- Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present
This book provides an ambitious survey of the history of magic from the ancient world to the modern West. The broad scope of the book gives readers a useful comparative perspective on how different Western societies viewed and categorized magic and superstition, and how magical traditions changed and adapted to different historical circumstances. It allows Michael D. Bailey to ask such questions as “Can we also speak of witchcraft and witches in the ancient world?” (p. 30) and to correct popular misconceptions concerning (for example) the association of magic with paganism in the late Middle Ages (p. 126), or the numbers of those legally executed for witchcraft (p. 175). According to Bailey, the greatest importance of the categories of magic and superstition lies in their deployment to define the limits of acceptable belief or action (p. 4). Bailey stresses the importance of magic as a field of study, although the book focuses more on how magic and superstition were created by, rather than shaped, their historical circumstances.
Bailey explains historical problems and contexts clearly and chooses interesting examples. He shows admirable command and understanding of a wide range of material, and his scholarly expertise in witchcraft is used to good effect in the lucid chapter on this complex subject. The book is aimed at the general reader or student with a particular interest in the history of magic. This means that the historical backdrop is presented in a very introductory way, and the limited footnotes will frustrate readers interested in following up particular examples or historiographical arguments. It is also a pity that the “further reading” bibliography contains only works in English when the book is likely to attract some readers, at least, with other languages. The bibliography thus omits important French and Italian scholarship in this field, a bias also reflected in the book’s content. For example, the significant corpus of occult literature attributed to Hermes circulating in the late Middle Ages and explored by Paolo Lucentini and Vittoria Perrone Compagni (among others) is ignored. This leads, in my opinion, to the author overstating the differences between medieval and Renaissance learned magic. [End Page 570]
Nevertheless, the book incorporates an impressive amount of source material and current historiography on the history of magic. Although at times I felt that the wood was lost for the trees, Bailey is an excellent scholar in the history of magic, and amid the historical and narrative detail are some provocative and interesting arguments. In chapter 6, for example, Bailey subverts the argument that skepticism about witchcraft and magic was the result of the Scientific Revolution, the triumph of mechanical philosophy, and the Enlightenment “Disenchantment of the world” and argues that this skepticism was in fact a causal factor in these developments. The book ends with an interesting chapter on magic in the modern West, which shows how modern groups adopted magical rites to confront and criticize aspects of contemporary culture, thus subverting the historical use of the labels magic and superstition to condemn practices that religious and secular authorities perceived as threatening.