Bever, Edward. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture, Cognition, and Everyday Life. Houndsmill, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 2008.
I read this book recently at the recommendation of my adviser, Ann Taves, because she is now focused on the cognitive science aspect of religion. This book is an attempt by Bever, a historian by training, to apply some of the cognitive science methods to the study of early modern witchcraft. This review is a little long but I thought it suggested a number of interesting approaches for the study of supernatural beliefs in a historical setting.
“What basis did early modern beliefs about witchcraft and magic have in reality?” asks Bever. Bever focuses his study on witchcraft and popular magic beliefs in the Duchy Wurtemberg in early Modern Germany. “The results of this investigation indicate that early modern Europeans’ fears of malefic magic reflected both actual practices and potential harms more than previous accounts have suggested.” “To what extent did people really engage in and experience the things contained in the beliefs? Second, to what extent did their activities have real effects, and their perceptions reflect objective events?” (xiv). As I mentioned in some earlier posts, there are a number of scholars who have tried to figure out what the actual practices that people called witchcraft were. Bever follows up on this scholarship but goes one step further: he tries to figure out what was actually going on when people performed popular magic. Bever argues that cognitive science suggests that there was a reality to these beliefs. “For historians have traditionally started from the assumption that at bottom nothing real can have been going on, and therefore have focused on explaining why people would hold delusional beliefs and engage in inefficacious activities” (xviii). Bever seeks to refute this assumption and much more.
Bever’s first three sections focus on the reality of such beliefs (titled “The Realities of Maleficium,” “Diabolism,” and “Beneficent Magic” respectively) while the last section (“Repression and Reality”) argues that the repression of popular magic in the early modern period forced early modern Europeans to essentially ignore how their brains really worked in favor of the fiction of the rational self. So a lot to cover.
In the first section, maleficium (or harmful magic), Bever attempts to explain as real a series of cases of witchcraft in Wurtemburg. “The knowledge that a reputed sorcerer is casting a harmful spell has been shown to be sufficient to cause some people to become ill,” argues Bever, and Bever notes the ill effects of stress on the body, which one is likely to feel if they believe they’ve been cursed (29). Bever also notes certain physiological states like sleep paralysis (often called the Old Hag experience) that some people experience, where they find themselves unable to move while in a state between being asleep and being awake.
Yet Bever’s goal is not just to give a handful of explanations, he wants to cover everything, including beliefs that most of us would say have no basis in reality like cursing animals, beer, or butter. Ultimately, says Bever, there is “a substantial body of evidence suggesting that there are natural processes which are not adequately explained by current scientific understanding” (36).
Bever continues with his discussion of physiological states, the most interesting of which are out of body experiences (OBEs) and an array of states that Bever places under the heading of Shamanism or shamanistic states of consciousness (SSCs). OBEs “are primarily artifacts of the way our brains operate, and only secondarily elements of culture.” They are not a form of other experiences, they are not regular dreams, they are not flying dreams, they can happen while resting but not asleep, they can occur sometimes during “frenetic” activity, they can occur during non REM sleep, they are not the same of hypnosis though they can occur during hypnosis, and they are not the same as sleep paralysis, though they can occur then also. Experiencers see OBEs as different from dreams; OBE is like waking consciousness, more real than a dream (125).
Shamanism, Bever argues, is a cross-cultural phenomenon whereby special individuals are able to travel into the world of spirits where they often gain special powers and knowledge. Physiological studies of such individuals suggest that they are able to create OBEs and near death experiences where the heart rates and brain functions can fluctuate radically. “What ever the physical reality of paranormal processes, there does appear to be a correlation between shamanistic states of consciousness and the ability to perform in experimental settings in ways that appear to manifest them,” argues Bever (209). Thus “the demonologists fantasies were not entirely unfounded.” That is, those (most early moderns) who believed that witches flew by night to make a pact with the devil, whereby he gave them great powers, were responding to actual (in a sense) shamanistic practices. Shamans did believe they went to the fairy world “and thereby gained the power to heal and to harm by manipulating people’s nervous systems through contact with the spirits” (212).
