An essay on the Reformation

October 3, 2006 at 12:58 am 2 comments

The Reformation had an unprecedented effect upon the religiosity of the western world.  The most common assessment of this revolution is concerned with the religiosity of the middle to upper classes and the religious elite.[1]  This essay seeks to assess the impact of the Reformation upon the religiosity of the masses.  The Reformation can be seen to have had a revolutionary effect upon the ritual practices and conceptualisation of magic amongst the laity.  In order to gain an understanding of this statement, it is necessary to explore the ritual and magical practices, at both an official and lay level, in pre-Reformation religion.  The process of change must also be assessed, in relation to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.  Finally, an assessment of the changes must be undertaken, with particular emphasis of the demonisation of magical practices, which can be seen to have been a direct cause of the witch hunts.  This approach seeks to explore the religiosity of the masses, rather than the social elite.  While this has often been overlooked, its effect upon religious history is deeply profound.   

The function of the pre-Reformation Church was two-fold; it acted to facilitate human interaction with the divine, whilst providing the rites that recognised the important events in the human life cycle and the changes of the seasons: it provided “a cosmic order for existence”.[2]  It is essential when approaching pre-Reformation religion, to understand the significance of ritual behaviour.  Ritual acted as the prime communicator of religiosity in a population that was largely illiterate and theologically ignorant, whilst being highly pious.[3]   

Furthermore, within both official and lay practice, the distinction between magic and religion, the sacred and the profane was significantly blurred if not interconnected.[4]  On an official level, the sacraments offered a vehicle through which the sacred may penetrate the profane via the human senses: Edward Muir notes that the experience of the Eucharist was derived from the priest elevating the host above his head, rather than its ingestion, which occurred infrequently.[5]  Further to this, the festivals and holy days of the Catholic Church, many of which replaced pagan feasts and festivals were characterised by their highly theatrical displays.  Here, the importance lies within   dramatised ritualism, rather than theological understanding.[6]   

The poorly defined distinction between religion and magic resulted in a wide range of sub-Christian ritual practices amongst the laity.  However, it must be noted that these practices were primarily those of the masses, rather than the elite classes.  Lay ritual practice was derived from a concern with the current existence; with acquiring security and protection within this life rather than the afterlife.[7]  This concern was reflected in their ritual practices, which were often derived from the ‘official’ practices of the Church.  For example, a woman who was near full term in pregnancy, would be taken to the Church with a cymbal attached to her body.  The cymbal would be struck three times in imitation of ringing the Church bell three times, after the safe birth of a child, signalling the requirement to say an Ave Maria in thanks.  This is, in large part, an act of sympathetic magic, which is based upon the notion that “like attracts like.”[8]   



This period also saw the proliferation of individuals, particularly old women, who offered cures and charms based upon the sympathetic principle: holy water was used to cure infertility and candles blessed at the Purification of the Virgin were lit to ward off storms.[9]  While these practices were not encouraged by the Church, the individuals and communities that employed them, most certainly considered themselves to be practicing Christians.[10]  In summary, pre-Reformation religion offered the individual a variety of practices that enabled interaction with the divine and control over the unseen and supernatural in their environment.[11]  Further to this, religion can be seen as the prime act of religiosity and communicator of religious knowledge in this period.   

The Reformation and subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation can be seen to be a turning point in ritual practices and the conceptualisation of magic within the lower to middle classes.  The Protestant Reformation attacked both ‘official’ and lay magical and ritual practices.  The Protestant conceptualisation of God as absolute in his sovereignty and wholly ‘Other’, in addition to the Justification of Faith, completely destroyed the basis of the sacraments.  Rituals that were previously conceptualised to have divine authority or assured the individual’s progress towards divinity were reduced or completely disregarded.  The Eucharist, which had previously been considered as the moment in which the divine entered into the profane world, was reduced into a representation of Christ.  Penance, on the other hand was completely disregarded.  Furthermore, the Protestant movement openly attacked magical practices amongst the laity.  This was performed through placing a definite distinction between the divine and humanity: while the divine may enter into the profane world, it would not do so at the will of the individual.[12]  

This questioned the efficacy of religious rituals that had previously been based upon their ability to facilitate divine power in the world.[13]  The Protestants did not only question lay magical practices but outlawed them in some areas.[14]  Thomas Keith notes an Edwardian Injunction of 1547 that forbade the individual to perform such practices as: “casting holy water upon his bed,…bearing about him holy bread or
St John’s Gospel,…ringing of Holy Bells; or blessing with Holy Candle.”[15]

