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  • The Contribution of the Early Modern Humanities to "Disenchantment"
  • Michelle Pfeffer (bio)

magic, supernatural, superstition, belief, Christian doctrine, pagan ideas, Balthazar Bekker, historical critical arguments, Justin Champion, Michael Hunter

In Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Keith Thomas suggested that the most "baffling" aspect of the already challenging history of witchcraft was the apparent paradox that, although educated attitudes toward witches shifted in the seventeenth century, the standard arguments for and against the reality of witchcraft had "hardly changed at all." There was, to be sure, continuous controversy, but, in terms of new arguments, this "revolution in opinion" was remarkably silent.1 In "The European Witch-Craze," Hugh Trevor-Roper made a similar point. Arguments deployed against witchcraft in the seventeenth century were "the arguments which have always been used," and this is perhaps not all that surprising because "in matters of ideology, it is not generally the ideas which convince."2 It has long been recognized that it is difficult to point to new arguments against magic at the very moment when the intellectual legitimacy of such beliefs was increasingly in question. George Eliot was already musing over this apparent puzzle in the 1860s. Reflecting on the processes by which cultural attitudes toward magic are modified, Eliot found food for thought in the historian William Lecky's idea that beliefs can be rendered obsolete even in the absence of direct arguments against them.3 [End Page 398] People disbelieve magic "not because [they] examined the evidence and found it insufficient"; on the contrary, "disbelief always precedes, when it does not prevent, examination."4

Today, historians for the most part have let go of the idea that "superstition" is a case of arrested development resolved only through scientific enlightenment and that scientific or "rational" arguments against magic must therefore be responsible for its decline.5 While Thomas left room in his account for the intellectual changes brought about by the new science, particularly experimentalism and mechanical philosophy, Michael Hunter's recent The Decline of Magic (2020) argues that the science of the scientific revolution actually left a lot of scope for supernatural belief.6 As Charles Webster suggested some time ago, "we must look in places other than science for the explanation of these changes."7 Moving beyond science—and the history of what the witchcraft critic John Wagstaffe called "logical arguments either pro or con"8—in the last fifty years, historians have profitably turned to social, religious, legal, and especially political developments to account for changes in magic's fortunes. While intellectual history has often taken a backseat in recent historiography in this subfield,9 the study of early modern intellectual developments still has an important part to play and may, in fact, be well-equipped to contribute answers to some of the questions that remain in the history of magic.

If not science, might we turn instead to other early modern fields of study to account for disenchantment? Here, I make a preliminary case for the pivotal role played by early modern disciplines that would now fall under the banner of the humanities and social sciences. In the seventeenth century in particular, scholars in these fields of study not only critically examined magical and supernatural phenomena but also studied the phenomenon of belief in and of itself. In other words, rather than simply scrutinizing witches, [End Page 399] astrology, or ghosts, instead belief in witches, belief in astrology, and belief in ghosts increasingly became the object of study. In the early modern period, fresh ways of thinking about the ancient world, new encounters with other contemporary cultures, and the fracturing of the church all encouraged the close, comparative study of belief in its cultural and historical contexts. Magical and supernatural beliefs began to be seen as social and cultural phenomena, and, ultimately, as the remnants of a superstition that belonged only to the past. This important shift occurred on the back of the findings of humanist scholars and the emerging social sciences.

My focus here will be on early modern historical scholarship, but a similar case can be made for related nascent disciplines such as comparative religion and anthropology. Moreover, although my examples will be drawn...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5111
Print ISSN
1556-8547
Pages
pp. 398-405
Launched on MUSE
2022-03-18
Open Access
No
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