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  • A History of Science, Magic and Belief: From Medieval to Early Modern Europe by Steven P. Marrone
  • Ronald Hutton

Steven Marrone, Ronald Hutton, Science and Magic, History of Science, Early Modern Magic, Medieval Magic, European Magic, Magical belief

steven p. marrone. A History of Science, Magic and Belief: From Medieval to Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2015. Pp. xvi + 317.

Steven Marrone has been known for decades as one of the leading experts in thirteenth-century European intellectual history, with special reference to the meeting points within that history of the traditions of learning later called theology, science, and magic. For some years now he has been working toward an examination of the impact of those high medieval ideas and debates on later centuries, and this book is the very welcome result. It is essentially a study of the relationship between learned attitudes to religion, science, and magic between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, with a naturally heavy emphasis on the high medieval period and also a prelude exploring the intellectual and legal backdrop to that in late antique and early medieval texts. In the process it links up two major and as yet largely separate areas of scholarly expertise: the intellectual history of the central Middle Ages, and the early modern witch trials. A large part of its interest lies in the manner in which it shows how the former established the ideological preconditions for the latter. This is a theme that has been voiced by scholars ever since Jacob Grimm, and given reinforced significance by Norman Cohn in the 1970s, but here it becomes the subject matter of a historian with an unusually deep knowledge of the relevant medieval authors.

The overall argument of the book is as follows. In late antiquity, Christian authors, above all Augustine, condemned any use of the practices that the late Roman world had defined as magic, or that involved a conscious or [End Page 125] unconscious collusion with demons. For most of the early Middle Ages, intellectuals accordingly displayed little interest in them, save as an aspect of popular ignorance, superstition, and residual paganism. With the coming of the twelfth century, this altered dramatically because of three interlinked developments. One was a general revitalization of western Christian culture, with a heightened interest in all branches of knowledge. The second was a widespread translation of Arabic and Greek texts, most concerning what would now be called science, but several advocating the theory and practice of ceremonial magic, and especially that related to the power exerted by heavenly bodies. The third was an extension of the claimed authority and formal machinery of the papal church, which included a new interest in the reform of popular culture to make it purer and more orthodox in its Christianity, and which increasingly resulted in campaigns against popular heresy.

As a result of all three developments, a brisk debate took place between Christian scholars throughout the high medieval period over the status of ceremonial magic. Authors such as Daniel of Morley and Michael Scot made a bold attempt to carve out a place at least for many forms of magic among the respectable divisions of learning. However, from the beginning the voices raised against them were more numerous and generally more distinguished, and grew stronger in the thirteenth century with the addition of giants such as Robert Grosseteste, William of Auvergne, and finally Thomas Aquinas. By the opening of the fourteenth century the official position was solidly back at the Augustinian one, and during the rest of that century both papal doctrine and inquisitorial practice were slowly adapted to redefine most forms of magic as satanic heresy. All that was needed to create the launchpad for the early modern witch hunts was a fusion of this redefinition with a new drive to reform popular culture and a new phase of state-building allied with confessional identity, which started in the western Alps and spread initially through the agency of the Council of Basel. The hunts eventually wound down because of a rise in judicial scepticism, accompanied by the decline of confessional states, and then compounded by the adoption of a new mechanistic science.



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