The Protestant Reformation effectively acted as the catalyst for the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  That the Reformation acted as catalyst must be emphasised: the theological and institutional controversies that the Counter Reformation approached had existed within the Church for centuries prior to the Reformation.[16]  In relation to magic and ritual, the reforms of the Counter-Reformation were primarily focused upon the technicalities of ritual practice, in an attempt to create uniformity against Protestant attacks.  This process was largely achieved through the papal commissions of Pius IV, Pius V and Sixtus V.  Pius IV and V produced missals which sought return official and lay practice to that of the Roman liturgy in the 11th century.[17]  Sixtus V produced the ‘Congregation of Rites”, to enforce the official practice of mass and liturgy.  These acts removed from official practices the variety of local saint days and other localised variants of ‘official’ ritual, that had become an essential part of late Medieval Christianity.   

In relation to lay ritual practice, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation had similar goals and effects.  Both sought to eliminate the ritual practices that were considered magical or superstitious, in addition to the localised cults: removing Saints days that had replaced pagan festivals in an attempt to create a ‘uniform’ Christianity.[18]  The Reformation and Counter-Reformation attacked and removed the ritual practices of the laity that were integral to the religiosity of the lower to middle class individual in the late Medieval and early modern period.  This was replaced by, in short, a strong emphasis upon “exhortations to examine the conscious and cultivate moral virtue.”[19]  Replacing the rites and rituals, that acted not only as the prime communicator of religiosity, but also allowed the individual a sense of security and control led to a state of anxiety.[20]   Scribner notes that “the process of desacralisation, deritualising and demystifying daily life” must have had a highly shocking effect upon the psyche of the masses.[21]  Indeed, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation not only changed magical and ritual practices among the laity but radically transformed the conceptualisation of magic.   

The Reformation denied the human ability to interact with the divine and direct divine power.  This resulted in a solidification of the dualistic worldview that is now inherent in Christianity.  Previously, the distinction between the sacred and the profane, magic and religion, was blurred and ambiguous. However, after this period, these concepts became binary opposites.  Steven Ozment notes that “ideas, like energy, are transformed, not destroyed.”[22]  It is inevitable in a dualistic system, if a concept, that was once considered to be an act of right, light, God and man, is denied this place, will become an act of the left, dark, Satan and indeed woman.   Magic, which had once been part of the Christian’s ritual repertoire became, with the advent of Protestantism an act of the witch.[23]  It is significant that the image of the ‘witch’ developed in the first half of the 15th century, in
Switzerland, in conjunction with the reform movement of Ulrich Zwingli.[24] 

The construction of the witch as a woman who is connected to the devil is also reiterated in Catholic thought.  A Catholic contemporary advises: “for those who are most tempted by the devil, be obedient to the Church’s commandments… simple women shouldn’t cure children or other people…nor should you go to those who are dedicated to these cures.”[25]  While there were a number of witch trials prior to the Reformation, it is important to note that they did not assume the ferocity of the witch hunts that occurred from 1590-1750, due to the realignment of magic.   

Evidently, the Reformation had a profound effect upon the religiosity of the masses.  In removing the techniques by which a people acted as religious agents and sought to control their existence, the Reformation disenfranchised the laity of their religiosity.  Furthermore, the way in which the Reformation placed magic as binarily opposed to Christianity has prime historical importance.  It can be seen to have been one of the direct causes of the witch hunts.  However, this conceptual understanding of magic can also be seen to be inherent in the growth of modern magical and occult movement, which draw their attraction out of their opposition to Christianity.[26]  Clearly, the Reformation acted as a revolution in terms of ritual and magical practice, and is of high historical importance. 

[1] This view accepts the Protestant concept of Justification of Faith as revolutionary in that it denies the Church of its sacramental powers, therefore freeing the people from the Church’s hold on them.  Furthermore, this approach assumes a negative assessment of late medieval religion, while accepting that the people wanted the Reformation.  Cameron,  E. 1991. The European Reformation, Clarendon Press,
Oxford.  p. 19.  For the examples of the above assessment of the Reformation see Morris, T.  1998.  Europe and England in the 16th Century, Routledge,
London. p. 23.  Dolan, J. 1965, History of the Reformation, a Conciliatory Assessment of Opposing Views,
Desclee, New York. p. 5.  Furthermore, there exists growing evidence that the people did not want the Reformation.  Shiels, W. 1989, The English Reformation 1530-1570,
Longman, New York. p. 68. 

