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About this book

A History of Science, Magic and Belief is an exploration of the origins of modern society through the culture of the middle ages and early modern period. By examining the intertwined paths of three different systems for interpreting the world, it seeks to create a narrative which culminates in the birth of modernity. It looks at the tensions and boundaries between science and magic throughout the middle ages and how they were affected by elite efforts to rationalise society, often through religion. The witch-crazes of the sixteenth and seventeenth century are seen as a pivotal point, and the emergence from these into social peace is deemed possible due to the Scientific Revolution and the politics of the early modern state.

This book is unique in drawing together the histories of science, magic and religion. It is thus an ideal book for those studying any or all of these topics, and with its broad time frame, it is also suitable for students of the history of Europe or Western civilisation in general.

Table of Contents

1. Superstition, Science and Magic, 200 BCE–1200 CE

Abstract
In 1921, Margaret Murray set the terms for everyday discourse about European witchcraft with the publication of her celebrated work, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.1 So far as concerns Europe and North America, the commonplace view of witches and witchcraft derives directly from the arguments Murray laid out in her book. To put it more precisely, what Murray initiated in 1921 was the rise to dominance, originally among historians wanting to explain the phenomenon of the witch-hunt of the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries but then broadly throughout society whenever attention turned to witchcraft and witch belief, of a particular vision of magic and its relation to the traditions of the common folk.
Steven P. Marrone

2. Popular Belief and the Rationalization of Religion, 700–1300

Abstract
The previous chapter ended with a reminder that the literate elite in western Europe in the early Middle Ages harbored a deep-seated disdain for what we would call the magical beliefs and practices of the populace. It was a contempt so profound that, although it continually aroused formulaic fulminations against straying into such disreputable byways of the culture at large, it, at the same time, stood in the way of any serious effort to examine exactly what such beliefs and practices consisted in or how they were understood by those who purportedly engaged in them. Only from the twelfth century on, as was noted, did attitudes begin to change. Once elite culture had witnessed within itself the emergence of a body of literate and learned magic, then — but not before — did members of the upper ranks of society start taking a slowly building, but eventually quite aggressive, interest in the magic of people who did not read and were not drawing on the sources of the new learning. So far as the earlier lack of curiosity is concerned, it helps to remember that, as the preceding chapter has also made plain, it was completely in conformity with the general posture of the elite toward what it viewed as the populace’s superstition, of which magic constituted only a part. In good Augustinian fashion, the learned — particularly the educated clergy — of the early Middle Ages thought of magic and superstition as overlapping categories. They represented either the substance or the inevitable side-effects of false religion, ultimately associable with idolatry and in any event bound up with the influence of devils and demons. Magic by such a construction demanded a reading according to our Malinowskian paradigm. It and all other forms of anti-Christian practice had to be inveighed against. But no more needed to be known about it in the way of detail than was required to recognize the fact of its existence, and that just in order to eradicate it as expeditiously as possible from society.
Steven P. Marrone

3. Science, Magic and the Demonic, 1200–1400: The Catalyst

Abstract
When in Chapter 1 we last looked at magic as viewed by the Latinate elite of Europe in the high Middle Ages, we took note of the fact that with the twelfth-century reintroduction of classical traditions of natural philosophy or science, sometimes massively extended by Arab and Jewish thinkers of the central medieval Mediterranean and Middle East, learned circles in the west were compelled, for practically the first time since late Antiquity, once more to confront magical elements within the confines of their own cultural domain. Some welcomed the development as long overdue, while others feared contagion from currents of knowledge and practice calling to mind the dangers of superstitious lore hitherto regarded as restricted to the culture of the populace. Yet while the critics of the new magical arts attacked them for both their falsehood and their evil repute — which is to say, in our terms, from both a Frazerian and a Malinowskian perspective — for the most part no one spoke of legal penalties for attending to such novelties. And the debate focused more on the Frazerian than the Malinowskian side of the divide, seeking to determine whether the new fields of learning were a proper source of truth or wellsprings of error. Meanwhile many learned scholars undertook the defense of magic and proceeded both to study and to practice the new arts without apparent fear of opprobrium. Such were the circumstances in the days of Robert Grosseteste and Michael Scot, put forth earlier as examples for contrasting attitudes in learned circles of the early thirteenth century.
Steven P. Marrone

