15.02.09, Bailey, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies

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Lisa Bitel

The Medieval Review 15.02.09

Bailey, Michael D.. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. 312. ISBN: 9780801451447 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

For much of the Anglophone public, superstition is pretty much synonymous with the European Middle Ages. Belief in the supernatural and magic, the habit of rituals, and wars spurred by religious conflict seem tenaciously outdated, even anti-modern. In fact, since the turn of the twentieth century--when popes were still wearing red shoes--folklorists and anthropologists have argued that religion flourishes where scientific thought and rational observation are absent. Bronislaw Malinowski famously countered that science and religion coexist in every society but not in equal proportions; he thought that premodern and non-Western societies privilege magic and religion over science, whereas we moderns prefer science instead of enchantment. Still, none of these scholars produced a reliable transcultural definition of magic, religion, or superstition (although Weber constructed a teleology of their disappearance). Then Jonathan Z. Smith came along to suggest that religion--including what some still call magic and superstition--"is solely the creation of the scholar's study...It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy." Hence, Smith warned, students of religions past and present "must be relentlessly self-conscious" about their assumptions, definitions, and categories.

Thanks a lot, post-Enlightenment scholars and modern experts on religion. Now we medievalists must shoulder a double burden: we must remain ever wary of our own cultural prejudices while struggling to make the distant past both interesting and meaningful. We don't have enough evidence for a comprehensive map of religious beliefs in any particular sub-period of the Middle Ages. To confuse us further, the believers of any given historical moment also debated the categories and boundaries of religion--one Christian's magic was another Christian's orthodoxy, and one's superstition was another's heresy.

Ever since academe went secular, most scholars of medieval religion have avoided the problem of defining the terms of their subject by one of two methods: concentrating on religious texts qua texts and ignoring evidence for religious practice; or pretending temporarily to share medieval beliefs (following Clifford Geertz's example, as modern interpreters of hagiography often do when trying to explain saints' miracles).

But not Michael D. Bailey, whose Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies tackles The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (subtitle) head on. Bailey argues that major Christian theologians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries--particularly those operating in Paris--strove to redefine superstition in direct relation to magic, demonology, religion, and science. Late medieval thinkers did not deny the efficacy of some kinds of magic, but they contextualized some forms of magic as logical and scientific. They relied on selected, well-known classical and early Christian authorities for the terms of their arguments; in addition, they sought limits for scholarly inquiry about Creation and the supernatural. They broached questions regarding the operation of divine and demonic forces, the limits of human thought and action, and the best means of interacting with powers beyond human control--the same questions that continued to impel scientific inquiry as well as religious inquisition throughout the following centuries.

Bailey introduces readers to medieval superstition with a short rehearsal of the problems faced by historians of medieval religion, followed by a quick trip through classical and early medieval treatments of superstition. Although superstitio meant excessive devotion to Roman writers, St Augustine propelled its redefinition as pagan idol worship and the demonically-driven practice of magical arts. The scholastics revised the definition of superstition to include incorrect or improper Christian practice, which could derive from scientific as well as doctrinal error. Although the most basic terms of superstition continued to shift meaning in the late medieval debate--and even in the works of individual commentators--Augustine, Aquinas, and a few other figures came to dominate the discussion, which was fundamentally about the relation of religion to science, and belief to intent and practice.

Quite unapologetically, Bailey skips the early Middle Ages. He also ignores all material remains and evidence for popular belief or practice in order to maintain focus on a specific scholarly conversation carried out at and around the University of Paris in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The book is not, as the author points out, about "the specific practices that may or may not have really existed in the past, but rather how [Bailey-selected] authorities perceived, depicted, and employed that concept" (33) of superstition. The heart of the book (chapters 2-4) begins with the works of Pope John XXII in Avignon and the Catalan inquisitor Nicolau Eymerich (d. 1344), then heads to Paris where Nicole Oresme and Heinrich of Langenstein worked, followed by examination of the astrologer-theologian Pierre d'Ailly, the less familiar Laurens Pignon, and the unavoidable Jean Gerson (d. 1429); and finishes with the works of German heirs to Gerson who became obsessed with the diabolic sources of Christians' superstitious habits. Critics will fault Bailey for his carefully chosen sources and limited historical discourse, but he explains repeatedly that he wants to track a particular set of intellectual interactions in order to explicate a particular discussion of superstition. Although this method risks tautology, it is practical so long as Bailey and his readers recall Smith's cautions about self-scrutiny.

To his credit, Bailey does usually remember to examine his terms and categories. His discussion of d'Ailly's addiction to astrology, for instance, and his sympathetic rendering of Gerson's pastoral concerns substantiate his argument that superstition remained open to definition throughout the late Middle Ages. In these same sections of the book, Bailey reminds readers that the writers and works under review were balanced and opposed by other thinkers as well as the daily practice of ordinary believers. The formulaic fear of diabolical conspiracies and heretical witches (the majority female) that pervaded early modern religious thought never fully materialized until the late fourteenth century, Bailey argues, because late medieval Christian thinkers endorsed the thoughtful deployment of natural and divinely aided magic against demonic sorcery. Bailey deals with the Malleus Maleficorum among other works of early modern demonology in order to show that the post-medieval construct of diabolical witchcraft was neither an answer to more complex medieval questions about superstition nor the only residue of medieval debate about the interrelations of religion, science, magic, and superstition. Gerson et al. did not dominate concepts of superstition in the Reformation period--perhaps it was the alignment of the stars that prompted the fires.

Bailey finishes his book with meditations on modern disenchantment. He points out that intellectual and spiritual leaders continued to worry about the dangerous effects of superstition long after the Middle Ages and the supposed dwindling of magical (religious) thinking. Historians and other scholars still believe in historical breaks at the chronological points we used to call the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, or Enlightenment. Traditional periodization is artificial yet useful, Bailey notes, but also typical of European/Western thought about the past. "The complex history of medieval superstition," he asserts, "sheds valuable light on supposedly disenchanted modernity and the processes of historical change that have led to it" (226).

Instead of the usual two academic responses, then--i.e., accepting the Middle Ages as our origins or Othering the Middle Ages--Bailey thinks we should use medieval treatments of superstition to set the boundaries of modernity. Great idea! What can we learn, for instance, from d'Ailly's defense of astrology or German preachers' concerns about a mother who used a traditional healing spell to heal her injured son? We must remember, with Smith, that modern academics created the modern definition of superstition as something quaint, folkloric, popular, non-modern, and non-Western. As Bruno Latour has pointed out, we moderns tend to fetishize scientific idols--the "facts" of black holes, life on other planets, nanotechnology, or prehistoric creatures in the deep seas--rather than religious icons.

Ultimately, Bailey's purposely limited case study reveals much about the longue durée of so-called superstition. It also suggests effective methods for studying religions of the past. Modern scholars must not forget that the Reformation, Enlightenment, and disenchantment actually happened. Prevailing academic secularism actually proceeds from medieval ideas, but also from local situations, cultural specificities, and the inclinations of historical individuals. We will not successfully grasp the nuances of medieval European religion until we produce more case studies as skillful, confident, open-minded, and wittily expert as this one. Fearful Spirits is an almost magical combination of close reading and methodological wisdom that should convince the most orthodox skeptics and persuade the most superstitious peasants that, although medieval Christians may have been enchanted, they were also literate, scientific, and thoughtful critics of religion.

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Author Biography

Lisa Bitel

University of Southern California