified hand of St James the apostle - Hulton Archive

Miracles have been bestowed with trigger warnings, as academics alert students to the “graphic” content in religious stories.

A mediaeval chronicle of divine healings known as the 'Miracles of the Hand of St James' is taught as part of a history module at Manchester Metropolitan University, where staff have flagged concerns with the Christian tales.

Professors have come to the salvation of students’ feelings by issuing a trigger warning for the 800-year-old religious text, cautioning them that miracles can be “graphic”.

The miracles in the record are accredited to the preserved hand of St James which drew pilgrims to Reading Abbey, and the chronicle likely written by a local monk describes in detail a host of ailments afflicting the mediaeval population, and how these were cured.

Students set to study the historical text are first told: “Warning. Some of the miracles can be pretty graphic and may be off-putting to some.”

The written note has been devised for students taking the Pilgrimages And Shrines In Mediaeval Europe module at Manchester Metropolitan, taught by the department of History, Politics and Philosophy, as saintly intercession becomes the latest subject to be swept into the academic trend of issuing warnings for potentially upsetting content.

The miraculous tales students are alerted to are written in a lurid 13th-century style, and include an account of a woman “swollen with the disease of dropsy” who becomes well again after praying at St James’ shrine at Reading until the “pit of her stomach burst forth” and the “floodgates of her bowels were opened”, allowing the affliction to be purged.

The chronicle of 28 numbered miracles adds that another woman had a foot “incapable of acting like a foot” with toes and heel reversed, yet after visiting Reading Abbey and “coughing up a great deal of blood” she was cured and left town “glorifying St James”.

Other entries in the mediaeval log of miracles describe fevers, “withered” limbs, sudden blindness, vomiting poison, demonic encounters, and the Count of Boulougne being fatally shot in the knee with an arrow as punishment “for the fearful audacity of his arrogance”.

One account also mentions more relatable and potentially upsetting content of a mother losing her child during a difficult birth, which the Manchester Metropolitan warning notes “in particular might be upsetting to some people”.

The content note also advises that the 1970 translation of the original mediaeval text into modern English - by Prof Brian Kemp - contains language “that is now considered offensive” in relation to “mental and physical health”.

The note is one of a raft of warnings issued across departments at Manchester Metropolitan, spanning topics including race laws and "apocalyptic violence", which are intended to prevent students being upset by reading and teaching material.

Warnings are 'an invitation to infirmity'

But there is concern about the automatic use of these warnings within academia, with the University of Kent’s Prof Frank Furedi saying: “They are an invitation to infirmity.

“Young people are invited to feel like patients rather than students. People are now issuing this warning automatically, but they fundamentally change the perception of reading and learning.

“Instead of something that is done to entertain or illuminate, they are seen as something traumatising and damaging to mental health.”

The supposed hand of St James the Apostle was brought to England by Queen Matilda and gifted in 1133 to Reading Abbey, where its healing qualities were attested to by the monks in a written miracula or log of miracles.

It would have been profitable for the abbey community to encourage pilgrims to visit the saint's shrine, and one account of a girl being healed in Reading makes clear that she received a miraculous help at the rival shrine at Canterbury.

The hand of St James was hidden and saved during the dissolution of the monasteries, and was recently displayed in Reading.

Manchester Metropolitan has been contacted for comment.