4. Science, Magic and the Demonic, 1200–1400: The Reaction

Abstract
The previous chapter chronicled the accumulation over the thirteenth century in the Latin west of a body of scholarly works promoting and setting forth the practical details of learned magic, including that of a plainly ceremonial sort and sometimes demonic complexion. Already by the middle of the century the combined weight of such texts had reached a level sufficient to trigger a response. And that response entailed a shift in the balance of scholarly opinion, especially in theological circles, in the direction of resolute opposition to anything magical. It was a turn that would result in the emergence over the next few centuries of a campaign by authorities, both clerical and lay, to exterminate as much of magical practice as was possible and to destroy the textual substratum that continued to nourish it among the literate elite. Along the way would be constructed an understanding of magic that characterized it as always either illusory or perversely deceptive, almost invariably evil, and practically without exception dependent on the agency of demons. This theoretical construct would then establish itself as dominant among the educated and hence normative for all of society, or at least so from the perspective of the bulk of established officialdom.
Steven P. Marrone

5. The Witchcraze and the Crisis of Early Modern Europe, 1400–1650

Abstract
The turn of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries witnessed a radical shift in the trajectory of the story we have been following so far. From the perspective of the themes of this book, it can be said that the line of development we were following at the end of the preceding chapter, where ceremonial magic had begun in ecclesiastical eyes to be inevitably connected to heresy and thereby open to the judicial oversight of the papal inquisition, reached back and connected to the material investigated in the first half of Chapter 2, the problem of popular beliefs, as well as the subject of the second half of that same chapter, the elite onslaught on popular heresy. Concretely put, what was at stake was the widening of the net of inquisitorial concern about magic from learned and ceremonial forms to the practices and beliefs of the populace at large and then the linkage of this wider set of concerns to an effective crusade against all that smacked of the newly broadened view of a “magical” heresy throughout society. The upshot was nothing less than the emergence of the witchcraze that haunted much of western Europe from the middle of the fifteenth century up through the final decades of the seventeenth.
Steven P. Marrone

6. Desacralized Science and Social Control, 1500–1700

Abstract
At the same time the witch prosecutions were heating up in western Europe a curious thing was happening in the cultural world of the learned elite. For toward the end of the fi fteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth we see the emergence once more of efforts by prominent thinkers to undertake the defense of magic.1 And now, in contrast to the days of Roger Bacon, there was no hesitation to use the word “magic” itself. The standard of magic as a science was raised this time not primarily by members of the university community but rather by a number of scholars outside the Scholastic milieu, mostly of a Platonizing — or Neoplatonizing — bent. Among them, the first able to command the attention of learned circles at large was the great translator and commentator on Plato and Plotinus, client of the Medici at Florence, Marsilio Ficino, born in 1433 and died in 1499. Though his work takes us back over a decade before 1500, it looks forward to the sixteenth century, the period in which it bore fruit among the great defenders of magic of the high Renaissance.
Steven P. Marrone

7. Conclusion

Abstract
By the end of the last chapter we had arrived at a state of equilibrium in western European society. The paroxysms of the witchcraze had been put to rest in a new dispensation that at least temporarily guaranteed serenity at the surface of the social order. If we look to each of the three threads of historical change marked out in the introduction, we see mutually reinforcing resolutions. On the matter of science, which of course for us has also implicated a sizable element of learned magic, we have witnessed two periods of ideological innovation, punctuated by attempts either to reconcile magic with science by seeing them both as legitimate efforts to discover the truth or to turn science against magic as an inveterate source of error and usually a font of evil as well. Here, a tipping point was reached in the thirteenth century, when the accumulation of works laying out the practical details of magic, especially of a ceremonial sort, occasioned a soon-to-be-dominant response on the part of self-styled defenders of scientific truth that magic was meretricious and contingent in its performance on the connivance of demonic powers. Even the resurgence of learned magic in the sixteenth century could not shake the grip of what had become the standard scientific attitude. It was only with the second of the periods of ideological change in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century that this pattern of warfare changed. For the mechanical philosophy not only rendered magic’s attempts to explain natural phenomena false, but it also undermined the claim that there actually were such things as magical actions. Driven from the field, magic would soon disappear from the realm of serious learned discourse. Not, however, until after having bequeathed several important insights to early modern natural philosophy.
Steven P. Marrone
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