The Material Conditions for Medieval Superstitions

It has been rightly noted that “New Atheism” is mostly a Western educated and privileged phenomenon. It is obviously easy to spew invectives against “superstition” and religion when your material well being is more or less secured by an elaborate civic machinery or by some economic privilege.


This however was not so in medieval Europe and to get a sense of life back then it would be useful to quote at some length from Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic:

…Tudor and Stuart Englishmen were, by our standards, exceedingly liable to pain, sickness and premature death. Even among the nobility, whose chances are likely to have been better than those of other classes, the life expectation at birth of boys born in the third quarter of the seventeenth century was 29.6 years. Today it would be around 70. A third of these aristocratic infants died before the age of five, while the level of mortality among those who lived to be adults closely resembled that of India in the last decade of the nineteenth century… But contemporaries did not need elaborate demographic investigations to tell them that life was short, and that the odds were against any individual living out his full span. ‘We shall find more who have died within thirty or thirty-five years of age than passed it,’ remarked a writer in 1635. Even those who survived could anticipate a lifetime of intermittent pain. Literary sources suggest that many persons suffered chronically from some ailment or other, and this impression is confirmed by inferences from what is known of contemporary diet.

The food supply was always precarious and throughout the period the fate of the annual harvest remained crucial. The meagre evidence available suggests that the yield-ratio on seed corn may have doubled between 1500 and 1660, but so did the population. About one harvest in six seems to have been a total failure, and mortality could soar when times of dearth coincided with (or perhaps occasioned) large-scale epidemics. In the seventeenth century, however, it was rare, but certainly not unknown, for men to die in the streets from starvation or exposure.


Rich and poor alike were victims of the infections generated by the lack of hygiene, ignorance of antiseptics and absence of effective sanitation. Epidemics accounted for thirty per cent of reported deaths in seventeenth-century London. There were periodic waves of influenza, typhus, dysentery and, in the seventeenth century, smallpox, a disease which the contemporary physician Thomas Sydenham assumed would sooner or later attack most people.


Drink, for example, was built into the fabric of social life. It played a part in nearly every public and private ceremony, every commercial bargain, every craft ritual, every private occasion of mourning or rejoicing. At fairs and markets, which remained exempt until 1874 from ordinary licensing restrictions, the consumption could be enormous.


Alcohol was thus an essential narcotic which anaesthetized men against the strains of contemporary life. Drunkenness broke down social distinctions, and brought a temporary mood of optimism to the desperate… The poor took to drink to blot out some of the horror in their lives. Alcohol flowed freely at times of plague: ‘I have myself seen,’ recalled a preacher in 1638, ‘when the Bills [of Mortality] were at the highest, even bearers who had little respite from carrying dead corpses to their graves and many others of the like rank go reeling in the streets.’


Thus, we have to remember that those were the days when, even without Hobbes’s “warre of all against all”, life was still “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Long before the Industrial Revolution the medieval poor drank excessively to anaesthetise themselves from the horrors of their lives. Modern medicine had yet to emerge from the humours theory and physicians were ineffective and indistinguishable from quacks. People lived in constant pain, not depression or anxiety, but physical pain from infections and diseases for which there was little recourse for relief. One’s ability to have food on the table was quite literally perilously dependent upon the whims, or the winds, of the heavens and crop failure meant literal starvation.

The Protestant Courage and Faith

It was in this environment where one’s survival and material well being was balanced on a razor’s edge whereby “magical” and superstitious solutions would arise. Wearing Gospel verses protected oneself from the plague, tolling the church bells protected houses being struck by lightning and burning the entire neighbourhood down, reading the Gospels to the fields ensured a good harvest, placing the Bible on someone’s head caused the fever to leave, a sip from the eucharistic cup could cure the whooping cough.

It is also important to remember that the Reformation occurred just a little before the Scientific Revolution began, never mind before scientific methods and techniques yielded practical results in medicine and engineering. Descartes had just formulated coordinate geometry, Newton has yet to discover gravity, it would be decades before he would fight with Leibniz about the invention of the integral calculus.

When the Reformers thundered against the superstitions and magical practices of the medievals, they were resisted by many of the common folk, not only because they were going against what they were used to, but they were confronted by an existential threat. Dare you cease to visit the shrine of the saints when your papist priests threaten material retribution for not making the appropriate wheat offering? Are you not going to purchase that relic and risk an incurable infection? Shall you refuse to sprinkle holy water unto the fields and risk a crop failure?


It would take extraordinary courage to abandon these traditional safeguards against material disaster and trust that God’s providence directly commands the natural forces. To believe in Protestant truth would take a courageous leap of faith, not in the sense of being without grounds or good reasons, but in the existential sense of confronting the felt threat of losing one’s health, wealth and even one’s very life, by risking the wrath of the saints or spirits with rejecting the old practices. Receiving the new teachings of the Protestants urging one to give up long held superstitions and to place one’s faith in God’s goodness in Christ alone to provide all these was literally a fearsome decision.

It is usual to speak of the courage of the Protestant Reformers in relation to the threat of being burned as heretics by Rome. However a much more visceral and existential fear confronts the Protestant which they conquered with their faith in the re-discovered Gospel. They did not only preach with words but placed their very material well being on the line, daring to risk the wrath of the saints and spirits and the long history of Church hallowing of these superstitions with an existential trust in the Almighty goodness of God to take care of their material needs.

Compared to the threats, fears, and anxieties, which the Reformers needed to overcome when they went on their iconoclastic rampage, the New Atheists running down other people’s beliefs, in relative ease and comfort and at virtually no risk to themselves, is nothing.

Thus when the English prevailed against the Spanish Armada, the English rulers did not merely cite the “Protestant wind” as a piece of religious or political propaganda; they were genuinely relieved at this divine vindication of Protestant England against Catholic Spain. The fear that God was “on the side” of the Papists was a very real and existential fear in the minds of religious believers back then.

Conclusion: The Empirical Conditions of Faith

Theologians in general are rather embarrassed to discuss the strong correlation between material and economic conditions and religious behaviour and conversions. They think that theology is some “spiritually” exalted affair which ought not to be tainted by such “material concerns”. But this sort of gnostic/platonic God twiddling his thumbs in the heavens or merely content to shuffle around nebulous ideas and systems is not the God of the vast majority of religious believers. When one preaches to Africans, their question is not whether you have apostolic succession but whether your God can provide food.


Is it really so surprising that Africans in general are attracted to pentecostal or charismatic forms of Christianity where God has an intimate interest in the finer empirical details of their lives? Why should we evade the fact that East Asians convert to Christianity because they see how Christian civilisation has brought about such material prosperity and power to the West? On one of the few occasions when I speak to my mother about religion, she asks a very simple question, if I pray to God will he drop bread from heaven?

Even Roman Catholics in Africa sense this. A Roman bishop in Africa once gave an interview saying:

The danger facing the Catholic Church in Africa is that we just feed people with a few notions. Who is God? What is the Trinity? What is a sacrament? These definitions can be learnt by heart and just repeated to anybody who asks questions.

At the last meeting I attended of the Council for Christian Unity we discussed the threat of Pentecostals in Latin America. I said that we need to celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit more: prophecy, healing, intercessionary prayer and all of that. This is one of the things the Pentecostals do.

When you wonder where your next meal would come, will this saint provide me with a job becomes a much more urgent question than whether there are two or seven sacraments. Theologians in general really need to get over this gnostic hang up about strongly correlating empirical reality with theological reality and engage the facts as they are lived on the ground.

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