This week’s “book note” looks at a very recent attempt to locate the comparative category “magic” in larger historical and discursive contexts, Allison P. Courdet, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011). Courdet is the Paul and Marie Castelfranco Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. Her research and teaching interests include the History of Christianity, Jewish-Christian Relations, Women and Religion, Religion and Food, and Comparative Mysticisms. Her most recent book argues that, what we typically identify as religion, magic, and science were “well into the 18th century” so thoroughly entangled as to be “all of a piece,” and only gradually came to be shaken out and set apart from one another by relatively stable conceptual and social boundaries.
Courdet supports this contention with three kinds of examples: (i) “religious” figures such as Orazio Morandi (Abbot of Santa Prassede in Florence), who, “along with his order of monks, provided astrological advice, medicines, charms, and incantations to help people deal with the calamities of 17th century Italian life,” as well as Protestants who “used the Bible as a magic object to test for witchcraft and divine the future [carrying] it on their persons as a protective amulet”; (ii) “esotericists” (i.e., ritual magicians) such as Cornelius Agrippa, whose philosophies and practices cannot be meaningfully separated from Christian theological and moral resources, empirical investigation and experimentation, and the search for a rational view of the cosmos; (iii) “scientists” such as Isaac Newton, whose intellectual accomplishments display numerous overlaps with major “esoteric” trends of the time, such as alchemy, to which Newton devoted the majority of his writings.
Importantly, Courdet argues, what was up for grabs during the 16th and 17th centuries was precisely what we are likely to take for granted, namely, that magic has to do with supernatural powers, science a precise understanding of the natural world, and religion the proper supplication of the divine. For example, when a magnet is passed over iron filings and the filings leap through the air and come to rest on the magnet, what was the nature of this power? Did it reside in the filings, in the magnet, in the air, in the person using the magnet, the intervention of God, angels, or demons, or did it reside somewhere else entirely? It is worth noting that no less than Gottfried Leibniz accused Newton of speculating about “occult” forces following Newton’s attempt to capture the effects of gravity in mathematical expressions. Thus, Courdet implicitly suggests, much of our thinking about the premodern world is in fact quite anachronistic, imposing contemporary categories upon a time and place where such distinctions simply do not exist in any clear and consistent manner.
More, the historical sites where what would be called magic was teased out from what would be called science and religion played an important role in the historical emergence of modernity. The witchcraft trials, then, do not represent a step backwards into medieval modes of thought, but rather a move forward, an attempt to discern the proper place of humankind in a divinely created cosmos replete with all manner of beings and forces. This is not to suggest that Courdet valorizes witch trials – far from it, that more women were executed for the crime of witchcraft than for all other crimes together between 1480-1700 she takes as evidence of a deeply misogynist culture. Rather, she points out that, if we want to account for the emergence of what we now perhaps comfortably identify as science and religion, then magic and witchcraft trials are a necessary part of the story.
Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America is a superb read, suitable for undergrads and grads alike, and a necessary text for anyone interested in problematizing overly linear accounts of the modernity.