Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Enchanted Europe

This recently published study looks like an interesting book: Enchanted Europe. Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750 by Euan Cameron, member of the departments of Religion and History at Columbia University and author of The European Reformation. According to the publisher, Oxford University Press, this new book 'charts the rise and fall of superstition in European history - from magical healing, spells, and divination, to the widespread belief in fairies and demons', 'explores the debate over folklore from medieval times, through to the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Enlightenment', and 'sets shifting nature of 'superstition' in historical context - from threat to 'true religion' to 'harmless' ethnic heritage':

'Since the dawn of history people have used charms and spells to try to control their environment, and forms of divination to try to foresee the otherwise unpredictable chances of life. Many of these techniques were called "superstitious" by educated elites.

For centuries religious believers used "superstition" as a term of abuse to denounce another religion that they thought inferior, or to criticize their fellow-believers for practising their faith "wrongly." From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, scholars argued over what 'superstition' was, how to identify it, and how to persuade people to avoid it. Learned believers in demons and witchcraft, in their treatises and sermons, tried to make 'rational' sense of popular superstitions by blaming them on the deceptive tricks of seductive demons.

Every major movement in Christian thought, from rival schools of medieval theology through to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, added new twists to the debates over superstition. Protestants saw Catholics as superstitious, and vice versa. Enlightened philosophers mocked traditional cults as superstitions. Eventually, the learned lost their worry about popular belief, and turned instead to chronicling and preserving 'superstitious' customs as folklore and ethnic heritage.

Enchanted Europe offers the first comprehensive, integrated account of western Europe's long, complex dialogue with its own folklore and popular beliefs. Drawing on many little-known and rarely used texts, Euan Cameron constructs a compelling narrative of the rise, diversification, and decline of popular 'superstition' in the European mind.'

I found a review of the book which sums up her reading of it this way:

'The picture that emerges from his analysis is not as simple as one might believe. Although many think of the journey towards Enlightenment as one of, literally, ‘disenchantment’ – a slow erosion of faith in magic in favour of scientific rationalism - Cameron shows how clerics and religious thinkers on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide long maintained a belief in the supernatural. However, whereas clerics of all denominations were determined to divide the universe into sharply polarised realms of good or evil according to their own particular dogma, the lay population inhabited a far more morally ambivalent world based upon more practical needs. As Cameron explains, ‘ordinary poor people [...] feared the loss of health or property and sought whatever remedies might work’ – whether approved by ecclesiastical authority or derived from forbidden folk remedies and rituals.

Although this is hardly an anecdotal work, some interesting stories emerge along the way. In the earliest days of Christianity, St Augustine mounted a vigorous offensive against the fading Roman pantheon by literally ‘demonising’ the gods. The original meaning of the Greek word daimon (daemon), in terms of a tutelary spirit, was gradually overlaid with negative connotations, reaching its zenith in medieval hysteria relating to demonic possession. (Interestingly, the original definition of the word was only to be widely rediscovered and rehabilitated in our own age via the novels of Philip Pullman).

Perhaps the overall lesson of Cameron’s book is that any attempt to impose a rigid external order on human culture and imagination will have only limited success. As he points out in the final chapter, by the 18th century, Europe’s intellectuals had ‘lost their fear’ of witchcraft, demons and superstitions and therefore expended much less energy in keeping them at bay. In the centuries that followed, post-Enlightenment thinkers actually began to embrace what they had previously sought to explain away and acknowledged the power of superstitious belief as part of a rich cultural tapestry of ethnic heritage. He suggests that the Romantic era, renewed Victorian interest in spiritualism and occultism and more recent New Age thinking have much in common in this regard, aided and abetted by nation states’ lack of interest in enforcing religious discipline on their subjects, at least in the West.'

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