Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Superstition in (temporary?) decline

In recent years, a few scholars have investigated why the persecution of witches stopped and how the belief in witchcraft and magic evolved and declined. The popular, but naive, concept of how science and rationality enlightened the darkness and replaced superstition has given way to a more complex and in many ways much more fascinating history of e.g. the secularisation of West European societies. In my opinion this is valuable background information for understanding the context of the vampires and Magia Posthuma of the 17th and 18th centuries, so, consequently, I do try to look a bit at those studies.

One example is Owen Davies's Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951 (Manchester Univ. Press, 1999) which traces the history of witchcraft and magic in England and Wales from 1736, when a Witchcraft statute was passed, to 1951 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act erased the concept of witchcraft from the statute books. As it says on the back of the book, 'The reader will discover the extent to which witchcraft, magic and fortunetelling influenced the thoughts and actions of the people of England and Wales in a period when the forces of 'progress' are often thought to have vanquished such beliefs.'

Certainly, the existence of witchcraft was not doubted by many educated people. Davies quotes an episode, when the famous Dr. Johnson answered an advocate called Mr. Crosbie, who had claimed 'it not credible, that witches should have effected what they are said in stories to have done':

'Sir, you have all mankind, rude and civilised, agreeing in the belief of the agency of preternatural powers. You must take evidence: you must consider, that wise and great men have condemned witches to die.' - Crosbie: 'But an act of parliament put an end to witchcraft.' - Johnson: 'No, sir! witchcraft had ceased; and therefore an act of parliament was passed to prevent persecution for what was not witchcraft. Why it ceased, we cannot tell, as we cannot tell the reason of many things.'

Davies does, however, try to answer the question 'why', and e.g. writes:

'One would have thought that the decline in witchcraft-accusations was indicative of the declining belief in witchcraft, but this was clearly not the case. People who believed in witches did not know themselves why there were no longer any left. What this suggests is that it was the decline of witchcraft-accusations which resulted in the declining belief in witchcraft, rather than the other way round. This precludes the notion of a reasoned popular denial of witchcraft, a conscious rejection of a long-held framework of supernatural causation, explanation and cultural referents. It cannot be denied that many working-class people, educated, informed and experienced, did consciously reject the existence of witchcraft and magic: we know as much from their autobiographies. For the mass of people, though, witchcraft simply became an irrelevance which no longer played a part in their daily lives and in their interaction with other people. Once out of sight, the witch was very much out of mind.' (p. 292)

This understanding of the decline of witchcraft and magic leads Davies to speculate on our own time and our future:

'In the 1980s and 1990s we have heard how an American president patronised an astrologer, how British jurists consulted a ouija-board to ascertain a defendant's guilt, how a multinational mineral extraction company employed a spoon-bender to find hidden mineral reserves, and of leading quantum theorists and astrophysicists expressing a devout belief in Christianity. We must seriously consider if we really are any more rational than the witch-believers of the past. Instead of thinking of the modern period as an age in which the mass of the population has advanced from a state of supernatural credulity to one of scientific rationality, we must look at it as a period in which expressions of 'irrational' belief have continued by a process of translation.' (p. 295)

And he adds:

'Furthermore, it is not impossible that at some point in the future, profound economic and environmental upheavals will once more create the social and cultural conditions in which once widespread beliefs and practices concerning witchcraft and magic may return. The mumping witch may come knocking once more.' (p. 295)

I suppose that, perhaps, the author would say the same for that special kind of 'magic', the Magia Posthuma?

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