Michael D. Bailey

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20032004 Forum on Belief

Michael D. Bailey

History (Medieval)


The concept of superstition has always been a key component in debates about the nature and meaning of belief in human cultures. Religious, philosophical, and scientific authorities have condemned as superstitious those beliefs that have challenged, opposed, or simply not conformed to their doctrines. Such a characterization carries with it a simultaneous connotation of power and illegitimacy, importance and irrationality. Hence, in most contexts, the concept remained ambiguous. Over time, the notion of what exactly counts as superstition has shifted.

Dr. Bailey explores this process of defining superstition, the concerns driving this process, and the underlying cultural conditions that informed these concerns. He takes as his case study Western Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, a period literally plagued by the plague, famine, war, and religious schism. Given this historical context, it is by no means surprising that a crisis of belief and widespread superstition emerged. Those concerned were largely clerical authorities who directed their efforts to the common, or “illiterate,” classes. As a result, the former produced a number of treatises "de superstitionibus" to explain the current perceived surge in superstition.

Focusing on these texts, Dr. Bailey's work sheds new light on late-medieval religious beliefs among the clerical elite and other classes of medieval society. He will also investigate how concepts of superstition may have fed into the later phenomenon of witch-hunting and contributed to other, even more long-term developments in basic western structures of belief.