Skepticism and Witching Worries: Twin Legacies of the Fifteenth Century

Millennia of tension in Christian materiality can be instructive as we move past modernist narratives of science at war with religion.

Appears in Spring 2012 Issue: Legacies
March 1 st 2012

In the 1980s, Umberto Eco wrote that "people seem to like the Middle Ages." He meant the pop culture of Camelot, Wicca, and neo-medieval space operas. Theatres crammed with movie- goers of all ages, gasping at fairy-tale creatures storming a Gothic Hogwarts, indicate that we still like the Middle Ages. The parts of the medieval world that engross us most include wands, spirits, and monsters. Perhaps the supernatural is most entertaining when least believable.

Nevertheless, since Eco wrote those words, several influential thinkers have suggested that medieval ideas about the supernatural may have the medicine to heal our post modern woes. Perhaps the best-known book—certainly the heaviest—has been by Charles Taylor, a Catholic philosopher at McGill. His A Secular Age analyzes in detail the shifts from medieval to modern. He begins with a medieval "enchanted" worldview of witches and the magic of transubstantiation, and ends with a world where spirits—even the Holy Spirit—seem unimaginable outside of fairy tales to most people.

While Taylor does not advocate a return to the "world we have lost," he does criticize histories that make modernity the scientific hero who peels back superstitious layers from the naked structure of the universe. With the criticism, Taylor suggests that losing a medieval view of the world was not all good. This view also has a history that includes John Donne, the nineteenthcentury Oxford movement, twentieth-century French ressourcement theologians, C.S. Lewis, and Cambridge Radical Orthodoxy.

And evangelicals are beginning to agree, too. Hans Boersma, the J.I. Packer chair at Regent College (UBC), has argued in Heavenly Participation that the patristic and medieval worldview provides the most refreshing fount for renewing evangelical theology. This worldview (he calls it the Great Tradition, or the Platonic Tradition), sees the world as a sacrament, reflecting faithful gazes heavenward. James K.A. Smith, mixing charismatic sensibilities with deep drafts of Taylor and Radical Orthodoxy, has outlined a program for a Pentecostal philosophy that makes sense of charismatic practice. At the centre of Smith's book Thinking in Tongues is an argument for an "enchanted view of nature" that looks awfully like Taylor's descriptions of a late medieval universe.

As a historian, nothing makes me happier than scholars from every discipline ogling the past. But I want to discourage ogling too selectively. The medieval period is often freeze-framed somewhere in the thirteenth or fourteenth century— the age of Thomas Aquinas. That leaves out a lot, and I want to suggest that the later Middle Ages, and especially the fifteenth century, merit sustained attention. In that period, the deep sense of divine presence was interwoven with skepticism about divine presence. The view that the world was chock-full of sacred signs, miracles, angels, and demons rose and fell simultaneously at the end of the Middle Ages. Precisely at the heart of the cultural shifts where the "supernatural" became big business, the most powerful kinds of skepticism about the supernatural bubbled up.

Testing Nature

By the fifteenth century, the study of nature had grown interested in spirits more than ever before. To be sure, the usual story is that when humanists unearthed philosophical texts from pagan antiquity, they also found a skepticism about medieval textual and philosophical skills—and the medieval fascination with wonders.

For example, the humanist Poggio Bracciolini was a book hunter who dusted off the sole surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. The long poem described nature as nothing more than atoms, colliding and swerving in a giant void. No miracles, angels, or demons for Lucretius, who became known among Italy's literati around 1430. Not much room for wonders either. The avant garde politician, priest, and architect Leon Battista Alberti followed Lucretius's description of a tiring universe grinding to a mechanical halt when he said that "already Nature, mistress of things, by now aged and weary, no longer produced either giants or great minds like those which she produced very big and marvellous in her almost youthful and more glorious times." Wonders belonged to times past.

Nevertheless, even Alberti's literary and philosophical friends did not automatically jump onto a sceptical bandwagon. It turns out that the natural philosophy of an intellectual giant of antiquity, Aristotle, made it seem likely that there were spirits in the world. Medieval science addressed a problem analogous to the problem of Christian materiality. The problem of Christian materiality is that God is not the stuff of this world. He made it. But he isn't it. Yet the only way that people, made of mud and clay, can see how God acts is through the very mud and blood that, at the same time, is not God.

The general theological problem is this: how are material things related to the eternal and infinite God? From the twelfth century, Aristotelian categories about nature became important to theologians. But this only added a layer of complexity without erasing the basic question of medieval science. How does something change, and yet remain the same thing?

Aristotle answered this question by talking about "form" and "final cause"—that for which something is done. In other words, an egg becomes a chick and then a clucking Banting because it has an essence (a chickenness) that organizes its parts to make it grow. What's more, this is how an oak grows from an acorn, and a crystalline structure grows from a dripping cave roof. You cannot hold the essence— this is not DNA—because it simply is the arrangement and change proper to whatever it is. It is, as Aristotle said, a soul. Nature is full of forms, essences, and purposes; it's full of souls.

This was the world of the Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the quintessential humanist philosopher. An Italian nobleman, Pico offered a grand vision of encyclopedic philosophical reform. If one could only organize correctly all the philosophical systems of the Hebrews, the ancient Greeks, and the Arabs, then one might have intellectual harmony. The plan earned him papal censure by the age of twenty-three, and he fled Rome to France, and finally to the protection of Lorenzo de' Medici. While at Lorenzo's court in Florence, he published a commentary on the book of Genesis, a study of metaphysics. He also produced Disputations against Divinatory Astrology, the most thorough and learned attack on astrology as a predictive science available in the early modern period.

It is hard to overestimate the significance of this book, or what a conundrum it is. On the one hand, Pico is an extremely important figure in the history of "natural magic." Drawing on what appeared to be ancient philosophical texts from Greece and Egypt, Pico believed that those whom the ancient Babylonians called magi or magicians were those the Greeks called philosophers. All Christians knew of the magi from the east who had predicted Christ's birth on the basis of a miraculous star. For Pico, a magician is simply one who knows and manipulates the hidden natures of things—what Aristotle called essences and Plato called ideas. Manipulating lenses to focus light rays, therefore, is a form of magic that puts the philosopher's knowledge of causes to work. Pico believed that the world is full of spiritual forces—for example, the power of magnets, or the moon's power to cause tides, or Saturn's power to give an angry disposition at birth.

At the same time, Pico's Disputations were a relentless argument against the astronomical sub-discipline, astrology. His reasons were many, including an old argument (one given by Augustine as well as late medieval philosophers) that even if celestial virtues affected earthly events, the lines of force would be so complicated that one couldn't understand them with any precision. Some of his most forceful arguments, however, were theological. It was impious to practice astrology because it reduced the supernatural acts of God—celestial miracles—to the operations of nature. At Christ's birth, the magi responded to a miracle, not to nature conducting business as usual.

Pico deserves much more than summary, but still offers a telling example. Renaissance natural philosophy—which saw the world as a spiritual structure—gave tools and topics for the skepticism that undercut this spirit-filled world. And motivations came from Christian piety as much as pagan antiquity.

Testing Charismata

The late medieval centuries were some of the most charismatic in the history of Christianity. "Charismata," gifts of the Holy Spirit, had been manifest to the Church since the first Christian centuries. Most often, charismata were evident to the average Christian in the form of deeply holy lives. Holy men and women, miracles and martyrdom, were evidence of God's power on earth—power that Constantine's biographer tells us drew Romans to baptism. Christians revered those living such wondrous lives—at least, once dead. Augustine's own mother, the North African bishop tells us, would bring wine to the crowds grieving and celebrating at the graves of the saints. In The City of God, Augustine himself recognized the power present at St. Stephen's shrine. Even tomb robbers often stole out of respect: they searched for body remains, for relics that performed miracles.

While cults of the saints existed from Augustine's day throughout the Middle Ages, the whole enterprise expanded between 1200 and 1500. Christian faithful found cults of the saints an accessible way to express their devotion to God, and in each of those centuries several hundreds of new saints were celebrated. Whatever other causes historians have suggested—burgeoning populations, swelling cities, the increasing economic importance of pilgrimage—certainly one reason was that cults of the saints could be initiated by ordinary Christians, not mandated by ecclesiastical authority. City delegates, rulers, and pious confraternities sent the pope requests to recognize the legitimacy of their favourite holy men and women. No one assumed that all requests were legitimate. Skepticism about sainthood was important for a clergy overwhelmed by requests to legitimate the pilgrimages to holy shrines, as people hungered for the immediate presence of God in things. The process of canonization was formalized and lengthened in the thirteenth century as a way to filter out as many candidates as possible.

