Book Review: Allison P. Coudert, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America

By January 17, 2012

Coudert, Allison P.  Religion, Magic , and Science in Early Modern Europe and America.  Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.

This book made my head spin.  Coudert sets about attacking cherished ontologies and historiographical dogmas in ways I’m overwhelmingly in agreement with, but the book still left me dizzy.  Coudert comes out swinging and doesn’t let up.   Most brilliant is the way Coudert blends these categories with each other and the social history of the periods she covers.

After citing various critics who have questioned the reality of religion, magic, and science as ontological categories,

The response to such a wholesale rejection of the topics of this book cannot be in the same vein as the famous remark made by Justice Potter when called upon to define pornography, ‘I know it when I see it.’  Many of us may think we know religion, magic, and science when we see them, but the truth is we don’t, and this book is about why we don’t and how what we think we know about all three came into existence during the early modern period itself.  Our definitions of religion, magic, and science are just that, ours, modern definitions that have a long and contested history.  Words, like ideas, beliefs, and institutions have not always been the same but change with changing circumstances.  While this seems obvious, the implications are not always understood, much less accepted (xiii).

Furthermore, Coudert notes that these categories overlapped and the separation of the categories “tell us more, however, about those who made them then the actual situation. Being ‘modern’ meant that one rejected magic as ‘primitive’ and embraced science as ‘rational’ and ‘civilized.’ It also meant that one drew a line separating the human from the non-human, nature from culture, and the natural from the supernatural. The problem was and still is that most people do not really hold to these lines of separation” (xvi).

Coudert begins her story by describing the optimism of the Renaissance being snuffed out by the pessimism of the Reformation: “one of the bloodiest, most intolerant, and pessimistic periods in European history” (6). Coudert calls the era “The Age of Augustine,” “because of the harsh and unflattering view of human nature prevailing among both Protestants and Catholics.” “Augustine had originated the term ‘original sin,’” explains Coudert “and claimed that as a result of the Fall human nature was ‘wounded, hurt, damaged, destroyed. This was the view accepted by Lutherans, Calvinists, and many Catholics in the early decades of the Reformation. Not only had the Fall made it impossible for humans to act morally, but it had irreparably damaged Adam’s intelligence and ability to reason” (xxi).

In addition to the turmoil of the Reformation, the era brought a number of scientific shifts in world view, particularly Copernicus’s sun-centered universe and the discovery of the New World. “However disastrous the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden was in the minds of believing Christians, the fall from the pre-Copernican into the post-Copernican universe was even more traumatic” (8).  “With the demise of this worldview went the framework that had allowed Europeans to understand the world, their place in it, and their purpose and identity for centuries” (7).  The universe now contained “unfathomable vastness.” There was “no longer a clear sense of ‘up’ or ‘down’ and hence no commonsensical place for heaven and hell” (9).

Numerous other developments called into questions old authorities. The discovery of the New World rearranged all sorts of categories of description for flora and fauna as well as humans. The printing press made the comparison of texts much easier, facilitating the discovery of disagreements and contradictions between texts. Rapid urbanization seemed to undermine the foundations of society.

“A new system of order was desperately needed, and in major respects it was built on the backs of women, especially witches” (80). The Reformation was the era of the great witch-hunts, and 71-92 percent of the condemned were women (64). “Between 1480 and 1700 more women were executed for this crime than for all other crimes put together” (65).  While it’s important to note that most early modern people really did believe that there were evil people (mostly women) out there doing harmful magic, “disorderly” (outspoken, unmarried, assertive) women were the overwhelming targets of such accusations.  Coudert cites Mary Douglas’s work on purity and danger and how sacrifice is used to restore purity.  “In early modern Europe witches were forced to assume the role of sacrificial scapegoats. Their elimination would restore social equilibrium and eradicate pollution” (81).

Persecution of women in the early modern are was not confined to witch-craft prosecution. The Reformation also spawned The “Godly State”: “church and secular authorities on both sides of the religious divide joined forces to establish efficient and stable bureaucratic societies grounded in an obedient, disciplined, and orthodox citizenry, whose primary allegiance was to church and state” (83).

Authorities worked to reform all levels of society, but disorderly women were a principal target. Things were particularly bad for Protestant women. “With the abolition of saints, including female ones, and the demotion of Mary to a suitably subservient position, Protestant women were deprived of female role models other than that of an obedient wife.” Coudert quotes Luther: “The woman… is like a nail driven into a wall. She sits at home … as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state…. In this way Eve is punished.” “Catholic women could a least call for a priest when things got tough at home; but for Protestant women in a very real sense the priest, pope, and king lived at home.”  Thus, Coudert concludes, “It is impossible to accept Steven Ozment’s contention that Reformation morality allowed women ‘a position of high authority [as mothers] and equal respect [to men]” (94-95).

