- Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, & Religion, 1250-1750
magic, superstition, history of superstition, medieval, early-modern, Enlightenment
It may seem that there is little more to be said about the role in intellectual history of "magic," "demons," and related subjects in early modern Europe, especially after such important recent works as Stuart Clark's Thinking with Demons and Walter Stephens' Demon Lovers. Euan Cameron's new book, however, opens up yet another way to think about the meaning of magical ideas in European "high culture." Cameron, whose previous publications concern ecclesiastical history and the Reformation, approaches the subject as a historian of theology, focusing on the shifting meaning of the first word in [End Page 112] his subtitle: superstition. This word (like the word "magic" itself) did not denote a specific set of practices that remained constant across time; rather, it was a term intended to stigmatize whatever the writer considered to fall outside the domain of acceptable religious practice—whether because it departed from norms established by the Church, or was in some way contrary to reason. Enchanted Europe provides a history of "superstition" as it was defined, denigrated, and dismissed in theological writing from Aquinas to the Enlightenment.
There are thus certain self-imposed limits on the scope of the book. Cameron does not set out to consider the relationship between popular practices and "elite culture" (although he often has important things to say in passing about the extent to which theological authors knew about popular practices, and the degree of autonomy that such writing could have from conditions "on the ground"). His focus is squarely on theological literature about superstition, by which he means literature written by theologians, or at least by authors with considerable formal theological training. Though he relaxes these limits toward the end of the book (as he comes to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where such a policy would exclude the most important scholarly writing on superstition), in general he is careful to apply his criterion in the selection of texts. This leads to some omissions that might seem unusual to anyone who has read other accounts of the intellectual history of magic in this period. Jean Bodin, for instance, is excluded, as is Nicholas Remy; despite writing influential works on demonology, they were not trained theologians, and "do not sit comfortably within what is essentially a discussion of historical theology" (p. 221). Clearly, it was necessary to limit the range of the book, which already covers a vast number of theological texts. While some readers may find a criterion that excludes Bodin (for instance) to be too limiting, a reading of the whole book more than justifies Cameron's investigation of the sense of "superstition" within the most learned and authoritative circles: his careful and subtle analysis of these technical texts shows itself to be essential for understanding the significance of the term in more popular genres. Any attempt to document the extent of superstitious thought or behavior in the premodern or early modern world runs into precisely the same dangers that confront the historian of magic: that of importing a modern sense of the superstitious, quite anachronistic in its context. Many cultural and religious practices of the past will appear superstitious (or magical) to the modern observer, even if they may have seemed entirely orthodox, or even rational to a contemporary. As Cameron shows in the final section of the book, we possess a notion of superstition derived largely from Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume and Voltaire who, even [End Page 113] if they did not agree on the definition of superstition (as Cameron demonstrates), nevertheless tended to equate most ritualized religious practices with superstition—a notion that is obviously much broader than that of the premodern period.
Cameron's narrow but deep focus allows him to challenge some of the recent orthodoxies in the intellectual history of early modern magic. Previous studies have tended to emphasize the continuity between the medieval and early modern periods—and even modernity as well. Yet within the domain of learned, theological literature, there was...