Miracles, since antiquity, had been one of the most important signs of true saintliness. And for most of the faithful, miracles happened in matter. As Caroline Bynum has shown in several books, late medieval piety was full of holy, miraculous stuff—holy blood was a prominent feature in a flourishing religious culture in which God's presence was constantly signalled in matter: bits of bone, weeping statues, and the holy clothes of fasting hermits. God shows his power in matter. Matter, by definition, shifts and fades. The problem is that real blood dries and blackens, flakes, and blows away. Tears dry up. Clergy often found it necessary to replenish blood and tears in order to mark the place where God had acted; they re-enacted the miracle, as it were. Sometimes they did so in several places, multiplying the miracle. What moved a priest to place some red paint or red cloth into a reliquary?

Canonization was a legal process of testing which saints were genuine markers of God's extraordinary grace as an example to sinners. Eyewitness accounts could serve as testimony. But eyewitness accounts of what? Even as late medieval mystics stressed the interior struggle and experience of meeting with God, the authors of stories about the lives of saints—one source of evidence for canonization—emphasized the visible marks of God's hand on the holy. In Italy, around 1300, legal thinkers observed that the experience of mystics might generate relics within their bodies. Aristotelian biological texts taught that the imagination of a woman during conception would shape the infant (a woman, therefore, should only dream of her husband). Thus medieval science suggested that extremely powerful visual experiences of female mystics might imprint themselves on their hearts or uteruses.

In 1320 a young mystic, Margherita of Città di Castello, died. The friars who cared for her wished to simply bury her, but the city insisted that her corpse be paraded through the city, to be buried at the cathedral. City leaders volunteered to embalm her body. In the presence of the friars, several surgeons opened her viscera, and three little stones fell from one of the tubes connecting her heart. The secretary recounting the event noted that "the people interpreted" one of the stones to be of the Virgin Mary; another of the Christ-child in a cradle, surrounded by cattle; and the third of Joseph appearing to Margarita as a bald, bearded man in a golden cloak, beside a pure white dove representing the Holy Spirit. As Katherine Park has eloquently shown in Secrets of Women, using scalpels to test the miraculous status of female mystics became the legal basis for autopsy—a scientific test of the legal authenticity of charismata.

Testing the Spirits

Witches were almost never the object of medieval inquisitions—until after 1430. In fact, in 1258 Pope Gregory IX explicitly distinguished between heresy and "divination and sorcery," charging inquisitors only to deal with heretics. So it's not that witches didn't exist. And some people who happened to be witches became known as heretics, and so met inquisitions. Yet historians have long known that the "witch craze" really was a phenomenon of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not the Middle Ages.

The witch craze began with how learned clerics thought about demons. The idea of heresy included willing commerce with demons. By around 1400, clerics had a literature of fascinating books about demonic magic, including enigmatic titles such as Picatrix, the Key of Solomon, and the Sworn Book of Honorius. At the same time, authorities were trying to classify heretical groups such as the "Free Spirit," rumoured to meet in orgiastic conventicles as they ate babies and drank blood. Clerics recounted such stories not merely because sorcerers could do harm, but because they were active apostates in collusion with Satan. In his Ant Hill, Johannes Nider, writing about reform in the early fifteenth century, offered witchcraft as a negative example of spiritual invigoration. In one of his stories, a young woman's family brought her to witches in order to exorcize a demon possessing her. The witches were initially successful, but then a legion of demons took the previous demon's place. Only Fortunatus, the local bishop, could provide a legitimate cure, after many days of prayer.

Nider was writing in 1437 to offer his readers a sort of encyclopedia of the legitimate and illegitimate ways that God and his regents acted in the world—and how Satan and his minions did. He sought to teach discernment between these forces, to drive readers back to faithful service. For historians, however, it is clear that Nider was on the forefront of creating "witchcraft" as we have come to know it in Europe. That is, his descriptions mixed learned black magic—summoning demons—with the sorts of herbal recipes, pendant charms, and short incantations that made up a large amount of common village practice. Thanks to Nider's Ant Hill, witchcraft manuals proliferated during the next century, a best-seller being The Witch Hammer by a German monk, Kramer.

