The Disenchantment of Magic: Spells, Charms, and Superstition in Early European Witchcraft Literature

The Disenchantment of Magic: Spells, Charms, and Superstition in Early European Witchcraft Literature

By Michael D. Bailey

The American Historical Review, Vol.111:2 (2006)

In 1917, in a lecture in Munich on “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber first articulated his notion of “the disenchantment of the world,” later also incorporated into his seminal Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He presented disenchantment as a hallmark feature of modern Western society, which had come into full vigor with the Protestant Reformation. Initially Weber described this development, in relation to science, as entailing primarily the conviction that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces” and that “one need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore spirits.” Later, and rather more evocatively in relation to religion, he described it as a historical force that had progressively “repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin.” Weber’s assertions were hardly uncontroversial, and they have been challenged repeatedly in the century since they were first made. Nevertheless, the basic notion of disenchantment remains very influential on many academic disciplines’ understanding of the modern world. Magic and cultural perceptions of the magical occupy a critical place particularly in sociological and anthropological conceptions of modernity, and issues of “magical thought” and “superstition” in opposition to “scientific rationalism” frame discussions not only of the modern West but of instances in which Western modernity confronts the traditional beliefs and practices of other world cultures.

Historians of European magic and witchcraft have also engaged, sometimes overtly but often tacitly, with the themes Weber identified and encapsulated as “disenchantment.” Keith Thomas in particular, in his groundbreaking Religion and the Decline of Magic, made only passing reference to Weber directly but took up the essentially Weberian theme of the degree to which religion (of the more modern, reformed variety) displaced magic from European society. Far from eliminating all magic in the world, however, Thomas concluded that by eradicating the “magical” practices of the medieval church, Protestantism in England actually promoted concern about witches and popular reliance on cunning folk, astrologers, and other types of common magicians. Following this line of argument, historians have since pushed generalized disenchantment back to progressively later points in European history-the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, even nineteenth‐century industrialization. Most recently, historians of the modern period have begun to engage directly with, and further problematize, Weber’s analysis by arguing that certain magical beliefs and systems of thought not only endured into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but were in fact essential elements of European modernity.

An underlying issue plaguing any attempt, save perhaps for the modern period, to historically examine key issues entailed in disenchantment – the emergence of putatively purer “modern” religious sensibilities compatible with scientific rationalism out of earlier, supposedly muddled “magical” systems – is the fact, now widely recognized, that the categories of “religion” and “magic” in their current forms are almost entirely creations of the post‐Reformation era. Some historians of early modern Europe, however, now present an at least quasi‐Weberian analysis of certain shifts toward more modern mentalities in the area of ritual during that period. They have also returned to locating the critical force behind these shifts in the Reformation. Protestant authorities, they contend, largely abandoned the view that real efficacy or presence of power was inherent in ritual acts and began to assert the notion of ritual as mere symbolic signification or representation. This process was most clearly evident in Protestant sacramental and above all eucharistic theology, but it also played out in many areas of ritualized activity. While there is no denying the significance of the Reformation in terms of ritual and more general religious developments in European history, there is also considerable danger in positing a single period of relatively sudden, dramatic change, especially when the modern analytical categories employed are largely rooted in Reformation‐era debates.

In regard to historical conceptions of magic, shifting notions about the inherent qualities of various kinds of ritualized, magical actions need to be disentangled from the immediate context of the Reformation. In the century prior to the eruption of Protestantism, reformist impulses already animated many clerical authorities, feeding increased concern about proper religiosity, lay piety, and putative superstition. A number of these authorities became particularly troubled by the common spells, charms, healing rites, and other simple ritualized acts widely used by laypeople and also by many clerics. Fearing that these rites entailed at least tacit invocation of demons, authorities judged them to be erroneous and therefore superstitious. In this they followed long‐standing Christian conceptions of the potentially demonic nature of virtually all magic. New this time, however, was the degree to which established theories were applied to questions of common practice and belief, and the level of concern these practices now generated. The first half of the fifteenth century, in particular, saw a rash of tracts and treatises produced on the question of superstition. Here, however, the focus is on the treatment of common spells and charms in early witchcraft literature.

Click here to read this article from JSTOR


Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine