The Magical Universe: everyday ritual and magic in pre-modern Europe

Stephen Wilson <em>Hambledon

The German sociologist Max Weber remarked: "Priests superintend the worship of gods, while magicians seek to compel demons." Nothing so dramatic is promised by Stephen Wilson (the brother of A N), whose account of European rituals concerns the magic used in the home and garden, rather than the kind invoked by witches and warlocks. This is the ordinary magic that accompanied cooking, ploughing and child-rearing, and which successfully colonised the practices of orthodox religion. The Magical Universe is a vast inventory of superstitions, which intends to show magic's pervasive influence on all areas of the medieval mind. To make a convincing case, however, it is not enough merely to list the evidence in favour - we also need to know that there is little evidence against it.

The "sympathetic" principles of magic were outlined by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough in 1922. An object supposedly shares an affinity with another in so far as it resembles its counterpart. Stick a pin in an effigy of your enemy, the thought goes, and the doll's model will feel the prick. Similarity in location also matters, as two things that were once found together are thought to retain a link even after they have been separated - as with the ghost of a lord haunting his castle. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss identified two further principles early in the 20th century: that an object can have power over its opposite; and that a part is inextricably linked to the whole - hence all the locks of hair and toenail clippings that witches require for their brews.

The notions of affinity and essence were the contributions of Frazer and Mauss respectively. Because they denote specific metaphysical beliefs, and given that these beliefs are not true, we are bound to conclude that a staggering amount of human time and energy has been squandered on superstition, simply because we kept getting our facts wrong. Wishful thinking, the "need" to believe and misplaced faith, it seems, are less culpable for the waste of effort than a certain form of dim-wittedness. The views of the old anthropologists have been reaffirmed recently. According to evolutionary psychologists, in one of their discipline's few convincing theses, humans have a natural tendency to look for patterns and regularities in the world around them. Picking up on patterns is essential for success in daily life, but superstitious beliefs arise when we hit on irrelevant regularities. Because the gambler was wearing a certain tie when he won the jackpot, he cannot help but wear it again, in the belief that it was the tie, not dumb luck, that presaged his success.

However, there is surely one other principle behind many superstitions: cunning self-interest. Frazer and Mauss were generous to credit pre-modern man with the faculty of reason, but it would be a disservice not to allow him cynicism, too. The old French custom of keeping men out of the kitchen if you want your black pudding to coagulate properly seems less to do with affinities or opposites than with the desire to keep from the husband's view the foul ingredients of his dinner. Wilson writes, furthermore, that the magic of peasants was all about fecundity. "This can be seen very clearly with the carnival . . . where ritual excess and over- consumption served to bring about good supplies of food and drink in the future."

Well, that's one excuse. Many other rites are equally suspect, especially those that involve women taking their clothes off. Rain-making rituals in southern Italy and the Balkans, for example, would normally involve a nude maiden or two to help sway the powers above. Another story from the Cevennes tells of a sorcerer who could keep foxes away from chicken runs by leading the youngest girl of the family, completely naked, round the property on a moonless night. "Here, as in other cases," Wilson tells us with a straight face, "nudity emphasised purity."

Wilson's book is an endlessly interesting trove of information, but it needs to be added that the peasantry were not uniformly gullible. Ordinary people through the ages have sometimes been admirably resis-tant to superstitious nonsense. The image of a crowd shouting "Burn the witch" is a famous one, but country folk were just as likely to torch the representatives of the Inquisition when the men in black first started to cart off their aunts and grandmothers for summary punishment. The enforcers of the priests were no more welcome than those of the princes in the villages of the late Middle Ages. It was a contempt for superstition that made the job of Inquisitor as dangerous as that of tax collector.

Nick Fearn's Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher will be published by Atlantic Press in September

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?