- Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe by Michael D. Bailey
“Superstitious” is an adjective often bandied about with little concern in modern culture. People who check their daily horoscopes to see what the day has in store or who bury a plastic statue representing St. Joseph to sell their homes, examples that Michael D. Bailey, an expert scholar of medieval magic, uses to start and end his book, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe, are often deemed by their peers and contemporaries to be engaging in “superstitious” behavior. In our supposedly “disenchanted” modern world, few people would expect civic or religious penalties to befall them by engaging in such behavior. For individuals living in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Latin Christian world, this was not the case. Bailey provides a powerful study regarding the parameters of what constituted superstition and superstitious behavior in the late-medieval Christian world.
Ancient and late-antique Romans considered excessive religious devotion of any stripe superstitio. Whereas Ss. Augustine of Hippo and Isidore of Seville grappled with the meaning in the early Middle Ages, by the fourteenth century and particularly the fifteenth century, the term was applied to a range of popular magical—especially divinatory—practices largely due to late-medieval theologians’ wrangling over its meaning. Bailey evidences mastery over his sources through his meticulous investigation of fifty-seven anonymous and authored theological treatises from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Over the course of six chapters, Bailey demonstrates how late-medieval theologians and exegetes, particularly the chancellor of the studium generale of Paris, Jean Gerson, debated the nature of superstition in relation to folk magical practices. This late-medieval wrangling over the definition of superstition would lay the foundation for early-modern witch hunts.
For the first five chapters, Bailey convincingly demonstrates how the medieval boundaries of superstitious thought and behavior were fluid and contested. Yet his sixth and final chapter is the most important. Here he turns his critical gaze upon the Weberian assertion of a modern world defined by “disenchantment.” For Bailey, this fails to hold up when read in the light of late-medieval discussions surrounding superstition and superstitious practices, and Bruno Latour’s theories are particularly useful for Bailey’s argument. According to Latour, any sharp dichotomy between the sacred and profane or the ethereal and carnal, crucial to modernity’s definition of itself, does not hold up to scrutiny when applied to the premodern world. The “complex and at times confusing thought” (p. 247) of late-medieval authorities is hybrid within Latour’s system and therefore resists those sharp dichotomies characteristic of modernity. As a result, the narrative and analytical structure underpinning Bailey’s study is allowed to achieve its own teleological end. Bailey’s overall argument might have been better served had this chapter been placed earlier in the book. Scholars already familiar with Bailey’s excellent scholarship may find much of the information contained within the first chapter [End Page 635] familiar, but it is necessary in tracing the foundations drawn upon by late-medieval theological authorities for their own condemnations of superstitious actions. Minus the occasional purple turn of phrase, Bailey’s writing throughout is crisp, clean, and elegant. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies is a groundbreaking work, suitable for graduate seminars and advanced undergraduate courses on premodern magic and witchcraft. It exemplifies why Bailey is one of the best scholars writing about the Middle Ages today.