History Today, Volume: 37 Issue: 10 (1987)
During the seventeenth century, thousands of Englishmen and women were fascinated, intrigued and often appalled by reports of inexplicable miraculous or prodigious happenings. In the 1640s and 1650s in particular, the breakdown of effective press censorship produced an avalanche of almanacs, prophecies and miracle reports. Writing in 1660, John Gadbury defined a wonder, or prodigy as, ‘a thing (generally) that comes to pass beyond the altitude of man’s imagination and begets in him a miraculous contemplation, yea, often-times horror and amazement’.
By their very nature, such incidents could take a wide variety of forms, but in the many published reports, they fall into several distinct categories. The most common ‘celestial wonders’, or unusual sights in the air, involved apparitions of pitched battles, church steeples, swords and balls of fire; there were also frequent reports of irregular planetary occurrences, such as duplicate suns and moons, rainbows at night, and the appearance of comets, meteors and blazing stars.