Thomas sets the stage by describing economic and social conditions. During these two centuries, massive poverty and appalling health were the norm. Most children died before age six and the average life-span was only twentyseven so health was a concern. Every religion uses miracles or magic — perhaps a redundancy — to help define its monopoly on the truth. By the time of the Reformation, even though the church did not, as an institution, claim the power to work miracles, it was saddled with a tradition of saints who could, and appeal to them to ward off ill-health was commonplace. St. Wilgerfort (St. Uncumber) " eliminate husbands of those discontented wives who chose to offer her a peck of oats." The mere representation of St. Christopher, " said to offer a day' preservation from illness or death to all those who looked upon it." Saints were, after all, specialists, rather than general practitioners.
The association of magical powers with church
ritual was not ostentatiously promoted by medieval church leaders; in
fact, it' often through their writings refuting such claims that we know
about them. But the imputation of magical powers was a logical result
of church actions. In their intense desire to convert the heathens, the
church incorporated many pagan rituals into religious practice. Ancient
worship of natural phenomena was modified: hence, New Year' Day became
the Feast of Circumcision, the Yule log became part of Christmas
tradition and May Day was turned into Saints' Days, for example.
made a distinction between religion and superstition, but superstition
was loosely defined as any practice having magical qualities that were
not already designated as religious ritual. The church had the power to
define what constituted legitimate and what it denied became heretical.
The Protestant Reformation had a significant effect on how the populace
regarded miracles and magic. By elevating the individual' faith in God,
and denigrating ritual, a new concept of religion was created. The
ignorant peasant had had no need for knowledge of the Bible or
scripture; the rituals and rites of the church had become the "" of the
supernatural and evidence for his/her belief. " was a ritual set of
living, not a set of dogmas." The Protestant theologian insisted on a
more personal faith, so it became necessary to invent a theology that
explained the threat of plague, natural disasters, and the fear of evil
spirits. One could no longer call on the " solutions offered by the
medieval church." The solution was predestination. Everything that
happened was God's will. Evil became a test.
Christian had the consolation of knowing that life was not a series of
random events; there was purpose in everything. This also required
scapegoats. There had to be a reason for calamitous events, and the
moral degradation of your neighbor must be the cause behind the lack of
rain for the past several months. Or it' because of the Jews in town.
Get rid of the neighbor and the Jews and all will be well. Or, the
calamity could be seen as a test of one' own faith. Righteous personal
behavior was out of fear that God would avenge wickedness. Many of Pat
Robertson' homilies could have been written in the middle ages. A whole
genre of diarist writing arose out of the need for Puritans to document
the hand of Providence. His interference could be seen in happy
coincidences, accidents to the wicked, and deliverance from personal
These judgments could be used as political weapons
also. One party issued a whole list of calamities on land and sea that
must surely be a sign from God that the Royalists were evil and should
be overthrown (shades of Robertson). Of course, Catholics blamed
calamities on the Reformation. Handy. But is was ultimately " observer'
point of view which determined whether, and by whom, an event was held
as a judgment or deliverance. . . the belief in providence degenerated
into a crude justification of any successful policy. . . . The doctrine
of providences was a conscientious attempt to impose order on the
apparent randomness of human fortunes by proving that, in the long run,
virtue was rewarded and vice did not go unpunished."
Reformation did not put an end to prophecy and the association of
miracle working to religious supremacy. The period following Elizabeth
and during the Civil War reflected growing unease with social
inequities. Women, normally excluded from political debate and
discussion, used prophecy and dream interpretation to express political
dissatisfaction. A virtual army of pseudo-messiahs appeared, claiming
all sorts of personal relationships with God. Mostly they were the
targets of humor unless their messages conveyed secular political
implications. Punishment for heresy (the last burning for heresy
occurred in 1642) could be a useful tool to eliminate political
opposition. Common prayer served as a useful mechanism to bring people
together for the purpose of harnessing group perceptions and action
against a common social ill or malady. It became an act of solidarity.
danger for the ruling elite comes only if the belief is that God is on
the opposition=s side and it foments radical social dynamism. Religious
fervor could be tolerated only as long as the voice of the people could
never be confused or associated with the voice of God. Today=s efforts
by some on the Religious Right to confound religion with politics plays
right into the hands of political leaders because then religion can be
manipulated to political ends. That is what often happened in Europe.
Anglican Church, by this time, was in a seemingly impregnable position.
It was intricately entwined with the ruling political structure, it was
a crime not to attend church, one was born into it and the church
service itself helped to maintain the social divisions: the rich sat in
front, poor in the rear and even the quality of communion wine varied
according to social standing. In 1543, one parson even preached there
were three heavens, one for each level of prosperity -- Jerry Falwell
would have approved -- and the Church was immensely wealthy, actively
participating in making political decisions. From the book: " difference
between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effect they claimed to
achieve than in their social position and in the authority on which
their respective claims rested."