Introduction xxi Wahhabist and other “strict” interpreters of Islam would denounce as shirk. Superstition in the Christian Middle Ages The Christian Middle Ages continued the fight of late antique Christianity against pagan “superstition.” Bishops issued decrees against belief in women who flew in the night, describing such activity as impossible. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher and theologian of the Latin West, adapted Plutarch’s model to define superstition not as the opposite of atheism but of impiety. Aqui- nas was also a leader in the movement to define divination and other “magical” prac- tices as based on an implicit or explicit pact with Satan or a lesser demon. This led to a greater hostility to magical practices on the part of Church authorities, although the fore- most practitioners of many magical tradi- tions in the Middle Ages remained the clergy, the only group literate and educated enough to carry on traditions such as alchemy, astrology, and necromancy. The medieval church’s campaign against superstition and magical beliefs was not restricted to learned magic, however. Preachers inveighed against superstitious practices persisting under the guise of reli- gion, such as the veneration of the “dog- saint” Guinefort. Catholic writers in the Middle Ages and early modern period developed the idea that there were two legit- imate categories of cause, the direct action of God or good and evil angels, or the actions of nature in its ordinary course. Attributing anything to any other kind of cause was superstitious and quite possibly a mask for demonic magic. The Early Modern Period The Church’s war on superstition continued into the sixteenth century, but the situation was considerably complicated by the arrival of the Protestant Reformation. Protestant reformers defined many Catholic beliefs and practices, such as the consecration of holy water, as superstitious. Catholics were less likely to accuse their opponents of supersti- tion, preferring to charge them with heresy. However, the Catholic Reformation intensi- fied the Catholic campaign against supersti- tion, further advanced by the immense number of new Catholics, with their own unique customs and beliefs, in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The English Protestant writer Francis Bacon (1561–1626), one of the founders of the modern scientific tradition, reframed superstition in a way that would be very influential. His essay on superstition laid the traditional charges against Catholic superstition, but added that there was a “superstition in avoiding superstition,” a veiled thrust at the extreme Protestants of the day. Bacon was one of many writers on the subject in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ranging from the Spanish Catho- lic priest Pedro Ciruelo (c. 1465–1548) to the French surgeon Ambroise Pare (c. 1510– 1590) to the English natural philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). Browne’s Pseudoxia Epidemica (1646) framed super- stitions as “vulgar errors,” to be refuted by close observations and scientific experi- ment. These practices had a long history before Browne, but Browne’s synthesis was particularly influential. Browne also showed more interest in cataloging specific super- stitions, including those that had no obvious religious application, than in denouncing the concept of superstition in the abstract. Among both Protestants and Catholics, the campaign against superstition also took a violent form in the witch hunt that drew upon the earlier theories of the demonic ori- gin of magic developed by Aquinas and
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