Thursday, 22 April 2010

Reader review: Enchanted Europe

Clare O’Brien reviews Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason and Religion, 1250–1750, by Euan Cameron.

by Clare O’Brien,

Despite its marketable title, Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe is not the kind of poetic non-linear exploration of history made popular by cultural historians and psychogeographers such as Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair or Andrew Hussey.

Its style and frame of reference are scholarly, its structure and language rigorously academic. Opening with a 28-page introductory discussion of methodology and culminating in a note section which takes up fully one-third of the book, it is a detailed philosophical examination of the issues surrounding faith – Christian or otherwise – in the years between the early medieval period and the Enlightenment.

Author Euan Cameron’s background is in church history, specifically that of the Reformation, and his book is an admirable account of the development of ideas during that period. After first delineating the scope and origins of pre-modern superstitious beliefs – those which ‘live and breathe on the irrational association between perceived effect and assumed cause’ - he proceeds to a study of how emergent intellectual and religious authorities gradually sought to explain and contain their chaotic power.

The picture that emerges from his analysis is not as simple as one might believe. Although many think of the journey towards Enlightenment as one of, literally, ‘disenchantment’ – a slow erosion of faith in magic in favour of scientific rationalism - Cameron shows how clerics and religious thinkers on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide long maintained a belief in the supernatural. However, whereas clerics of all denominations were determined to divide the universe into sharply polarised realms of good or evil according to their own particular dogma, the lay population inhabited a far more morally ambivalent world based upon more practical needs. As Cameron explains, ‘ordinary poor people [...] feared the loss of health or property and sought whatever remedies might work’ – whether approved by ecclesiastical authority or derived from forbidden folk remedies and rituals.

Although this is hardly an anecdotal work, some interesting stories emerge along the way. In the earliest days of Christianity, St Augustine mounted a vigorous offensive against the fading Roman pantheon by literally ‘demonising’ the gods. The original meaning of the Greek word daimon (daemon), in terms of a tutelary spirit, was gradually overlaid with negative connotations, reaching its zenith in medieval hysteria relating to demonic possession. (Interestingly, the original definition of the word was only to be widely rediscovered and rehabilitated in our own age via the novels of Philip Pullman).

Perhaps the overall lesson of Cameron’s book is that any attempt to impose a rigid external order on human culture and imagination will have only limited success. As he points out in the final chapter, by the 18th century, Europe’s intellectuals had ‘lost their fear’ of witchcraft, demons and superstitions and therefore expended much less energy in keeping them at bay. In the centuries that followed, post-Enlightenment thinkers actually began to embrace what they had previously sought to explain away and acknowledged the power of superstitious belief as part of a rich cultural tapestry of ethnic heritage. He suggests that the Romantic era, renewed Victorian interest in spiritualism and occultism and more recent New Age thinking have much in common in this regard, aided and abetted by nation states’ lack of interest in enforcing religious discipline on their subjects, at least in the West.

As Cameron concludes, ‘the quest to control and domesticate superstition was, in the end, a futile one [...] nevertheless it remains a profoundly instructive lesson and case study in humanity’s efforts to make sense of our predicament.’

Clare O'Brien is a retired teacher of History and English. She now works as a freelance writer.

1 comment:

P. M. Doolan said...

I very much enjoyed this review and the topic is of course fascinating. But I am left wondering why a painting by Henry Fuesli from 1781 is chosen as the cover of a book that has its end point in 1750. Simply a marketing ploy?

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