Saturday, March 12, 2016

Lynn Thorndike On Magic, Witchcraft, Astrology And Alchemy In The Middle Ages

I'm talking about Chapter XXII of vol VIII, The Close of the Middle Ages, of the Cambridge Medieval History, 1st ed, 1934, pp 660-687, and also the chapter's bibliography, pp 970-981.

Almost everyone, almost all of the time whenever they write or speak, is more concerned with pursuing an agenda than in searching for and communicating the objective truth about something.

Some innocent people will be horrified by that assertion, and wonder how I became so cynical that I could believe, incorrectly, that almost everyone behaves that way all the time. And some cynical people will smile, ask me how old I am and how long it took me to arrive at such a basic fact of human life, except that it's not quite a fact, because I inaccurately said "almost."

To those innocent people I can only apologize for horrifying them. (They'll say, "I don't behave that way!" and I know that they don't believe that they do.) To those cynical people I present, as Exhibit A, this marvelous chapter in the CMH by the late Prof Thorndike.

Christians, with conviction or without, innocently or cynically, generally twist Medieval history into a more pleasing form, and atheists generally do the opposite, and New Atheists are particularly bad offenders in this regard, tending to be of the opinion that it's not necessary for them to actually study Medieval history (or any other field of history) before distorting it to fit their official position that religion (which to them is pretty much synonymous with Christianity) poisons everything and that Christians are stupid and destructive and atheists are bright and wonderful beacons of true morality.

But even actual historians come with agendas other than the reporting of history. In the field of Medieval history, I'm not giving away a secret here, the tendency toward Catholic apologetics is particularly widespread. (In some cases the tendency is very strong. For example, in Chapter II, "John Hus," of this same vol VIII of the CMH, Professor Kamil Krofta himself seems like a Medieval monk, although a Hussite one rather than a Catholic.) The reader of works about Medieval history generally comes to expect that he or she will have to adjust for apologetic bias most of the time, insofar as he or she is not also an apologist who reads such things primarily in order to have his or her bias confirmed. The tendency for atheist Medieval historians to overcompensate for the prevailing apologetic atmosphere of their field has of course been exaggerated by the apologists ever since their earliest denunciations of Gibbon, and vice versa, back and forth and on and on. It's all very imperfect and human, and very much the same as in every other field of human endeavor.

But every now and then there is someone whose agenda is actually to write and speak as accurately as possible, and let whose ox be gored which will. Such as Thordike's chapter here: sentence after sentence crammed with actual facts, including both the sorts of details unflattering to the political and intellectual leaders of Medieval Europe which are routinely left out by the apologists and the flattering ones neglected by the atheists. I mean it as a high compliment when I say that it's impossible to guess from this chapter what Thorndike's own religious beliefs or symapthies might have been. Almost always in writing about Medieval, Catholic Europe, some of the author's beliefs or sympathies lay themselves quite bare. Here, whatever Thorndike's beliefs and sympathies may have been, they haven't interfered with his relating the facts: these leading figures in the theology and philosophy and science of the Middle Ages in Catholic Europe said and did and wrote this and this and this about magic, witchcraft, astrology and alchemy, and the authorities allowed or praised expressions of these points of view and punished those. The bibliography for this 28-page chapter is huge: 12 pages, in type much smaller than the chapter's type. There might actually be more words in the bibliography than in the chapter itself. Yet another reason to believe than Thorndike is relating what went on rather than embellishing or spinning it. But of course, if you don't trust Thorndike -- he's given you quite a lot of sources which you can check.

My readers may be beginning to grow impatient with me, saying that I haven't actually described this supposedly wonderful Chapter XXII, nor given any examples of its supposedly wonderful content. And they're right, I haven't, or almost haven't. But that's okay, because when I feel this way about a piece of writing, all that I have to say about it boils down to 2 words: read this!

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