Religion, Beliefs, and Superstition

The view of superstition and magic have been an interesting part of culture to study, especially in the Early modern world of Europe. Today, they are both seen as part of a child’s fantasy and something that is practiced by the people who do not fit into the main streams of society. When you take a look back a few hundred years into the past, magic was a generally accepted concept and what we view as superstition now, was the reality and belief of the people. During the Early modern period, the beliefs of the peoples were constantly shifting with all the new innovations and advancements that were being made. New discoveries in the field of science during the Scientific Revolution led to the dissipation of various widespread beliefs, especially when it came to the field of medicine. People started to question what they knew and push further for the answers that they wanted. To really understand the reality of their surroundings and the underlying truths to their beliefs. Magic and superstition/belief was woven into everyday life before. When magic reared its head, popular belief was not far behind. What people believed would happen when coming in contact with a magical event or being is what we view as superstition today.

Christian religions were the most important aspect of life during both medieval and Early modern times. Because it was such a huge part of people’s lives, the Bible was a source for many of the popular beliefs for years. But it was not just the supernatural world that the bible preached about. The Bible preached that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” ( King James Bible) which aided in the belief of the world being geocentric (everything revolved around the earth), but during the Scientific Revolution the people discovered that the universe was actually heliocentric (everything orbited around the sun) instead. Indulgences to lift a soul out of purgatory were also popular until Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation to argue that they were just another way for the Catholic Church to take money from the good people. Everything new that was discovered was spread like wildfire thanks to the newly invented printing press.

Today we look at magic as something that a child would believe in and not adults. And those adults that do still believe and openly practice magic and constantly discredited by the general public who lost their belief many years before. When most people look back on history, they see cultures and societies that were backwards and almost barbaric in their beliefs in comparison to today’s world. They see what we know today and apply it to history. People in the past did not know what people know today, and magic was their way of explaining why odd things happened. When looking into the past, we must all consider this. It will help us look through different eyes and rationalize like the people of the day did. The world was a very different place with different popular beliefs that may or may not have been disproved in today’s world. People in the past were not backwards as we may think, they just did not have access to the information that we do in our society.

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A wealthy bürger refuses charity to an old couple (1622) Credit: Wellcome Library

When looking at superstition, we need to look at the main religions of Europe during Early Modern times. The Catholic Church was the most powerful religious organization until the 1500’s when one of the largest religious events occurred. The Protestant Reformation split families apart and further yet, changed many beliefs, both natural and supernatural. One of the big parts of the Reformation was that it wanted to get rid of the belief in superstition, the reformers wanted to alter the popular belief of the general public along with the religion (Scribner, 476). This created further tension between the two different types of Christianity as Protestantism rapidly spread.

Along with what is written in the bible, the ceremonies and traditions of the churches are also steeped in popular belief. The Eucharist, in the eyes of the protestants was there as symbolism (BBC). Many people converted to Protestantism during Early Modern times, even whole countries cut ties with the Catholic Church, for reasons such as the Catholic belief that the Eucharist was the blood of Christ himself. Another ceremony that may be viewed as superstitious is baptism. In the Catholic faith, infants are baptized in the belief that they will be washed of all sin, purified, and allowing Jesus into their souls for the rest of their lives (Vatican). Protestants, like with the Eucharist, did not like the idea of the dramatic reasoning behind the ceremony. They believe that “we all need to turn away from the darkness of evil and to make a new start with God” (Portsmouth). It is a welcoming of the infant into God’s life and protection with the rest of its family (Portsmouth).

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A woman holds a baby as others prepare for its baptism around the mother’s bed. Credit: Wellcome Library

Religion is full of different beliefs and is the base of many others when it comes to Early Modern Europe. People did not have the resources that we do today to help them understand the world around them so they turned to the biggest influence in their lives, the Church. Whether the church was Protestant or Catholic, there were beliefs on both sides that may be considered as superstition or the beliefs of the followers. From daily life to strange happenings in society, the people tried to explain everything with the supernatural world and beliefs that the Church had told them. These beliefs that are often viewed as superstition started to grow less with the passing of time and the discovery of new ways to explain the unknown, but some are still very much alive today. The world is filled with different beliefs which can be viewed as superstition but it is up to us to view them all with a skeptical eye and remember that the past was a very different world for that of today.

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