Bever’s work on treasure digging is of particular interested and highlights the work of Johannes Dillinger, whose book on magical treasure digging will be out next year. “The spirits of the dead were often connected with the treasure because it was thought that if a person’s fortune was tainted in some way, his or her spirit would be tied to it until it was dug up and used in some way that atoned for the transgression.” Ghost sightings would inspire treasure hunts “and the treasure-seeking often took on the character of a beneficent exorcism in which a damned soul would be liberated if the treasure was recovered and put to a good purpose, either restored (at least in part) to some rightful owner or donated (at lead in part) to a worthy cause” (171). Later Bever revisits the treasure digging and asserts “while conscious fraud played a significant role in magical treasure-hunting, it does not seem to have played a dominant role. Instead, it was an outgrowth of, one could even say a parasitical mutation of, a practice that was for the most part undertaken by people who genuinely thought that was possible and some of whom really experienced encounters with spirits” (245).
The point about encountering spirits leads Bever to some interesting statements. Bever wonders whether tests could be done to see if people really talk to spirits but laments,
Even if it can be established that people can obtain information that no currently established channel of information transfer can account for from what they take to be the spirits of the dead, it is difficult to see how the existence of ghosts can be demonstrated over a combination of the construction of the internal representation of voyance, precognition, and retrocognition, all of which have stronger experimental support and more developed theoretical explanations than the continuation of individual consciousness after the associated neural activity has stopped. Since we have seen that fraud does not seem to account for most of the cases discussed here, some form of unconscious intrapsychic generation seems to be the most likely explanation for the aural and visual perceptions that were experienced as ghosts, with the incorporation of some information gained paranormally—if such a thing is possible (247-48).
In Bever’s final section, he lists the various ways that the church and state suppressed these beliefs.
The repression of magic thus involved a form of neurological fine-tuning in itself, a kind of reverse-shamanism that inhibited the accessing of knowledge and powers inaccessible to normal waking consciousness, initially because accessing such knowledge and powers outside the framework established by the church was seen as devilish, incompatible with the moral strictures of the Christian faith, and later because it was seen as foolish, incompatible with the cognitive processes connected to rationalist materialism.
Though invalid ideas were repressed, “we have seen evidence that in the process valid and useful insights and procedures were also repressed.” Thus the Enlightenment through the baby with the bathwater (377).
In the end, “They stopped believing in witches in part because over the course of the century women had learned to try to avoid acting like witches.” (413). “As officials came to believe all magical activities were essentially fraudulent or foolish, they found it harder to believe that the people who practiced them could be anything other than cynical swindlers or dupes, and became ever more determined to prove that this was the case even to the point of using physical coercion (what would have been called torture in a witch trial) to get suspected con artists to confess” (427).
The modern concept of reality was not formed in a vacuum, or through some peaceful process in which truth just naturally unfolded. Instead, the process was bitterly contested, involving a protracted, three century campaign of repression in which magical beliefs, practices, and practitioners were misrepresented and vilified, first as nefarious agents of the Devil and later as nothing but frauds and dupes.” “peoples’ behavior was modified, even if not purified; and a new definition of the self was put in place, a self that, at least in theory, was in rational control of its own actions and decisions, able to repress any irrational thoughts or illusory perceptions that might well up from within, and pervious to any direct contact with or irresistible influences from without (440).
To conclude, Bever remarks on how we perceive our environment, a combination of the senses that scientists call “sensorium.”
Modern Westerners assume that the purpose of the sensorium is to model the outside world as accurately as possible and all other input is a form of pollution, but that is actually false: the purpose of the sensorium is to help us survive to reproduce and rear children. If seeing an angel from God come to warn us from our evil, self-destructive way helps us to that, it is just as valid a use of the sensorium as tracking prey or watching a play, and to ignore it or explain it away because it might not show up in a photograph would be the height of folly. Naturally, this process is not always reliable; sometimes the Devil appears as an angel from God and tries to trick us into doing wrong. But, then, perfectly rational thought can lead us astray just as easily, as the followers of a variety of modern ‘scientific’ ideologies attest. If there is any resolution here, any moral, it is that we should not, and in fact, cannot, choose between rationality and inspiration, for we are hard-wired for both. The question is not whether we will get input from both, just what we will make of it and therefore choose to do with it (439).
See anything useful?