Rethinking the Enlightenment vis-a-vis witchcraft


The so called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century has often been portrayed as a period in which much of Europe cast off the belief in witchcraft and magic under the influence of new philosophies and advances in science and medicine. This received wisdom has often led to the academic dismissal of the continued relevance of the belief in witchcraft and magic, not only for the poor and illiterate in society but also for the educated. …

It is too crude and misunderstanding to portray the Enlightenment as a period of intellectual and social leaps. It should rather be seen as a period of subtler renegotiation between cultures, and a period when the relationship between private and public beliefs became more problematic and discrete, and therefore more difficult for the historian to detect. The study of witchcraft and magic provides us with an important means of exploring these broad changing patterns of social relations and mentalities, just as it has done much to help our understanding of social relations in sixteenth and seventeenth century society.” (1)

“… three broad themes emerge in the chronological and conceptual context of the ‘Enlightenment’ period.

The first concerns the shifting intellectual interpretation of folk magic from being a very real and implicitly satanic offense to being a merely fraudulent and morally reprehensible crime. Inextricably tied up with this process was the use and changing definition of ‘superstition’ – a subject that is scope for further research. The word has long been used in a derogatory sense to describe what were perceived to be unfounded, credulous or heretical beliefs.” (3-4) … “It was also a label applied to the cultures of the ‘lower orders’ as a means of clearly demarcating the world of the ‘ignorant’ from the educated, the ‘irrational’ from the rational. In this sense ‘superstition’ became the antithesis of modernity.” (4)

“… the second theme to emerge …, concerns the considerable continued intellectual interest regarding diabolic intervention in human affairs. Educated society may have become increasingly disengaged from the concept and problem of witchcraft during the early eighteenth century, but the question of possession and satanic pacts remained a major topic of earnest debate and authoritarian perplexity.” (5)

The third theme concerns the centrality of the written and printed word to the experience of witchcraft and magic. On one level, as Augusto Ferraiuolo demonstrates, the possession of literacy profoundly shaped the context and content of the criminal records used by historians. As his textual analysis of denunciations of popular magic brought before the Italian Inquisition shows, the act of transcribing the accounts of the illiterate into a written narrative reveals much about the relationship between individual and institution with regard to mentalities and social control. At another level, the eighteenth century saw an increasing popular access to and engagement with printed material. While the extent of the growth of literacy during the Enlightenment is a matter of considerable debate, there is no doubt that there was a publishing boom, and that it was partly inspired by a popular thirst for literary knowledge. The rise of such printed formats as periodicals and newspapers have been seen as instrumental in the spread of enlightened knowledge across society. Yet as the work by Sabine Doering Manteuffel and Stephan Bachter shows, the printing presses were equally instrumental in promoting and disseminating counter Enlightenment modes of thought. They outline the rise of a ‘magic media market’, characterised by the popularisation of once intellectual occult subject matter, and the publication in German of once scarce manuscript sources. These developments were to have an impact far beyond European shores.” (6)

Ref: (emphases in bold green mine) Owen Davies and Willem de Blécourt (2004) “Introduction: beyond the witch trials” pp1-8 in Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment Europe. Eds. Owen Davies and Willem de Blécourt. Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York


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