Organized Session

Science, Superstition, and the Rationalization of Magic in Eighteenth Century Europe and North America

Organizers

Michael Lynn

Purdue University Northwest

Jean-Olivier Richard

University of Toronto

Chair

Michael Lynn

Purdue University Northwest

Metadata

Session Abstract

Although Max Weber, and others, have argued for the disenchantment of Europe after the sixteenth century, more recently scholars like Michael Hunter (in The Decline of Magic) have noted the continuity of practices and beliefs through the early modern and into the modern period. While some areas of natural magic fell into disrepute, and scientific societies and their journals generally did not report on those areas, savants still engaged with natural magic and sought to explain how and why they believed it could help people understand the world around them. This panel focuses on the engagement with superstitious and magical beliefs - including spirits, shamans/jongleurs, and natural remedies - by savants seeking to apply Enlightenment-era scientific understandings to areas that fell outside the developing understanding of how science should be viewed. Using examples from Europe and North America, the panel explores a variety of magical practices, moving beyond the analysis of those typically studied (such as astrology or alchemy), to unearth the methodologies and arguments used to justify continued interest and investment in the study of these beliefs. The overall goal of the panel will be to provide a nuanced depiction of how Enlightenment natural philosophy and natural history dealt with the question of superstition at a time when philosophes and others decried all such practices as antithetical to the modern world.

Presenter 1

A Graft of the Tree of Life: Superstition or Medicine?

Alexandra Lord

Smithsonian Institution

Abstract

In the fall of 1728, William Byrd stumbled upon wild ginseng while hunting. Chewing the plant, he noted that "it kept up my spirits and made me trip away as nimbly in my half jack-boots as younger men could do in their shoes." For Byrd, ginseng's many virtues ranged from its ability to warm the blood, to dissolve viscous humors, to strengthen memory and the bowels, and even to render the aged "lively, cheerful and good-humored." But these virtues aside, the belief that ginseng was of use in the feats of love was, Byrd insisted, simply a superstition.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Anglo elites such as Byrd sought to disentangle and root out superstitious beliefs about new remedies they had found outside of Europe. Distinguishing between superstition and truth was not, however, an easy exercise. On the one hand, early eighteenth-century Britons believed indigenous Americans had a deep and unique knowledge of medicinal plants native to their countries. And they believed that the people whom they encountered in the Americas were often healthier than their British counterparts. Yet as Britons expanded their empire, the desire to subjugate and control indigenous populations increasingly led them to couch discussions of these new remedies with explicit condemnations of what they viewed as superstitious beliefs and practices among indigenous peoples.
Through an examination of Britons' discussions of new remedies, this talk explores how British elites used the language of the Enlightenment to control and contain indigenous medical knowledge.

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Presenter 2

Invisible Worlds: Magic, Spirits, and Experience in the Early Enlightenment

Tricia Peone

New Hampshire Humanities Council

Abstract

At the turn of the eighteenth century, apparitions could be explained in many ways: as spirits sent out by witches or summoned by magicians, as ghosts of the dead, as demonic activity, and as providential or political signs. Natural philosophers and physicians speculated about tricks to deceive the eye and attempted to find medicinal cures to treat the afflicted. While prescriptive literature instructed readers in how they should understand these phenomena, in practice people often relied on their senses to resolve uncertainties in interpretation. One such case is that of John Beaumont, a member of the Royal Society who struggled to explain his visual and auditory encounters with spirits and attempted to historicize them by drawing upon ancient and contemporary sources. In his Treatise of Spirits (1705), and in Gleanings of Antiquities (1724), he presented his theories about the nature of spirits and described his personal experiences in brief but vivid detail. Although he demonstrated familiarity with occult texts, he was careful to note that he never summoned the spirits by magical means, but rather was surprised each time they appeared to him unsolicited. He urged his readers "not to be over hasty in rejecting things that may seem Strange, and do not presently fall within their comprehension." Beaumont's writings provide a rare opportunity to examine how people interpreted their own experiences with the preternatural during the early Enlightenment, when competing explanations provided ambiguity rather than clarity about the powers of the invisible world.

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Presenter 3

Science, Magic, and Trickery in the Global Enlightenment: The Curious Case of Jean-Bernard Bossu (1720-1792)

Jean-Olivier Richard

University of Toronto

Abstract

The eighteenth century is still widely associated with the philosophes' crusade against superstition and obscurantism. If pagan priests - as it was then widely held - were tricksters who used their knowledge of nature and clever mechanical contraptions to fool their disciples, couldn't the same be said of all idolatrous priests? Of priests in general? So much was suggested by Fontenelle and like-minded skeptics. Yet not every reader of L'Histoire des Oracles (1686) would put its lessons to the service of Enlightenment. This paper examines what happened when tropes and stratagems typically mobilized to confute charlatans were used to exploit, rather than dispell, credulity. In Nouveaux voyages aux Indes Occidentales (1768) and Nouveaux voyages dans l'Amérique Septentrionale (1777), the explorer and navy officer Jean-Bernard Bossu (1720-1792) recounts how his knowledge of natural history, medicine, and chemistry allowed him to establish himself as a medicine-man (jongleur) amid the Alabama and Arkansas tribes he visited while traveling up and down the Mississipi. His encounters with Native American shamans sometimes turned into high-stake stand-offs during which he pretended to perform shamanic rituals of his own. By analyzing Bossu's anecdotes, I seek to uncover his moral and religious motivations, as well as the cultural context that made his account legible to his contemporaries. I also essay a few generalizations about the connections between science, magic, and trickery in the global Enlightenment.

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Commentator

Michael Lynn

Purdue University Northwest