Michael D. Bailey

Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies

The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe

Cornell University 2013

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Superstitions flourish in our world–think of the elaborate rituals of baseball players, or knocking wood to avoid tempting fate, or that bit of happiness...

Superstitions flourish in our world–think of the elaborate rituals of baseball players, or knocking wood to avoid tempting fate, or that bit of happiness (or relief) we might experience from finding a lucky (heads up only!) penny. Yet it is part of the mythology of modernity that ours is a “disenchanted” age (or at least so said German sociologist Max Weber in a famous 1918 lecture). Since the Enlightenment, there has been a tradition of invoking a superstitious Middle Ages as a supposed counterpoint to “our” own rationalized and intellectualized times (to paraphrase Weber). The Middle Ages was one of the historical entities against which European modernity in many senses constituted itself, and it continues popularly to be imagined as uniformly saturated with superstition.

Yet as Michael D. Bailey‘s latest book, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (Cornell University Press, 2013) shows, that age had its own, highly developed, intellectually rigorous and contentiously debated notions of what was superstitious in practice and in thought. In the book, Bailey looks at how university-based academics and clerics, using the systematizing methods of scholasticism, formulated ideas about what was superstitious over two centuries–between, roughly, 1300 and 1500. He offers us, in other words, a history of evolving ideas of superstition and of what was considered superstitious by the most learned men of that era. Much as the category of superstition has been used to establish and manage putative boundaries between modern and not, late medieval scholars and clerics debated superstition–locating it in practices as varied as learned astrology, necromancy, and everyday medicinal charms–to patrol the shifting boundaries both of legitimate science and of proper religion.

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