We are very pleased to announce that our Routledge History October Author of the Month is Michael D. Bailey, the author of Magic: The Basics. What relevance does magic have today? Why should students be interested in studying the history of magic? Read our exclusive interview with Michael below to find out!
Michael D. Bailey is a professor of history at Iowa State University. His research focuses mainly on the history of magic, witchcraft, and superstition in Europe during the later Middle Ages, especially the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. He has published several books on these topics, including Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (2003) and Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (2013), as well as a broader survey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (2007). He also founded and now helps to edit the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, which is global in its focus, and he recently edited the globe-spanning collection Magic and Witchcraft for Routledge’s series “Critical Concepts in Historical Studies” (2014). He is currently working on a history of false religion in medieval Europe.
Magic is practiced around the world, and it is still taken very seriously, either as a resource or a threat, by people in many different societies. Even in the supposedly “disenchanted” societies of modern Western Europe and North America, a majority of people still profess to believe in some form of magic, or at least in some form of paranormal activity that could be associated with magic, such as belief in demons or other powerful spirits, or mysterious forces in nature such as operate in astrology or alchemy. Modern Witchcraft has been recognized as a religion in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, while in some other parts of the world people identified as witches can still be threatened with violence, legal punishment, or even death. The modern assumption that magic would vanish as science, technology, and education advanced has turned out to be far from true. Even if readers do not believe in magic themselves, they should still want to understand the power it has had throughout history and into the present day.
One of my teachers, Richard Kieckhefer, has described magic as a “crossroads” where different areas of historical and cultural studies meet, and this is very true. Studying magic can involve examining the rarefied rituals of intellectual elites or the everyday practices of ordinary people. It can mean reading through dense theological treatises, terse court records, or sophisticated literary texts. It was that enormous range that initially fascinated me, and it has kept me interested ever since. Whenever I get tired of one approach to magic, I can look at it from another angle. I also wanted to understand how people in the past, specifically medieval Europe in my case, could have taken so seriously a set of beliefs and practices that I was conditioned to think of as inherently unreal. I soon became fascinated by the internal coherence that systems of magic can have, or that they can have imposed on them, and the cultural power that these ideas then have in so many different contexts.
Precisely because the topic of magic is so broad and yet also so mysterious and difficult to define with perfect precision, most studies focus on very specific contexts. Even broad surveys will address, for example, magic in the ancient world, in medieval Europe, or during the early modern witch-hunts. Also historical studies, which tend to focus on medieval or early modern Europe, often ignore anthropological studies that most often focus on Africa, Asia, or Latin America, and vice versa. In this relatively short book, I have tried to break down all those barriers. In order to identify and explain certain very basic issues in the study of magic, I have interwoven examples and evidence from around the world and throughout history. The field of magical studies is growing rapidly and is becoming more interconnected all the time, but still very few introductory texts have been quite as expansive as I have tried to be here.
Magic has been a fundamental component of every human culture that we know of throughout history. There is no way that one can fully understand any period in the past without understanding something about how it viewed and reacted to what we would now label as magical beliefs and practices. This remains true for understanding modern societies as well. Even if they are characterized by a high degree of “disenchantment,” they are never completely devoid of magic. Moreover, precisely because the acceptance or rejection of magical beliefs and practices has so often been intimately connected to labelling a given society or group of people as “modern,” “advanced,” “scientific,” or not, it is very important to understand how both belief and scepticism about magic have changed over time.
A brief but very broadly conceived introduction to the most fundamental issues in the study of magic.
Magic: The Basics is a concise and engaging introduction to magic in world history and contemporary societies. Presenting magic as a global phenomenon which has manifested in all human cultures, this book takes a thematic approach which explores the historical, social, and cultural aspects of magic…
Paperback – 2017-08-01