‘History of Science, Magic and Belief: From Medieval to Early Modern Europe’ reviewed by Nikola Balaš

‘History of Science, Magic, and Belief: From Medieval to Early Modern Europe’ by Steven P. Marrone (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

9781137029768In his latest book, Steven P. Marrone narrates an ambitious story of how the modern secularised world has emerged. The fundamental thesis of the book is, in its author’s words, that the period from the twelfth to the early eighteenth century must be taken as a clearly demarcated historical unit. This must sound as a provocative idea to anyone who is used to imagining European history as beginning with antiquity, going through the consecutive Medieval periods (early, high, late) to the modern era. Marrone argues that we have to delineate historical time in a different fashion in order to better understand history.

Marrone tries to prove his thesis by scrutinising three different, but interwoven threads of European history – the development of science, the development of relations between the elite and common people, and the rise of institutions of sociopolitical control. A needle of these threads is a focus on the history of belief, magic and science as related to the witch craze that swept through Europe from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century.

Contrary to popular opinion, and in conformity to his delineation of historical time, Marrone stresses that the witch craze was not the last twitch of the superstitious medieval mentality signalling the end of an era. Witch craze did not come to an end, because the superstitious medieval peasant was ousted by the reasonable scientist of the modern era. Witch craze was a part of wider processes. It was inevitable for Europeans to hunt witches in order to become modern; or at least early modern.

Since Marrone’s book deals with topics such as religious belief, magic and science, researchers interested in medical humanities might be tempted to read it and look for some inspiration, possibly shedding some light on their own research. From this point of view, the most interesting and the most promising is the second chapter, in which Marrone inquires into early medieval popular culture and popular belief.

The first part of the chapter is devoted to a stimulating exploration of popular culture and relationships between medieval elite and layfolk. Was there one popular culture encompassing all the different strata of medieval society, or was there a rupture between the elite and the popular classes? The author chooses a middle ground. On the one hand he acknowledges the shared character of popular culture, on the other, he agrees that at certain points we can distinguish between culture of the rulers and culture of the serfs. This choice enables Marrone to describe the dynamics of development of popular culture throughout European history. The differences between elite and popular become more pronounced as we move from early middle ages to the early modern period.

The book goes on to describe variegated magical and religious practices and beliefs. He writes about witchcraft and sorcery practices, belief in elves, and says also a few words on curing diseases and healing. Unfortunately, the bright prospects from the beginning of the chapter are clouded by a too descriptive – and less of an analytical – account. Where, for example, a social scientist would attempt an interpretation of the substances used in curing or alchemy, Marrone restricts himself to mere description:

The same distinction between genuine medical recourse to herbs, minerals or animal products, an action completely free of religious or moral overtones, and use of the same substances in tandem with suspicious operations and rituals, tell tale signs of paganism and irreligion, had already been advanced among Latin Christians by Tertullian, who had admonished precisely against herbal cures that might derive from paganism – presumably all those not sanctioned by standard medical learning. (p. 50)

or later in the book:

Tholosan was acutely interested in such affairs, and he devotes several passages to laying out a few of the details. Most have to do with the mixing of powders or unguents to impede the workings of things in the world or to influence events… By applying a combination of thistle, devil’s piss, an infertile chicken egg and certain other ingredients, members of the sect manage to hinder conception among women or drive man crazy. (p. 180)

What is ‘devil’s piss’? Why combine it with thistle to hinder conception? What places did these substances occupy in the native-medieval classification of things? Or what were the popular notions of craziness or insanity, or even of health and illness? How did a medieval peasant classify the world at all? Unfortunately, Marrone says nothing about that. Sure, this gives his readers plenty of leeway to imagine the peasant’s world view At the same time, a reader feels a bit cheated. Is it not the historian’s stock in trade to offer a plausible or even a stimulating interpretation?

True, Marrone might have been, for good reasons, reluctant to extrapolate the peasant worldview from sources written by the learned classes. As the reader suspects, Tertullian (an early Christian apologist) and Claude Tholosan (a French judge) were part of the learned classes and probably did not think much about their superstitious and credulous countrymen. Marrone is aware of this and on several places in his book, he puts a disclaimer that a historian specialising in the Middle Ages cannot in fact rely on other accounts than those written by the educated. After all, a historian cannot go on fieldwork.

Nonetheless, it is still a mild disappointment that Marrone did not attempt to penetrate through his sources and deliberate over the belief and the practices of the medieval folk and to mediate upon more day-to-day social dynamics. It is apt to compare Marrone’s book to classical books attempting to reimagine vanished popular cultures. One does not have to champion old-fashioned functional accounts (viewing social institutions as promoting social order) to see that Keith Thomas’s voluminous Religion and the Decline of Magic offers more interesting insights into early modern witchcraft, healing and similar topics (cf. p. 189). And if you doubt that you can reimagine a peasant world-view in a creative, yet plausible way, read Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms.

Whereas it is natural that, when researching into popular culture of medieval times, we have to rely mostly on accounts written by the dominant socioeconomic class, the same does not apply when we are interested in the development of institutions of sociopolitical control, which constitutes Marrone’s third thread. Quoting of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (pp. 221–226) might say something about general attitudes towards the politics of the early modern period, yet it is tricky to use their works as representing general attitudes towards the political development. Besides, all the edicts, bulls and charters have more to say about political development and decision-making of an era than ideas of foremost political thinkers.

This brings us to the main shortcoming of the book. Marrone above all makes use of works written by members of the learned classes, beginning with Saint Augustine and ending with John Locke. It is surely legitimate to use the authors as representing changing attitudes towards the supernatural in the course of historical development. But this narrative strategy returns us to a familiar question. Who is really being represented? Even if Marrone is well aware that opinion of the elites does not say much about conviction of the masses, he presents the elites as representing general attitudes. But this means, to sum it up, that Marrone presents rather a half of the story.

If you are interested in European history and if you prefer accounts describing long-term developments, Marrone’s book is definitely for you. You may also find some interesting information about various thinkers more or less known. But, has the book something to offer to researchers in humanities, especially of the medical bent? If you are a researcher interested in religion, magic, witchcraft, sorcery or healing, Marrone’s book will not provide you with much to contemplate about. Many references to classic authors writing about such topics, as were Frazer, Malinowski, Weber and Mauss, do not make the book more interesting for you.


Reviewed by Nikola Balaš, who holds a Mgr. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of West Bohemia, Plzeň, Czech Republic, and was previously a visiting student at Durham University’s Department of Anthropology. He is interested in history and theory of anthropology and in anthropology of religion, and regularly convenes seminars for young researchers with interests in anthropological theories and methods.

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