I am currently reading Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic and it has been a very fascinating book so far. It is basically a historical analysis of the religious and magical practices of Medieval England and how it changed as England transitioned into the Reformation Age.

Yes, the Medieval Era was a Superstitious One

First off, the common impression of the Medieval Age as a substantially superstitious one which used religious objects and words mechanically like magic to obtain secular or empirical goods is largely correct. There are some important qualifications of course, but, despite more recently revisionists accounts, the average Medieval men did really engage in a lot of practices which we would today regard as plain superstitious and magical and which would make the average pentecostal seem relatively rational. They tolled consecrated bells to keep thunder and lightning away, read Gospels aloud to woman giving birth in hopes of a safe delivery, sprinkled holy water on the ground to help the crops grow, read the Gospels to the cows to help them get better, offered grains to saints to get rid of troublesome husbands, hung relics around their neck to keep both thieves and the plague away, etc.


The important qualification of course is that many later “Modern” (which I assume refers to the Nominalist school) Medieval theologians and doctors began to complain about the excesses of some of these superstitions and magical use of religious objects. As Thomas notes:

It was only at a popular level that such [ecclesiastical] agencies were credited with an inexorable and compelling power. Many later medieval theologians were strongly ‘rationalists’ in temperament, and preferred to stress the importance of human self-help. They had inherited rites from a more primitive era and they viewed them cautiously. They regarded the sacraments as symbolic representations rather than as instruments of physical efficacy. As an institution, the Church was zealous to check the ‘excesses’ of devotion, to vet more closely any claims to new miracles, to restrain popular ‘superstition’. Moreover the late medieval Catholic laity were not all ignorant peasants; they included educated urban dwellers who were intellectually more sophisticated than many of the clergy. The vernacular literature of the fifteen century testifies to their realistic social outlook.

We must not forget that even the great Thomas Aquinas, while cautioning against the misuse of hanging divine words around one’s neck for being abused superstitiously, did actually believe that incantations are efficacious on serpents and animals as he argues:

…in the case of incantations of serpents or any animals whatever, if the mind attend exclusively to the sacred words and to the divine power, it will not be unlawful.

-Summa Theologica

The Medieval Doctors’s Vested Interest in Retaining Superstition

While Medieval doctors and theologians did attempt to curb some of the excesses of such superstitious practices, however the line between magic and proper religion was often blurred in the Medieval Age. This was for the very simple reason that the Medieval Church had a strong vested interest in maintaining a lot of magical and superstitious practice given how much comfort it gave the common folk and the way in which it reinforced devotion to the Church. As Keith Thomas observed about observation of “superstitious” practices:

Material prosperity was assumed to be integrally connected with their observance; and their annual recurrence gave men confidence in the face of their daily problems. The consolations afforded by such practices were too considerable for the Church to ignore; if the people were going to resort to magic anyway it was far better that it should be magic over which the Church maintained some control.


Although theologians drew a firm line between religion and superstition their concept of ‘superstition’ always had a certain elasticity about it. It was ‘superstitious’ to use consecrated objects for purposes other than those for which they were intended. It was ‘superstitious’ to attempt to achieve effects, other than those which might have natural causes, by any operation which had not been authorized by the Church. But in these, as in other definitions, the last word always lay with the Church. In general, the ceremonies of which it disapproved were ‘superstitious’; those which it accepted were not. As the Council of Malines ruled in 1607: ‘It is superstitious to expect any effect from anything, when such an effect cannot be produced by natural causes, by divine institution, or by the ordination or approval of the Church.’


The authors of a fifteen-century treatise against witchcraft stressed that only natural operations could achieve natural effects; but they exempted from this rule such approved practices as carrying around the Host in an attempt to allay a thunderstorm. As Catholic theologians never ceased to emphasize, it was the presence or absence of the Church’s authority which determined the propriety of any action. The difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effects they claimed to achieve than in their social position, and in the authority on which their respective claims rested. As the Elizabethan Reginald Scot wrote sardonically of the Pope: ‘He canonizeth the rich for saints and banneth the poor for witches.’


