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Religion, Magic And Popular Culture Notes

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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 Have historians of popular belief been too concerned with functionalist models of explanation?
In order to address the question adequately it is first important to define ambiguous terms. This essay shall treat "popular belief" in the wider sense, so as to encompass religious thought, belief in witchcraft and magic, and more secular societal moods such as working class opposition to the bourgeoisie. Such a definition corresponds to Geertz' more rigorous idea of religion: Religion is a system of symbols, which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic1. Functionalism, too, requires attention. Broadly speaking, the functionalist model of explanation perceives social actions and structures as being useful, as having a purpose that is needed by the society, regardless of whether the society realises its actions' functions. Different brands see different needs, Malinowski focusing more on the requirements of individuals being fulfilled, whilst Emile Durkheim explained group actions in terms of group preservation. Both of these anthropologists had so large an impact on historical thought that it is impossible to ignore their influence entirely, and thus it is hardly surprising that a number of works on popular beliefs exhibit their ideas to an extent. However, this is not to say that functionalism is the only anthropological influence on the history of popular belief. It is also possible to explain beliefs causally, i.e. to chart the historical events leading to a culture maintaining devotion to an idea. In addition to causality, the discipline of structuralism, as championed by Claude Lévi Strauss, has been taken into account by a number of historians of religion. His work investigates the underlying meaning of mythology as binary oppositions, uncovering expressions of basic human thought. The final definition needed, then, is "too". This essay aims to explore whether the influence functionalism has had on the history of popular belief is larger than its utility warrants, eclipsing the value of the other two anthropological models and being used without critical appreciation of its limitations. European medieval belief in witchcraft and magic has been one of the areas of history most affected by anthropological ideas, perhaps because the persecution, interrogation and execution of hundreds of people for a reasons modern society no longer gives any credit to seems a baffling blight in Christian history. Speaking very broadly, the people of Europe believed that one could make a pact with Satan and become invested with the powers to curse individuals one disliked, leading to illness or misfortune (maleficia). Thus when a malady occurred shortly after an argument or disagreement with a neighbour, a peasant would understandably assume his neighbour had employed diabolic powers against him, and might go to priests or cunning folk for healing, or to the courts for the persecution and execution of the 'witch' to break the curse. The functionalist explanations of such belief in witchcraft can be split into three basic groups, which are not necessarily opposed to one another. Keith Thomas defines these groups as the basic, the apparent and the radical2. The 'basic' function is that 1 2

The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz, p90 Witchcraft: Confessions and Accusations, Ed M. Banton, K Thomas p66-7


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