Superstitious Talk: Is It Time to Move On from the ‘S-Word’?

A mummified cat found in the roof space of a church in Clifton, Cumbria, now in Keswick Museum. Is it appropriate to use the word ‘superstition’ to describe practices such as the apotropaic concealment of dead animals? The Concealed Revealed.

The idea for this post began with an exchange on Twitter with the Inner Lives project – stimulated by this innocuous-sounding Tweet promoting the excellent supernatural holdings of the Museum of London – in which we expressed our surprise at how many scholars of medieval and early modern history are still prepared to use the word ‘superstition’ to describe the beliefs of people in the past. I have no desire to ‘name and shame’ fellow scholars, but anyone with a passing familiarity with the fields of witchcraft studies and Reformation-era popular religion will be able to think of books and articles by respected historians that freely make use of the term. Is it time to finally set aside a word that is pejorative, value-laden, and comes with a great deal of undesirable religious and historical baggage?

An essay paper I sat as a Philosophy undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 2000s consisted of the one word: ‘Superstition’. I can barely recall anything of what I wrote, but from the point of view of Cambridge’s ultra-analytical Philosophy Faculty superstition was, without question, a valid category. Philosophers, like psychologists, tend to define superstition as the human tendency to see patterns where there are none and interpret as causes and effects events that have no demonstrable relationship with one another (‘I slipped over today because I walked under a ladder yesterday’). There are philosophical problems with this definition (how I can be certain that any cause and effect relationship is demonstrable?), but when historians use the word ‘superstition’ they have something much broader in mind than just an erroneous or non-standard understanding of cause and effect.

The English word ‘superstition’ is a borrowing from the Latin superstitio, a Roman legal term that referred to unapproved forms of religious practice. Superstitio was ‘misreligion’ rather than irreligion, adherence to wrong or perverted religious practices rather than failure to honour the gods at all. The church’s use of the term in the Middle Ages did not differ dramatically from its use by pagan Roman jurists, apart from the fact that medieval canon lawyers were much more interested in internal beliefs and mental attitudes than their Roman predecessors. The Middle English words ‘misbelief’ and ‘misbelieve’, now sadly obsolete, best sum up what the medieval church meant by ‘superstition’. Magicians were ‘superstitious’ because they perverted the beliefs and rites of the church, as opposed to heretics like Cathars and Lollards who denied the rites and power of the church altogether. Scholastics defined superstition as ‘vain observance’, an addiction to superfluous and unsanctioned devotional practices. However, as in ancient Rome, ‘superstition’ was usually whatever the authorities deemed unacceptable, and had little or no identifiable intrinsic meaning. Bishops regularly suppressed unsanctioned devotions as ‘superstitious’, not because they differed in any real way from authorised devotions but because they lay outside hierarchical authority. For example, in 1290 the Bishop of Lincoln, Oliver Sutton, forbade pilgrimages to holy wells at Oxford and Linslade as ‘superstitious’ because they did not enjoy the support of the local church, while leaving innumerable other pilgrimages to holy wells in his diocese unmolested.

Superstition is deployed in a pejorative and ‘weaponised’ form in this Protestant pamphlet dialogue from 1642. EEBO.

As Euan Cameron showed in his Enchanted Europe (2010), the Reformation witnessed the wholesale transformation of the rather restricted medieval discourse of superstition. The reformers weaponised the word against Catholicism, and attempted to define much more closely than ever before what kind of religion did and did not count as superstitious. The Counter-Reformation Catholic church also clamped down on unauthorised devotions more harshly than the medieval church. The Protestant discourse of superstition – which essentially applied the label to any practice thought to smack of Catholicism – was subsequently borrowed by the Enlightenment, and the term was so over-used in the eighteenth century against anything perceived as contrary to ‘reason’ that it was almost emptied of meaning. ‘Superstition’, by 1800, was a catch-all term for almost any belief or belief-system that lay outside the accepted boundaries of official religion (in England, the doctrines of the established church) or Enlightenment science.

The difficulty of assigning a clear meaning to the ‘greedy concept’ of superstition should be reason enough for historians to avoid it as a category, but in my view it is the history of the word – and specifically its association with the Protestant Reformation – that makes it so problematic. It is often difficult to decide how to describe beliefs lying outside mainstream official religion, but calling them ‘superstition’ is a lazy solution that instantly legitimises and privileges the narratives of institutions and figures of authority. Of course, the use of the word can be justified if research is directly addressing what people considered superstitious and why (a very important and much needed field of enquiry), but I see little justification for using it outside this context, ‘without inverted commas’. A historian might object that the term was often used by historians and folklorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without overt connotations of condemnation. This is true, largely because the word had been so over-used in the eighteenth century that it had lost its bite. The word is convenient, certainly, as well as widely understood outside academic history; substitutes such as ‘popular religion’ and ‘supernatural/preternatural belief’ are also clunky in comparison. And yet, as a historian of English Catholicism, I am perhaps more aware than most of the malicious uses to which a discourse of ‘superstition’ can be put in trying to discredit a religion.

Refusing to use the term ‘superstition’ to describe anyone’s beliefs does not – to my mind – mean subscribing to a postmodern worldview in which no belief is more valid than any other. In the course of research I frequently find the beliefs of past people ridiculous, even funny – but it is not for me, as a historian, to publish evaluative judgements of people’s beliefs. Moralising history, when it concerns a society remote in time from our own, is usually bad history. And once we do away with the pejorative ‘superstition’, the traditional Enlightenment accusation that religion is just superstition becomes meaningless, since superstition and religion cannot be meaningfully distinguished from one another. Popping the semantic balloon of ‘superstition’ requires us to re-think the lazy tendency of earlier historians to write off as unimportant the deep weirdness of people’s beliefs in the past. It also potentially places disciplines such as witchcraft studies and the history of magic at the centre, rather than at the periphery, of medieval and early modern historiography.

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