- Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present
Michael D. Bailey's Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present successfully accomplishes the author's expressed aim of convincing readers that "the history of magic, both as a source of presumed power and as a source of fear" has always been, and continues to be, an important aspect of European history (p. 246). Beginning with a brief survey of magical beliefs and practices in Ancient Mediterranean civilizations (Chapter 1), the bulk of the book is dedicated to examining magic and superstition in Christian Europe throughout the medieval and early modern periods, with one chapter on the early Middle Ages (Chapter 2), two on the high and late Middle Ages (Chapters 3 and 4), and two others on the early modern era (Chapters 5 and 6). The book concludes with a chapter on magic in the modern West from 1800, which also touches on important historiographical issues, such as the rise of scholarly interest in premodern witchcraft in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Chapter 7).
Based on an impressive command of the vast (and constantly expanding) scholarship of the history of magic, the book skillfully weaves together seemingly disparate, and chronologically distant, stages in the history of Europe's magical traditions into intrinsically related parts of a coherent, comprehensive narrative. Bailey achieves this by constantly drawing the readers' attention to the significance that the emergence or modification of certain practices or beliefs would have in subsequent eras, and by pointing to the historical processes in which later magical phenomena had evolved. In his discussion of medieval and early modern magic, in particular, this method of looking both backward, to past traditions, and forward, to future developments, forcefully enhances Bailey's point of emphasizing "the continuing trajectory of certain traditions" throughout the entire period from 1000 to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century (pp. 109, 200).
This diligent employment of signposts also serves to enforce another one of Bailey's main arguments, namely, that specific phenomena in the history of magic—notably the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries— [End Page 207] can be fully comprehended only within the broader framework of the evolution of magical practices, and ideas about magic, in European history (p. 7). In recent decades, historians have been primarily concerned with the diabolization, and subsequent persecution, of witches in the early modern period. Bailey aims at setting the rise of witchcraft within a broader "magical" context. As he convincingly demonstrates, "the idea of diabolical, conspiratorial witchcraft was simply one stage in the long historical development of concern about magic and conceptions of how it functioned and what sorts of associations it entailed" (p. 140).
Magic and Superstition in Europe does not merely present readers with a lucid account of the key developments in Europe's magical traditions, though. It also tackles major methodological problems in the study of European cultural and religious history. One crucial methodological aspect that surfaces throughout the book, and in which Bailey's academic training as a medievalist is clearly manifest, is the close attention that he pays to the problem of sources. This problem is most pressing for the study of magic in ancient and early medieval times (pp. 13, 59–64), but is pertinent also for discussions of magic in the later Middle Ages (pp. 135–36) and especially to any assessment of the scope and significance of early modern witch-hunting (pp. 174–76). The recurrent reminders of the scarcity, partiality, and specific provenance of the sources on which historians have relied in reconstructing magical beliefs and, principally, everyday magical practices, are particularly important in a book intended for nonspecialists, and will be especially valuable for students.
The main scholarly controversies of the past and contemporary historiographical trends in the study of European magic and witchcraft are similarly all given due attention in the book, authentically conveying the liveliness of the field. The author offers a nuanced...