The whole genre of witchcraft manuals assumed that it was debatable whether demons (and so witchcraft) really existed outside of fervid imaginations—and their authors meant to supply arguments that it did, as well as the legal procedure for proving it. The strongest arguments, according to these books, come from sorcerers and witches themselves when "put to the question." The genre of witchmanuals seems, at an uncritical glance, to be evidence of credulity. But on a careful reading they categorize the lurid confessions of sex with demons (succubi with sorcerers, incubi with witches) as the best available testimony that demons could be deeply experienced by humans. As Walter Stephens has shown, the more one reads such manuals as Kramer's Witch Hammer, the more one realizes that these are evidence not of innocent credulity, but of deep anxieties that demons might, in fact, be no more than fantasies.


These examples from late medieval (or Renaissance, if you prefer) natural philosophy, charismata, and witchcraft give some perspective on the problem of Christian materiality. This problem really matters to people such as James K.A. Smith, who devoted considerable space in Desiring the Kingdom to the argument that a "sacramental imagination" will resist distinctions between natural and supernatural. I think this argument, reshaped in Thinking in Tongues, is not sacramental enough— by emphasizing the Pentecostal experience of barely more than a century, it ignores the millennia of deep Christian experience of the tensions inherent to a Christian view of matter.

The legacy of those millennia is double: one face of the coin shows creation as inseparable from God; flipped over, the coin reminds us that the natural world is not God, and must be dealt with on its own terms. In the Bible, creation is the revelation of God's glory (Psalm 19), the visible witness to the invisible power and nature of God (Romans 1). Christians see all of nature as a miracle, a testimony of wonder. The learned Latin bishop of North Africa, Augustine, saw unusual events in nature as "small things for God." However—let me emphasize the reversal— Augustine pointed out that it mattered little whether such events were worked through angels or through God's direct will; when all nature and all angels do God's bidding, it matters little whether the surprise that drops your jaw is "natural" or "supernatural"— and in any case, people like us have a hard time telling the difference, like when the Philistine cattle left their calves to restore the Ark of the Covenant to Israel. Augustine assured his readers that demons exist, but balanced that conviction with a thick layer of skepticism about the ability to discern when a demon is at work.

In other words, how God acts in matter matters. But where can we pinpoint that action? No theologian of the Middle Ages sensed more acutely the sacramental relationship between God and creation than the German cardinal and bishop of Brixen, Nicholas of Cusa. In 1451 Nicholas was sent to Germany as a papal legate. Along the way he stopped to issue a decree at the city of Halberstadt. Worried by the interminable succession of bits of the cross, of transformed bloody hosts, of spots of Christ's blood showing up everywhere, Nicholas noted that the faithful

name this coloured thing the blood of Christ, they thus believe and adore it, and the clergy in their greed for money not only permit this but even encourage it through the publicization of miracles . . . In order to remove every opportunity for the deception of simple folk, we therefore order that . . . the clergy . . . should no longer display or promulgate such miracles.

That Nicholas should so dismiss late medieval charismata or miracles should encourage us to think carefully about the role of skepticism in Christian material experience.

A historical perspective suggests that exploring reenchantment, or what Boersma calls "sacramental ontology," must also consider how naturalism fits into being faithfully Christian. Let me be clear. I don't think that "testing the spirit(s)" entails new inquisitorial manuals for those claiming supernatural charismata, such as speaking in tongues. Neither do I mean to simply nod to the sceptical dictates of some scientific hierarchy. I am suggesting that an imaginative vision of re-enchantment (to use Smith's smart phrase) will also need to enunciate a proper place for thinking about matter on its own terms. The price of ignoring the inherent tension of Christian materiality may be to reintroduce modernist narratives of science at war with religion.

Topics: Legacy

Richard Oosterhoff works on the history of knowledge about nature in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He is currently finishing a dissertation in the History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame, and his taste in books runs older and more expensive than his pocketbook permits.