Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies

Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe

Michael D. Bailey
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies
    Book Description:

    Superstitions are commonplace in the modern world. Mostly, however, they evoke innocuous images of people reading their horoscopes or avoiding black cats. Certain religious practices might also come to mind-praying to St. Christopher or lighting candles for the dead. Benign as they might seem today, such practices were not always perceived that way. In medieval Europe superstitions were considered serious offenses, violations of essential precepts of Christian doctrine or immutable natural laws. But how and why did this come to be? In Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies, Michael D. Bailey explores the thorny concept of superstition as it was understood and debated in the Middle Ages.

    Bailey begins by tracing Christian thinking about superstition from the patristic period through the early and high Middle Ages. He then turns to the later Middle Ages, a period that witnessed an outpouring of writings devoted to superstition-tracts and treatises with titles such as De superstitionibus and Contra vitia superstitionum. Most were written by theologians and other academics based in Europe's universities and courts, men who were increasingly anxious about the proliferation of suspect beliefs and practices, from elite ritual magic to common healing charms, from astrological divination to the observance of signs and omens. As Bailey shows, however, authorities were far more sophisticated in their reasoning than one might suspect, using accusations of superstition in a calculated way to control the boundaries of legitimate religion and acceptable science. This in turn would lay the conceptual groundwork for future discussions of religion, science, and magic in the early modern world. Indeed, by revealing the extent to which early modern thinkers took up old questions about the operation of natural properties and forces using the vocabulary of science rather than of belief, Bailey exposes the powerful but in many ways false dichotomy between the "superstitious" Middle Ages and "rational" European modernity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6731-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note on Names and Titles
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)

    For an icon of numinous power, it was humble enough. The figure of Saint Joseph was barely three inches long. Its simple, white, stamped-plastic form fit easily in my palm. Yet it promised to draw down the grace of an almighty deity and sway the will of my fellow human beings so that I could achieve a desired goal. Specifically, if I buried the statue in my front yard, Joseph, patron saint of homes and home life, would exert his celestial influence to help me sell my house.

    Like almost everything else in the modern Western world, Joseph’s power has...

  7. Introduction: The Meanings of Medieval Superstition
    (pp. 7-34)

    At the dawn of the fifteenth century, a boy living in the central Rhineland near the episcopal city of Speyer had hurt his finger. His mother wanted to know whether she might use a certain blessing (segen, in the German vernacular) to help relieve his suffering. A local cleric said no, apparently deeming this practice to be erroneous and illicit. In the nearby town of Landau, however, the woman found another clergyman who knew of such “superstitious blessings” (benediciones supersticiosas, as rendered in the Latin record of his case), generally approved of them, and had even used them successfully to...

  8. Chapter 1 The Weight of Tradition
    (pp. 35-70)

    The theologians and other intellectual authorities who wrote about superstition in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries generally had their eyes fixed much more on past tradition than on the future into which they were moving. So it is with that tradition that we must begin to chart their movement, surveying how Christian views of superstition developed from the time of the church fathers to the flowering of high medieval scholasticism in the thirteenth century. It is worth noting again that late medieval writers were never absolutely beholden to past authority on this subject. They readily modified earlier definitions and categorizations,...

  9. Chapter 2 Superstition in Court and Cloister
    (pp. 71-112)

    Jean Bodin, the great sixteenth-century French jurist and political philosopher, judged that sorcerers and diviners infested courts like vermin, not only in his day but “from time immemorial.”¹ Two centuries earlier the canon lawyer Jacques Duèze, who reigned as Pope John XXII from 1316 until 1334, would have agreed. The pontiff detested sorcerers, and he feared that his and other Christian courts were beset by them. He instigated numerous investigations and trials, some targeting highly placed clergy, and he ordered officials and inquisitors under his direction to do the same. Generally counted among his proclamations condemning magical arts is the...

  10. Chapter 3 The Cardinal, the Confessor, and the Chancellor
    (pp. 113-147)

    Concerns over judicial astrology, astral magic, and other forms of divination and sorcery seem to have escalated dramatically in Paris in the final years of the fourteenth century, culminating in 1398 when the theological faculty of the university issued a broad condemnation of what it saw as “a filthy swill of error newly rising up from ancient hiding places.” Before listing these errors in twenty-eight articles, the faculty noted in particular “the declaration of the most wise doctor Augustine concerning superstitious observances, that those who believe in such things . . . have sinned against the Christian faith and their...

  11. Chapter 4 Dilemmas of Discernment
    (pp. 148-194)

    In the introduction of this book, I mentioned a case of alleged superstition in the German Rhineland at the very beginning of the fifteenth century. A woman wanted to use a questionable blessing to help her son, who had injured his finger. She sought, and ultimately found, a clergyman who told her that such healing rites were perfectly permissible. The woman lived in the town of Neustadt, just west of the episcopal city of Speyer. Despite her obvious concern for her boy, she had initially held back from using what healing rites she knew because the local clergy, and in...

  12. Chapter 5 Witchcraft and Its Discontents
    (pp. 195-222)

    The history of witchcraft in Europe is well-covered terrain. Since the later nineteenth century, scholars have mapped it from multiple perspectives and via diverse methodologies.¹ Most have drawn on the records of witch trials, using these particularly since the 1970s to explore not just the legal but also the social and cultural history of Europe. Others have focused on the writings of learned demonologists. While the great majority of studies have dealt with witch-hunting and witchcraft theory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when concern over this imagined crime peaked in western Europe, developments in the medieval period have also...

  13. Chapter 6 Toward Disenchantment?
    (pp. 223-251)

    Concern about supposedly superstitious practices persisted long after the fifteenth century, figuring prominently in major debates associated with the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth, and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth. In none of these periods did the history of superstition ever proceed along an entirely straightforward trajectory. Oscillations continued, along with some surprising connections and curious byways. Ultimately, superstition came to be deeply implicated in one of the most important but also disputed trajectories in all of history, namely Europe’s progression from a supposedly distinct medieval era to a discernibly modern one, and in...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 252-254)

    Superstition is a perennial issue, not just in histories of religion, but also in science, philosophy, politics, and culture. The word superstitio originated with the Romans perhaps a century before the time of Christ, only to be adopted and refashioned by Christian writers in late antiquity. The concept of certain beliefs and behaviors being “superstitious” (superstitiosus) was even older. These terms, along with their vernacular cognates and direct translations, have proved enormously enduring, and that stability of language can contribute to a sense that the issues encompassed under the label of superstition may be not just perennial but essentially static....

  15. Appendix Bibliographical and Dating Information on Major Late Medieval Sources Addressing Superstition
    (pp. 255-266)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-288)
  17. Index
    (pp. 289-296)