The leaders of the Church thus abandoned the struggle against superstition whenever it seemed in their interest to do so. Throughout the Middle Ages their attitude to the credulities of their simpler followers were fundamentally ambivalent. They disliked them as gross and superstitious, but they had no wish to discourage attitudes which might foster popular devotion. If a belief in the magical efficacy of the Host served to enhance respect for the clergy and to make the laity more regular church-goers, then why should it not be tacitly tolerated? Such practices as the worship of relics, the recitation of prayers, or the wearing of talisman and amulets could all be taken to excess, but what did it matter so long as their effect was to bind the people closer to the true Church and the true God? … Chaucer’s Parson commented that ‘charms for wounds or malady of men or of beasts, if they take any effect, it may be peradventure that God suffereth it, for folk should give the more faith and reverence to his name’.


Medieval theologians and modern historians alike have tended to regard such an attitude as merely parasitic to the main corpus of medieval Catholicism, an accretion which could have been shorn off without affecting the essential core of belief… But it was doubtful whether this austere distinction between true religion and parasitic superstition could have been upheld at a popular level. The magical aspects of the Church’s function were often inseparable from the devotional ones. Many of the parochial clergy themselves drew no distinction: the suggestion made to a child at Rye in 1538 that he should drink three times from the chalice to cure his whooping cough did not emanate from some ignorant parishioner; it was made by the curate himself.

The Difference between the Medieval Doctors and the Reformers

It is here that we need to understand that there was in fact a qualitative difference between the Protestants Reformers and the Medieval theologians. The Medieval theologians, like the Protestants, understood that there was a distinction between superstition and religion. However the Medieval theologians, unlike the Protestants, were ultimately beholden to ecclesiastical authority and placed the interest of the Church first. The Protestant Reformers did not and put into practice what was merely a theoretical distinction in the minds of the Medieval theologians. The strident invectives against popish rituals, rites, and popular folk devotions, became one of the most distinctive hallmarks of the Protestant rhetoric. The Reformation swept clean away the masses of rites and practices which they condemned as magic, witchcraft, sorcery, etc.


The change did not occur overnight of course. Many of the common folk resisted such iconoclasm and there was a continued battle between the Protestant clerics and the laity bound to their traditional practices though it reeks of superstition and magic. Even after the Reformation some of these practices would still survive albeit in subdued form. Once more Thomas notes:

Some of the old calendar rituals proved equally difficult to eradicate. Plough Monday remained a date in the agricultural year despite the Reformation, and gild ploughs were kept in some village churches until the seventeenth century. Straw images or corn ‘dollies’ were made at harvest homes. In Characters (1615) Sir Thomas Overbury wrote of The Franklin that ‘Rock Monday, and the wake in summer, Shrovings, the wakeful ketches [i.e. catches or songs] on Christmas Eve, the holy or seed cake, these he yearly keeps, yet holds them no relics of Popery.’ Such calendar customs were convenient ways of dividing up the agrarian year, and provided a welcome source of entertainment. But they were also still credited with a preventive or prophylactic power against evil spirits, or, more vaguely, bad luck. The rules about the special games or food-stuffs associated with these customs had to be strictly observed. Hot cross buns on Good Friday could bring good fortune and protect the house from fire; a Michaelmas goose meant luck for those who ate it; giving gifts at the New Year brought good fortune to the givers. The same sanctions were thought to attach the wassail bowl at Christmas, or the wearing of new clothes at Easter.

It is hard to tell how clearly this aspect of such ritual observances were appreciated by those who took part; and often the ‘play’ element must have predominated. But there is no doubt that such rites survived, though sometimes in attenuated form, until the nineteenth century in many parts of the country.

Lay Support for Iconoclasm

As with any part of history, it is also too simple to say that the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformers was largely a top down affair of clerics who had soaked in new Protestant teachings. The English Lollards, or the Proto-Protestants before the Reformation, had already began to attack many superstitious practices and rituals of the Medieval Church. Furthermore, the Lollards were mostly drawn from the laity and of the poorer classes with little learning. Thus if the Reformation of rituals and practices had succeeded, it is not only because of the support which the Reformers had from the civic authorities but also because many of the common folk were already disposed to thrash them anyway. Thomas again:

But despite these Catholic survivals there is no denying the remarkable speed with which the distaste for any religious rite smacking of magic had spread among some of the common people… In the fifteenth century pilgrimages and hagiography were on the decline; and Reginald Pecok was already complaining that some of the sacraments were by ‘some of the lay people holden to be points of witchcraft and blindings’. By the time of the Henrician Reformation there was a vigorous foundation of popular Protestantism. The vehemence of this attitude is reflected in the coarseness of the language with which the more outspoken Protestants rejected the conjurations and exorcisms of the Roman Church. Holy water, it was said, was ‘more savoury to make sauce… because it is mixed with salt’ and ‘a very good medicine for a horse with a galled back; year, if there be put an onion, thereunto it is a good sauce for a giblet of mutton’… Small wonder that a statue was passed in the first year of Edward VI to restrain irrelevant speaking of the sacrament.


