restricted access Rationalizing the Irrational: An Interview with Stuart Clark (Princeton, October 20, 2008)
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Rationalizing the Irrational:
An Interview with Stuart Clark (Princeton, October 20, 2008)

Stuart Clark represents perhaps better than anyone the recent boom in so-called cultural history. A lecturer at Swansea University since 1967, a professor there since 1998, and Fellow of the British Academy since 2000, Clark has focused his research on the network of ideas and beliefs key to any understanding of European culture in the early modern period (the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries). His work achieves an admirable balance between intellectual history proper and cultural history understood in a broader sense, a challenge that very few have managed to surmount. The secret of his success may well lie in his dual background as both a philosopher and a historian, something which has enabled him to formulate questions that bring together the two disciplines and thereby open up new perspectives.

One such question is particularly central to his work: how was it that a belief in witchcraft and demonology in general could coexist with the most advanced intellectual achievements of early modernity? Did the cultural awakening of the late fifteenth century not contradict the “dark side” represented by the superstitions of the age? As Clark’s studies have consistently demonstrated, rather than being mutually exclusive, these two aspects of early modern culture were complementary and indeed brought meaning to one another. In seeking to understand and explain this paradox, Clark has aimed to approach the history of thought as a whole. This has led him to examine [End Page 213] what demonology meant to the men and women of the day, not only in the context of magic and religion, but also as a fundamental element of science, politics, people’s view of history, and even their day-to-day language.

His first book, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe1 (a substantial volume that has already become a classic), offers a global vision of Early Modern Europe from the perspective of demonology that has proved to be nothing less than a genuine historiographical revolution. A publication of such monumental proportions was the result of thirty years of dedicated research (Clark acknowledges that he was in no hurry to publish), inspired and influenced by figures such as Keith Thomas and Julio Caro Baroja, themselves pioneers in their day, who emphasized the need to decode history from an anthropological perspective.

An article he published in 1980 provided a significant early glimpse of his stature as a historian. “Inversion, Misrule, and the Meaning of Witchcraft,” which appeared in the prestigious journal Past and Present, was a model of semantic anthropology and introduced many of his later conclusions on the subject of the “language of witchcraft.”2 For Clark, far from being a marginal cultural form, witchcraft, dialectically constructed as a system of binary oppositions, was the ultimate example of the polarity that characterised all language at that time, structured around such pairs of opposites as good/evil, true/false, wisdom/madness, masculine/feminine, Lent/Carnival, and so forth. Reinvented by demonologists as the antithesis of their own beliefs, witchcraft became the perfect parody of religion: the “world turned upside down,” symbolising all that was most perverse and abominable, and thereby reinforcing orthodoxy by exaggerating its demonic opposites. Hence the endless examples to be found in descriptions of witches’ sabbaths drawing parallels between the licit and the illicit, from specific pairings such as the satanic pact/baptism, or the grease that enabled witches to fly/holy unction, to more abstract concepts such as mystical ecstasy transformed into the nocturnal flight to the sabbath.

Given how strange the supposed irrationality of the men and women of the early modern period can seem to us today, Professor Clark reveals much about the internal logic on which our forebears’ beliefs and behavior were based. In that respect he shows himself to be an anthropologist of history whose aim, following the example of Edward Evans-Pritchard and his classic [End Page 214] study of witchcraft and magic among the Azande people,3 is to unravel and bring closer to us the rationality of a world so alien to our mental preconceptions.

The subjective nature of such preconceptions...