Coudert has a number of great quotes about Protestent men hating their bodies and attempting to stamp out any vestiges of medieval fun. “A new world order had indeed been created” (109).

Yet a new light was to break forth amid the darkness of the era. Positive views of humanity began to reemerge in the lead up to the Enlightenment. Augustine’s pessimism was rejected in favor of a loving and kind God. If Adam had been damaged by the Fall, could humans regain their original condition? “As a result of these speculations and attempts to restore man to Adam’s original perfection, by the end of the seventeenth century what might be described as an ‘anthropological revolution’ had occurred: a more optimistic view of human nature emerged and along with it a positive attitude toward life and the ability of humans to change and improve their world and themselves” (xxi).

Coudert argues that alchemy provided the link between the Renaissance and Enlightenment. “Alchemists were essentially a fifth column within every Christian denomination; they carried forward the optimistic ideals of Renaissance Platonists into the age of the Enlightenment.”  Rejecting Augustine’s notion of original sin, alchemists and Christian Platonists in general believed that by diligent study and holy living, humans and the world in general could re-obtain Adam’s state before the fall (170).

Further, both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were founded on alchemy, argues Coudert (164). Both Isaac Newton (the founder of modern physics) and Robert Boyle (the founder of modern chemistry) were deeply immerse in alchemy and their scientific discoveries were fundamentally indebted to their alchemical studies. Fundamental to alchemy was the belief that “human beings had the intelligence and ability to improve the world. Alchemists tipped the scales in favor of art over nature and in so doing fostered the belief in progress that became the hallmark of modern science” (165). “The old idea that religion and magic, as well as esoteric thought of all kinds, had to disappear before science could emerge is quite simply wrong” (131).

The work of Roy Porter has shifted the center of the Enlightenment away from Voltaire and Paris (as Peter Gay would have it) to England and Newton and Locke.  Thus it was interesting to see that John Locke was a student a student not only of alchemy but also of kabbalah.  What are we to make of the idea that the Enlightenment and our notions of modernity were built on modes of thought that they were supposed to have rejected?

Thus Coudert demonstrates the ways religion, science, and magic had always intermingled, casting additional doubt on scholarly attempts to draw boundaries between the categories.  “The years Newton spent studying the Book of Daniel and Revelations and pouring over alchemical books and manuscripts in the laboratory he set up in Cambridge were of the utmost importance in shaping his ultimate view of the mechanics of the universe and his concept of gravity” (195).  “What becomes apparent,” Coudert concludes, “is that our categories and definitions of religion, magic, and science do not fit the way people viewed the world in the early modern West. Given the fraught history and contentious nature of the way these terms have been defined, they may not even fit the actual thinking of most people in the world today, but that is another subject” (196).


Full disclosure: Dr. Coudert just recently agreed to be on my dissertation committee (Catherine Albanese dropped out).  I’m thrilled.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Christian History


  1. Thanks for the review; I shall add this book to my Kindle.

    Have you by chance read Theological Origins of Modernity by Gillespie? If so, I would be interested in your take.


    Comment by Mogget — January 18, 2012 @ 1:32 am

  2. Thanks Steve. Does this volume inlude much discussion of cunning folks?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 18, 2012 @ 6:06 am

  3. I really appreciate that comment that we don’t *really* know them when we see them. Simply because we’re not willing to draw out the implications of many of our beliefs and see where they are inconsistent.

    An other problem is that many of these terms are contextual. Science being the obvious example. What counts in science the 19th century or even parts of the early 20th no longer does due to changing methods and knowledge. It seems fair to consider magic and similar terms similarly affected by context.

    Comment by Clark — January 18, 2012 @ 11:05 am

  4. Mogget, I have not, but it looks like an interesting and related discussion.

    J., she does not.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 18, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  5. Sounds like a very interesting book. I’ll have to put it on my wish list.

    Comment by Rameumptom — January 18, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  6. Nice review. It sounds quite interesting!

    Comment by Jack Ply — January 18, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  7. Thanks all.

    Right Clark, simply “knowing what you see” is very common when trying to distinguish religion, science, and magic. We are operating with a particular cultural definition that differs from the past, which make the “know what I see” method a problem. Good point about science.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 18, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

  8. Thanks for the review. Another book to get. Good news if it’s on Kindle.

    Comment by WVS — January 19, 2012 @ 12:59 am

  9. Does Coudert really think Copernicus was traumatic for European intellectuals? Chucklesigh. Evidence, please? One Englishman with his knickers in a twist over heliocentrism a century later is not evidence of trauma.

