TThe debate that spans the reformation to the current day with no sign of letting up, the question being who reigns supreme?
(Specifically, in England)
The supernatural is a very difficult term to define. From a modern perspective it can be seen through a pop-culture lens that includes recent literature, classic books and films. Notable examples including Harry Potter, Twilight, the remakes of classics such as Jekyll and Hyde or the Frankenstein cornicles. The disengagement with the supernatural as truth, is believed in popular culture, to stem from the enlightenment after which science and logical thought destroyed the credibility of magic. However, this has its limits. The resurgence of the supernatural, following the scientific revolution of an earlier time, occurred during the Victorian. However, it was under a different context. The disenchantment people were experiencing with modernity allowed a cultural shift towards magic or parlour tricks mainly by the upper to middle classes.
Is the reformation to blame for wavering feelings for the supernatural?
The reformation forced the separation between structured religion and the supernatural, but did it cause a decline in supernatural belief, keeping in mind structured religion cannot always represent the practises of the masses. In Keith Thomasbook ‘Religion and the Decline in Magic’ the reformation is seen as a way to remove magical elements from religion in an effort to remove the separation between individuals and God, whether that be blessed objects or the pope. From a protestant’s view the ritualistic nature of the catholic church held an element of ‘sorcerous witchcraft’, which can be seen to describe practise such as communion, the use of relics such as rosery bead or holy water, the blessing of objects by a member of the clergy that could hold sacred power was seen as an act of witchcraft. This also shows the extent to which protestants had major issues with the catholic church one of the biggest being the priests having access to God’s supernatural power, this means priests can take a profane item and make it sacred. Although in general the real issue seems to be the removal of Gods all-knowing and acting supernatural power the issue with this being humans having a claim on divine powers. This fear of Catholicism is not the same as the fears early modern people held for witches as they were powered wholly by the devil.
The practice of popular religion
Post reformation popular religion is a subject that holds much contention, a whole country’s religion was changed over-night with a 1530 act that deemed Henry the eighth the head of the Church of England making significant changes to the political sphere, holding the question how much of an impact did it have on the masses and their practice of religious activities. Robert Whitingpresents the idea of a decline in the strength of commitment to religion in the years following the reformation with the possible cause being fragmentation of belief, also with the change in tradition it was hard to replicate the devotion of earlier generations. It can be seen in a primarysource a letter from Thomas Bedyll to Oliver Cromwell concerning the Bishop of London’s sermons commending them on being appropriate and for the next weeks sermons to be sent to Cromwell for approval. Henry the eighth uses sermons as propaganda this shows there is a conscious effort to sway the masses religious opinions with literature and not by force. This is similar to the writing of John Foxeduring the Elizabethan era that helped the state control and influence public opinion.
Post reformation expectations of religious practice and general beliefs painted practices that would have been intertwined with religion as acts of witchcraft or at least questionable. Some scholarsbring the English witch trials into the perspective of women hating the real issue of witchcraft being immoral actions in terms of sexual promiscuity in connection with religious rhetoric rather than their connection with the supernatural in general. This shows the belief and practice of the supernatural whether it be legitimate or accused is policed by men who believe they have a superior protection against the actions of the devil. This may be because they don’t have a connection to the biblical Evewho is seen to embody the very essence of femininity, easy prey to evil.
The resurgence of the supernatural in Victorian England massively contrasts with the turn towards science and proof of happenings, this may be why the supernatural had such a large audience with middle class men who wanted to disprove its existence. Peter Lamontgives the idea of spirituality having a platform due to the uncertainty with mainstream beliefs, the questioning of Christianity and the unresolved reality of science. The aim to disprove the actions of individual mediums for example Daniel Douglas Holmes, by scientific societies shows a need to police marginal beliefs without the same effort to disprove the teachings of Christianity. Although this scientific debate is not one sided, spiritualist also argued their point of view. In the book ‘Spiritualism’by H. J. Powell(1864) he presented himself as a man of science using scientific terminology such as evidence or experiment.
In conclusion the supernatural has had many worthy opponents since the reformation but it seems in times of hardship or uncertainty more people turn towards it as a source of comfort or entertainment. Due to science’s inability to explain all the world’s phenomena the belief in superstition will continue to explain the unexplainable in the same way it has in pervious centuries. Although it is important to remember in some cases of ghosts and ghouls the message of the story or experience can be used to explain a happening in society or an experience of an individual, all experiences have to be put into the context of the society they have been taken from and evaluated as such.