Sunday, February 6, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 8

If you pick up a scholarly monograph that deals with the development of early modern witchcraft theory, you will most likely find a section titled something like ‘The Scholastic Origins’. And if you start to read that section, it will most likely begin by saying something like this: ‘Early modern witchcraft theorists derived many of their ideas from medieval scholastic writers, the most important of which is Thomas Aquinas’, and then the section will proceed to discuss of some of the ideas that Aquinas had about angels and demons.

Now, sometimes you find discussions of earlier scholastic writers, but nobody discusses scholastic writers who lived after Aquinas, and virtually everybody makes the assertion that Aquinas is the most important scholastic voice.

Well, as a historian of medieval thought, that gives me pause. For one thing, Aquinas lived in the middle of the 13th century, and witchcraft theory developed in the 15th century. So what happened in the 14th century? Why are we skipping a whole century here?

But I also wonder why all these historians think Aquinas is the most important voice. One would expect the historians of witchcraft theory to offer some sort of justification for this claim. But alas, you don’t find anything of the sort. In monograph after monograph, what you see is the mere assertion that Aquinas is the most important scholastic voice. Why is that?

Part of the problem, of course, derives from the fact that historians of witchcraft are not specialists in medieval scholasticism. That’s perfectly understandable. Historians are a variegated bunch: we all have our own specializations, and we can’t be experts in everything. So when witchcraft historians are researching their books, they have to go to the library, find the best scholarship on medieval scholasticism, and then rely on that.

Now, that would be a rather trivial point, if it weren’t for the fact that there is a problem with the scholarship on medieval scholasticism. All the best studies on scholasticism that we have today grew out of a movement that is often referred to as ‘neo-thomism’. (To call the whole movement ‘neo-thomist’ is actually a vast oversimplification, but for the lack of a better label, please allow it of me here for the sake of brevity and simplicity.)

Neo-thomism got a huge blast of wind in its sails back in 1879, when the head of the Catholic church at the time, pope Leo XIII, issued a papal bull which encouraged Catholic educational institutions and scholars to begin researching and teaching Thomas Aquinas fervently. As a consequence, a body of research on medieval thought, and especially on Thomas Aquinas, began to amass.

Much of this neo-thomist research, however, tells a very particular story about medieval scholasticism. According to the neo-thomists (not surprisingly), Thomas Aquinas is the high point, the crowning achievement, of the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, this body of literature was propogated rather successfully, so any non-specialist who goes to the library to look for good scholarship on scholasticism --- someone like a historian of witchcraft, for example --- is going to find these neo-thomist studies. And then they’re going to repeat the neo-thomist story. And why shouldn’t they? They don’t know any better.

The problem is, the neo-thomist story is just plain false, or at least it is highly misleading. As far as I can tell, Aquinas is of secondary importance for medieval scholasticism. For example, if you read 14th century writers (especially Franciscans, not suprisingly), you find that Aquinas is often treated as the whipping boy: he was the George Bush of his day, so to speak; someone who was easy to make fun of.

So when we attempt to trace the development of witchcraft theory back to its scholastic roots, we need to be very cautious about assuming that Thomas Aquinas must be the ‘most important’ voice. Aquinas may have had some important things to say in the 13th century, but there were other voices, and besides, as I’ve already pointed out, witchcraft theory does not develop until the 15th century, and we can’t just skip a century.

If we want to get a clear picture of how witchcraft theory actually developed, we need to take a fresh look at its scholastic roots, and in particular, we need to look at what happened in the 14th century. That’s the real story that needs to be told.

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