    Comment by Cian W. — January 19, 2012 @ 11:29 am

  10. Cian, what effects do you see Copernicus and Kepler having?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 19, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

  11. Cian, I guess it depends upon what you mean by “traumatic.” Arguably during the renaissance there were lots of people breaking with the Aristotle dominated science, philosophy and theology of the scholastic era. (Typically only partial breaks, despite the overgeneraliations) I think Copernicus was big simply because it was the first real foundational break with the Aristotle infused cosmology.

    I think the closest analogy is the early 20th century when you had an other earth shaking paradigm shift with quantum mechanics and relativity. It’s funny how that shift appears not only in scientific areas but throughout the culture. (For a great example look at say the pulp fiction of H. P. Lovecraft) Of course most of these sorts of things are part and parcel of broad movements. So just as you have the foundations of modernist physics being shaken you have an anti-modern backlash in broader culture. (For a good example look at Kafka although you can find it in many sources)

    So is one element – typically a scientific one – really what is traumatic? Or is it something broader. I’m not sure how to answer that. The mere fact that Copernicus was but one figure among many questioning Scholasticism suggests we shouldn’t point only to him. But he does seem paradigmatic of the broader movement and perhaps the clearest example. Much as one might point to QM in the era from the 20’s through 40’s.

    Comment by Clark — January 19, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

  12. Thanks Clark, but I think Coudert would argue that the shift from the closed well-ordered universe to the infinite one was a considerably greater cultural shift than quantum mechanics. Darwin might be a better example. Here’s more of what Coudert says on the matter.

    “We take the Copernican sun-centered universe for granted, but the geocentric world of the Aristotelian-Ptolomaic system that preceded it was in every respect more comprehensible, and one might even say, more ‘homey’ and comfortable for human beings than what came afterward. For the pre-Copernican universe was finite and more suited to human proportions than the infinite world of post-Copernican cosmology. Everything in the pre-Copernican world had its ordained place while simultaneously participating in a web of sympathies that linked heaven to earth and each thing to every other” (2-3).

    Further, “post-Copernican men and women found themselves inhabiting one planet among many, hurtling through space at incredible speeds…. Furthermore, if earth had no privileged position but was merely one of many planets, did that mean that Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection had to be repeated on every planet in the solar system in an infinite universe? … The existential dread such vastness stirred up in many minds comes out clearly in Pascal’s famous comparison of man to a fragile reed in a vast, uncaring universe” (9).

    Again, this wasn’t simple an issue of whether the earth rotated around the sun or vice versa or even whether Aristotle was right. The effects were much greater. I think the experience of Moses in the Book of Moses sums it up. After seeing all God’s creations: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” As Pascal suggested, such a realization can be traumatic.

    She quotes Dunn, “All coherence gone,” as a response not just to Copernicus but the the information explosion of the era (printing, New World, etc.)

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 19, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  13. Steve I think my rejoinder was that the shift from a well ordered and largely finite conception to a more infinite one can’t be laid purely on Copernicus but was due to a much broader influence of Platonic, gnostic and even Islamic texts on the west due to the fall of the Byzantine empire and the rise of the Renaissance.

    Put an other way I think Copernicus was perhaps the exemplar of a broader tradition. I personally don’t mind using him as the paradigm of the era and I think that it was probably that basic conception of cosmology that did reach the popular mind the most. But it really was a broad movement.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

  14. To add, I do think it was the “this planet’s not special” change that really was significant. However I don’t think that logically a heliocentric geometry entails that move over a geocentric one. Rather it was but one element of many. I’d also say that this “existential angst” type of change took centuries to develop. Arguably it wasn’t until the rise of evolution that it really became truly traumatic. So I think Copernicus is an important step in that development but not the only one.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  15. Clark, you’re right, this was a process. I don’t think that Coudert meant that it happened all at once, she suggests the cultural impact was an issue for the next century or two. That’s why she cites Pascal as the epitome of the angst.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 20, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

  16. It’s interesting though that there is such a double move within Christianity. Humans are supposed to be insignificant and less than the dust of the earth. Yet simultaneously this earth is supposed to be the pinnacle of creation and there’s often a sense creation is all about humans. I think there always was a tension between those two.

    Honestly I always saw Pascal much more in terms of that tension rather than angst arising out of the opposition to scholasticism. What in Pascal’s writings themselves does Coudert use to distinguish between the two? (I have to admit I’ve only read a little Pascal – probably the same stuff most of us read back in college)

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

  17. This book is more of a srires of essays than an in-depth analysis of any particular topic. The book isn’t very long considering the scope of the topic, a little over two-hundred pages. But I really like the way she synthesized the information.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 20, 2012 @ 7:31 pm


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