The medieval church had always condemned superstition. By definition, superstition was incorrect or excessive religious devotion. Yet concern over superstition swelled in the late medieval period, evidenced by a number of tracts and treatises written specifically against superstitious beliefs and practices. This study traces this wave of concern from courts and universities in fourteenth-century France to fifteenth-century Germany, where condemnation of superstition fed into the developing notion of diabolical witchcraft. With the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the tenor of concern over superstition changed yet again. Contrasting medieval concerns to those of the Reformation, Enlightenment, and beyond, this study also asks to what extent putatively “modern” Western notions of magic and religion may or may not already be found in the medieval era.
Michael D. Bailey is Associate Professor of History at Iowa State University. His research focuses on magic, superstition, and heresy, mainly in late medieval Europe. He has been a Fulbright fellow, a DAAD fellow, and an Alexander von Humboldt fellow, as well as holding a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of three books: Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (2003), Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft (2003), and Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (2007), translated into Italian as Magia e superstizione in Europa dall’ Antichità ai giorni nostri (2008). He has also authored a dozen articles, and from 2006 through 2010 was the founding co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft.