Experiencing the supernatural in sixteenth-century Brabant : construction and reduction of the exceptional in everyday life
Faculty of Arts. History
Journal of social history. - Berkeley, Calif.
, p. 525-548
University of Antwerp
For over 40 years historians have intensely debated the precise contents and definitions of concepts such as magic, religion and the supernatural. Nevertheless, defining these concepts and their mutual relationship remains a thorny undertaking. Analytical approaches pursuing transhistorical and multicultural definitions, in potentially overlooking the complexity and evolution of historical reality, face the risk of becoming anachronistic. Searches for historical definitions, on the other hand, are hampered by the elastic and ascribed content of these categories, as well as by the fact that these categories customarily reflect the polemical ideas of authorities rather than the opinions of the masses. This article seeks to infiltrate into the identification of the supernatural by laypeople in the early modern period via scrutiny of the specific context of witchcraft accusations in four cities and their rural surroundings in the duchy of Brabant, situated in the low countries. Through a study based predominantly on witness reports in local witch trials, this article will suggest that a combination of several contextual elements predisposed certain experiences to be identified or constructed as supernatural. As a result of this construction process, these experiences were reduced to fit stereotypical models, thereby filtering out atypical elements so as to end with an account that featured familiar and commonly expected traits. The article suggests that these processes of construction and reduction can serve as a useful and effective analytical tool for unearthing everyday experiences of the supernatural. This analytical tool, in encompassing stereotypes and broad characteristics as well as case-specific particularities, avoids detracting from history's complex reality.