Ritual Magic and Reformation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 16 July 2010 07:58

Protestants think of magic and Christianity as polar opposites, but that opinion is of fairly recent origin.  In her 1991 history of magic in medieval Europe, Valerie I. J. Flint unraveled the multiple and shifting alliances that took place in conflicts between Christianity, magic, and natural science.  At times, Christians allied with science against magic, but they also allied with magic against naturalistic scientific theories.  And, of course, there were cases when scientists and magicians joined forces to attack the church.

In the medieval world, magic was not marginal to the church, but central.  At the center of the Mass was the marvel of turning bread into the body of God.  Though officially performed only by a priest, the potent miracle was too great a temptation for some laymen to withstand.  They wanted a piece of the action, and often got some.  Keith Thomas’s classic Religion and the Decline of Magic recounts medieval stories of “how the Host was profanely employed to put out fires, to cure swine fever, to fertilise the fields and to encourage bees to make honey.”  Some would steal away from Mass with the wafer intact in the mouth, planning to use it as a love charm.  If a man communed simultaneously with a woman, he would win her heart.

The Reformation assaulted this liturgical magic at the core.  Protestants denied the supposed miracle of transubstantiation, and attacked the superstitious medicinal uses of the host by, in John Bale’s non-exhaustive list, “witches . . . sorcerers, charmers, enchanters, dreamers, soothsayers, necromancers, conjurers, cross-diggers, devil-raisers, miracle-doers, dog-leeches and bawds.”   The first edition of the Prayer Book instructed ministers to place the Eucharistic bread directly in the mouth of the communicant to prevent it from being carried away and abused in “superstitious and wicked” ways.

The Mass was the chief target for reformers, but they recognized that it was at the center of a complex web of magic.  Tudor Protestant James Calfhill identified “the vilest witches and sorcerers on earth” as “the priests that consecrate crosses and ashes, water and salt, oil and cream, boughs and bones, stocks and stones; that christen bells that hang in the steeple; that conjure worms that creep in the field; that give St John’s Gospel to hang about men’s necks.”

Necessary as it was, the Reformation’s assault on magic sometimes took a wrong turn.  One neat way to deny that Eucharistic bread and baptismal water have magical properties is to construct a high razor-wire fence between “physical” and “spiritual” realities.  Some Reformers, such as Zwingli, took this option, insisting that the sacraments brought no “temporal” benefits and that they couldn’t actually do anything.  Baptismal water can only make you wet and Eucharistic bread can only satisfy your hunger.

Most of the Reformers tried something else.  They attacked medieval magic, but at the same time tried to retain some of the mystical glow around the sacraments.  Instead of “disenchanting” the world, they wanted to relocate and focus the enchantment.  Calvin’s was a both/and position.  Sacraments combine sign and reality, though in a way that both are available only to the elect who alone exercise faith.  This enabled Calvin to say very striking things about the efficacy of baptism and the reality of Christ’s presence in the Supper, while at the same time avoiding the slippery slope that descends back to Rome.

Calvin’s position is perfectly fine as far as it goes, but it’s questionable whether the synthesis he attempted could withstand the pressure of the starker, cleaner dualism of Zwinglian sacramental theology.  James R. Rogers of Texas A&M suggests that there’s often a kind of “reverse Hegelianism” at work in history: Over time knotty syntheses smooth out into their conflicting theses and antitheses.  During the centuries since the Reformation, the Zwinglian separation of spiritual and physical increasingly became the “common sense” of modernity, and under the circumstances a blessedly tangled Calvinian synthesis could only become disentangled.

Which is, it seems, precisely where we are now.  If we want to maintain the Reformation protest against medieval magic (and we should!), we seem to be stuck between perpetuating a synthesis no one really believes anymore and giving up the millennium-and-a-half catholic tradition of sacramental efficacy.

There is a third way, but it involves a magic that is no longer quite magic, the magic of names.  Alongside the post-Reformation disruption of ritual was what Margreta de Grazia described as a “secularization of language.”   Although the seventeenth-century continued to speak of the creation as the “book of Nature,” people of that period believed that the Lord had written Nature with mathematics.  Earlier writers said the God who created Nature also created language, and therefore words had an inherent connection to their referents.  At least for Adam, naming the animals was more than affixing labels.  Through names, Adam exercised control over the embodied words created by God’s Word.  Through words, Adam helped to form the nature of the thing named; that funny critter called “elephant” actually became an “elephant.”  Elizabethan magus John Dee (perhaps the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero) hoped to find a language that would “stir up” creatures “when they hear the words wherewithal they are nursed and brought forth.”

When the church’s ritual magic is reconceived along these linguistic lines, many of the post-Reformation problematics evaporate.  Baptism performs the magic of assigning a name, the name of Jesus Christ, to the baptized, and so makes him a new man.  The Supper performs the magic of bringing diverse people to a common table, to share in the bread that is called Body and the wine that is called Blood, so that they can share the name of Jesus.  The Supper performed the magic of making many members into one body.

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