[2]Scibner, R. 1993, “The Reformation, Popular Magic and The ‘Disenchantment of the World’” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 23. pp. 475-494.  p. 477

[3] Muir, E. 1997, Ritual in Early Modern Europe,
University Press,
Cambridge. p. 186; Monter, W. 1983, Ritual, Myth and Magic in Early Modern Europe, The Harvest
Press, Sussex. p. 6

[4] Thomas, K. 1971, Religion and the Decline of Magic,
University Press,
New York. p. 51; Taylor, L. 2004. “Society and Piety” in ed. R.
Po-Chia Hsia A Companion to The Reformation World, pp. 22-39, Blackwell, U.S.A. p. 24; Scibner. “The Reformation, Popular Magic”. p. 475.   

[5] Muir. Ritual p. 155.  Also see Cameron.  The European Reformation.  p. 12.

[6] Muir. Ritual p. 163. 

[7] Cameron. European Reformation p.

[8] Greenwood, S. 2001, The Encyclopaedia of Magic and Witchcraft, Lorenz,
London. p. 106.

[9] Muir Ritual p. 156

[10] Indeed, our knowledge of the practices of the laity comes through the records of disapproving priests. Sharpe, J.  2004.  “Magic and Witchcraft” in ed. R. Po-Chia Hsia A Companion to The Reformation World, pp. 440-458, Blackwell, U.S.A. p. 442

[11] It is important to remember that this period had very little scientific or medical knowledge.  Thus, many events, such as fertility, birth and the weather were seen to be supernatural in basis. 

[12] Scribner “The Reformation and Popular Magic”. p. 484. 

[13] Scribner.  “The Reformation and Popular Magic”. p. 473. 

[14] Ozment, S. 1980. The Age of Reform, An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe,
Press, U.S.A. p. 435.

[15] Thomas. Decline of Magic. p. 53. 

[16] Mullett, M. 1984. The Counter Reformation and the Catholic Reformation,
Methuen, New York. p. 3

[17] Muir p. 179.  Additionally, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) also sought to address discrepancies in lay ritual practice. 

[18] Cameron, E. p.421. 

[19] Cameron, p. 421

[20] Ozment. The Age of Reform, An Intellectual and Religious History. p. 436. 

[21] Scribner, R. 1994. “Comparative Overview” in ed. R. Scribner, R. Porter &  M. Teich, The Reformation in National Context pp. 215-227.
University Press,
Cambridge.  p. 221. 

[22] Ozment. The Age of Reform, An Intellectual and Religious History  p. 436.

[23] It must be noted that superstitious and magical practices did persist amongst the laity.  However, this is largely a long term development, in which these practices ‘reappeared’ late in the 17th century.  See Mentzer, R. 1996. “The Persistence of Supersitiion and Idoltry among Rural French Calvinists” Church History 65 pp. 220-233.

[24] Sharpe. “Magic and Witchcraft”. p. 442

[25] Castanega, M. (1529) 2001. “Tratado muy sotil y bien fundado” in ed. Alan Charles Kors & Edward Peters Witchcraft in
Europe 400-1700, A Documentary History,
pp. 273-280. 
University of
Pennsylvania Press,
Philadelphia. pp. 279-280. 

[26] This is not to say that the modern occult and magical movements seek to perform Satanic acts.  Rather, it is widely acknowledged that many adherents of these movements convert to occultism due to‘disenchantment’ with Christianity.  The Reformation resulted in ‘the disenchantment of the world’ by which the divine is binarily opposed to the mundane.  While this occurred largely through an attempt to unify Christianity, in forbidding occult and magical practices, the Reformation ensured the growth of magical and occult movements: – magical practices are seen to be inherent in human society. 


Entry filed under: History of Christianity, Reformation - Effect on lay religiosity, Reformation - Social Effects, Reformation and magic, The Reformation, Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. danharms  |  October 4, 2006 at 2:27 am

    Good job!

    I’d probably have added the material on the clerical underground from Kieckhefer’s MAGIC IN THE MIDDLE AGES. Also, the one point I disagree with is the reconceptualization of magic leading to the witch-hunts. What made that happen, IMO, was the reconceptualization of the witch based on the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM’s debunking of the “witchcraft as delusion” passage attributed to the Canon Episcopi. Otherwise, it’s likely that the reformers would have swept aside witch beliefs with everything else.

  • 2. Natalie Rae  |  October 4, 2006 at 4:46 am

    Hmm…I’m sure that you have a point, but I still think the reformation’s effect on the conceptualisation of magic is a contributing factor to the latter witch hunts.


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