- Shaping Superstition in Late Medieval England
Superstition occupied an ambiguous place in late medieval England. While elsewhere in fifteenth-century Europe the clergy increasingly reviled superstitions in everyday practices as the fearful portal allowing the devil's entry into human affairs, this certainty faltered in England.1 The English clergy never ignored beliefs and practices they termed "superstitious," describing, analyzing, and denouncing them in preachers' handbooks, confessors' manuals, and especially vernacular religious treatises intended for lay women and men. Church courts heard cases of superstition, divination, prophesying, and charm making, prohibited activities whose kinship led them to be treated as one. Still, while superstition's insidiousness and spiritual perils formed part of the laity's instruction in the Christian faith, historians have seen the English church as slow to draw the battle lines against superstition and its cohort. Keith Thomas even argued that in the interest of preserving their own status as wielders of magic, the late medieval English clergy often found it easier to overlook laypeople's superstitious beliefs than to combat them.2
The view of the late medieval clergy as complicit in their parishioners' superstitions contains echoes of denunciations made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries first by Lollards and then by evangelical reformers. Both groups reviled the English clergy not only for failing to stop superstition, but for actively promoting it. Both judged as superstitions such common devotional practices as pilgrimage, veneration of the saints, and using Gospel texts [End Page 29] in charms; Lollards and then reformers also verbally assailed the clergy for mounting superstitious rituals, while jealously and superstitiously guarding knowledge of the scripture.
As a polemical weapon, superstition played an important rhetorical role in the attack on the traditional practices of lay Christians in the late Middle Ages in general, and on the failures of the clergy in particular. Its enduring success has obscured serious efforts made by English churchmen of the period to investigate superstition's attractions and to amputate superstitious activities from the Christian body. While the uncanonical practices and beliefs that perturbed clergymen had probably changed little over the centuries, the growing number of laypeople who read English offered a new audience for explaining the theology that undergirded licit devotions and condemned sinful superstition.3 Religious instruction in the form of vernacular books, sermons, and church court decisions warned lay people to avoid superstition's dangers. Far from speaking with a single voice, however, these organs of lay teaching disagreed about what constituted superstition and argued too about its spiritual consequences. Their diversity arose partly from the continuing difficulty churchmen encountered in drawing the boundaries of legitimate practice: could reciting a Christian prayer, for example, become a superstitious activity if done to produce magical effects? Just as importantly, their differences reflected distinct views of lay people's religious competence. The clerics who authored these works imagined lay people in turn as simple children amenable to basic instruction, as rebellious adolescents rejecting clerical authority, and as intelligent adults capable of theologically complex thought. While some writers seemed confident in their readers' understanding, considerable anxiety yet arose about how lay women and men might read and interpret religious literature, resulting in suspicion of many texts and even efforts at censorship.4 This article investigates superstition's transformations in [End Page 30] this literature of religious instruction and in several other late medieval contexts, including church courts, Lollard critiques, and early reformers' debates with traditional religion's defenders. Together these sources reveal superstition's mutability, its significance and perceived dangers shifting according to each speaker's views of the laity's moral accountability or the clergy's pastoral failures.
From the clamor of conflicting notions about superstition emerge a few distinct strains of opinion. One position, which perhaps helped to inflame the church's critics, regarded superstition as a simple matter for gentle correction: ignorant laypeople who fell into such errors merely needed better teaching. This view seemed to inform decisions of the English lower ecclesiastical courts, which treated cases of superstition—which included soothsaying, charm-making, and other "magical" activities—more lightly than heresy. One instance of this lenient stance appears in the 1499 visitation records of the Norwich diocese...