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The preternatural or praeternatural is that which appears outside or beside (Latin ) the natural. It is "suspended between the mundane and the miraculous".
In theology, the term is often used to distinguish marvels or deceptive trickery, often attributed to witchcraft or demons, from the purely divine power of the genuinely supernatural to violate the laws of nature. In the early modern period the term was used by scientists to refer to abnormalities and strange phenomena of various kinds that seemed to depart from the norms of nature.
Medieval theologians made a clear distinction between the natural, the preternatural and the supernatural. Thomas Aquinas argued that the supernatural consists in “God’s unmediated actions”; the natural is “what happens always or most of the time”; and the preternatural is “what happens rarely, but nonetheless by the agency of created beings...Marvels belong, properly speaking, to the realm of the preternatural.” Theologians, following Aquinas, argued that only God had the power to disregard the laws of nature that he has created, but that demons could manipulate the laws of nature by a form of trickery, to deceive the unwary into believing they had experienced real miracles. According to historian Lorraine Daston,
Although demons, astral intelligences, and other spirits might manipulate natural causes with superhuman dexterity and thereby work marvels, as mere creatures they could never transcend from the preternatural to the supernatural and work genuine miracles.
By the 16th century the term "preternatural" was increasingly used to refer to demonic activity comparable to the use of magic by human adepts: The Devil, "being a natural Magician … may perform many acts in ways above our knowledge, though not transcending our natural power." According to the philosophy of the time, preternatural phenomena were not contrary to divine law, but used hidden, or occult powers that violated the normal pattern of natural phenomena.
With the emergence of early modern science, the concept of the preternatural increasingly came to be used to refer to strange or abnormal phenomena that seemed to violate the normal working of nature, but which were not associated with magic and witchcraft. This was a development of the idea that preternatural phenomena were fake miracles. As Daston puts it, "To simplify the historical sequence somewhat: first, preternatural phenomena were demonized and thereby incidentally naturalized; then the demons were deleted, leaving only the natural causes." The use of the term was especially common in medicine, for example in John Brown's A Compleat Treatise of Preternatural Tumours (1678), or William Smellie's A Collection of Preternatural Cases and Observations in Midwifery (1754).
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