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  • Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe by Michael D. Bailey
  • Denise L. Despres
Michael D. Bailey. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. xv + 295.

Michael Bailey’s distinguished body of scholarship on medieval magic, superstition, heresy, and witchcraft makes him, like the academics whose [End Page 269] works feature in this study, an expert boundary crosser. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies is a culmination of Bailey’s previous interdisciplinary work, all challenging a long accepted, but now untenable, narrative of progressive rationalism toward a disenchanted modernity termed “Enlightenment.” Instead, Bailey offers the dynamic debates of theologians, exegetes, and pastoral writers about what constituted superstition, rooted as we might expect in auctoritas, yet inflected by the individual authors, audiences, and historical contexts (such as the Great Schism) that raised ontological anxieties to a higher pitch at some times and places more than others. While “superstition” always defines illegitimate practice outside of orthodox belief, Bailey argues, the lines between licit and illicit and how such boundaries are enforced changes considerably over time and space. The multifaceted and nuanced arguments about sacramentalism and materialism, natural magic and demon-ology, and medicine and witchcraft that he charts provide compelling evidence of dynamic multiplicity rather than the decay often associated with fifteenth-century European religious and intellectual culture.

The debates about superstition occurred in a variety of rhetorical and textual communities, whose practical need for definition was determined by equally various constituents. Although Bailey focuses primarily on court and university culture, he begins in Chapter 1 by establishing the dominant authorities whose works undergirded the struggle of Christian thinkers to delineate legitimate rites from illegitimate in a hermeneutic challenged by paganism and heresy; the influx of Arabic texts that influenced the development of natural philosophy and thus astronomy, astrology, and medicine; and a laity whose ordinary needs for divine aid in sickness, childbirth, or material loss demanded scrutiny and discernment. Whether kings seeking the confirmation of power in divination or university trained theologians like Jean Gerson, whose concerns ranged from the theoretical to the pastoral, the issues of free will, natural law and causation, and heresy and demonic opportunism resurfaced through centuries of debate.

Most readers will have encountered Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, through scholarship on female visionaries and discretio, Joan of Arc’s interrogation at Poitiers, the debate on the Roman de la Rose, and his role in conciliar politics at the Council of Constance. Bailey presents Gerson in a less familiar guise. Although the day’s leading intellectual, and thus concerned with magical practices in both medicine and the astrological arts, Gerson took a decidedly pastoral interest in superstitions among the laity. If learned doctors and court astrologers could fracture Christian society by inadvertently invoking demonic forces, how much more likely might ordinary folk in their use of talismans, observance of unpropitious and propitious days, [End Page 270] or beliefs in omens and portents rooted in simply natural causes? Gerson is a key figure not only for the impressive number of tracts and treatises he authored on superstition, but also for his negotiation of the tensions between sacraments and sacramentals and magic or idolatry. Although women had long been specified as dangerously conducive to superstition due to humoral influences, Gerson articulated concern about uneducated and elderly women’s pernicious rites that anticipated anxieties about witchcraft and a world under demonic siege. Nonetheless, Bailey cautions readers not to underestimate Gerson’s balanced thinking rooted in a wider desire for reform in all facets of Christian society, from ecclesiastical discipline down to the practical use of sacramental items in daily life. This breadth of interests marks the numerous treatises on superstition penned in the fifteenth century, particularly in the German Empire, examining the problem of discernment between magic and devotional practices—a problem that the Reformation itself failed to solve. The diversity of religious cults in fifteenth-century Catholicism, largely approved to encourage heightened devotion both in the parish and home, had its counterpart in a rich religious material culture. Yet amulets, talismans, idols, ligatures, and images could easily be...


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