Yet, crude as this language was, it conveyed an essential point. Many men were now unwilling to believe that physical objects could change their nature by a ritual of exorcism and consecration. The Edwardian Reformation saw much iconoclasm and deliberate fouling of holy objects. Mass books, vestments, roods, images and crosses were summarily destroyed… Dean Whittingham of Durham used two ex-holy-water stoups for salting beef and fish in his kitchen, and his wife burned St Cuthbert’s banner. Common people sardonically demanded chrisom clothes for their new-born foals, or ostentatiously fed holy bread to their dogs. Images were taken away and given to children to play with as dolls.


The decline of old Catholics beliefs was not the result of persecution; it reflected a change in the popular conception of religion.

The Material Conditions of Superstition

A lot of what Keith Thomas has argued is not really news or a surprise to me. What however I found of particular interest is the prologue of the book where he sketches a broad picture of the environmental conditions of a pre-scientific age which disposed them to such superstitions. The average life expectancy of the people back then would have been around 29.7 years, today it would be around 70. The average people back then, by our standards, would have been extremely susceptible to sickness, pain and sudden death.

The fact is that the pre-modern era lived in a time when they had very little control over their environments and their health. People were in constant pain, physicians were indistinguishable from quacks, plagues were recurring events and terrifyingly unmanageable, and the trial and error methods of the “wise woman” or home remedies of wives were often their only recourse for any hope of relief or cure. It was not only their health which was under constant threat. Lightning strikes could really start fires and burn down entire towns given the lack of any organised fire-fighting techniques and fires from other sources were a constant danger to their homes. Also the lack of insurance meant that people could truly go from being a wealthy owner to a penniless beggar overnight should a fire sweep through the neighbourhood. Crop failures and sudden variations in seasons would also often spell instant famine and starvation. Although deaths from starvation were rare in the 17th century due to better food distribution, but they were still known here and there.

“The Triumph of Death” mural, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo – detail

It is in this environment where one’s life was in constant danger that people would naturally try anything to secure a modicum of material security. When one’s material existence is under constant existential threat and taking away perceived “magical” remedies not only meant exposing them to the same threat but also risk angering the saints for not performing the required ritual, one would need either extraordinary faith and firm conviction or concrete help securing their material well being through other more tangible means.

Conclusions: The Survival of Medieval Logic in Pentecostalism and the Prosperity Gospel 

It is also important to note that the “medieval superstitions” survives even today among the poor especially in Africa and Latin America where Pentecostalism predominates. Thomas himself noted this:

Comparable assumptions [of supernatural power] are to be found among many newly converted African peoples today. Many of the Cewa of Zambia and Malawi believe that Christians use the Bible as a powerful means of divination, and assume that conversion is a likely prelude to worldly success; indeed the prophets of the native Pentecostal Churches have tended to usurp the role of the traditional diviners. The Makah Indians of North America similarly regarded Christianity as a new means of divination and healing. In Sekhukuniland the Pedi were attracted to the new religion by the hopes of gaining additional protection against sickness and for the Bantu the healing message of Christianity was the central point of evangelization. In medieval England the same connection between religion and material prosperity was given vivid expression in 1465, when a man who had been excommunicated could not have been valid, for his wheat crop had been no smaller than that of his neighbours, which it would have been if God had upheld the decree.”


For all the criticisms and aspersions of how Protestantism is a capitalistic or mercantile religion, Protestants understood that if you want to eliminate superstition and create a literate population, you need to eliminate poverty, relieve suffering and meet their material needs to give them more time and resources to get educated that they might read the Bible and more sophisticated works. Yes, money can cover some sins and superstitions and no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he didn’t have money to pay for the injured man’s lodgings.

But if everyone was constantly suffering, constantly paranoid and worried about plagues, diseases, famine, failed harvests, storms and tempest and crimes and thieves, they would never have time to read Aquinas and would resort to superstition.

It is interesting though that the Reformation did occur before the advent of more modern technical methods and technology to control the caprice of one’s environment. I am now coming to the part about how the Protestants attempted to handle the caprice of one’s environment before the availability of modern technology and techniques. But whether as cause or effect, there is little doubt that there is a strong concert between the Reformation, the rise of technical mastery and science, and the much more rational age to come.

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