CFA: Special Issue of Preternature

Shadows of the Mind: Discourses of Superstition and Nature in the Early Modern World

Special Issue of Preternature

Edited by James A.T. Lancaster and Richard Raiswell

The advent of novel approaches in early modernity to understanding and mastering nature—from natural magic, to natural history, to natural philosophy—motivated discourse about how best to distill true knowledge (vera scientia) from an increasing body of claims about the natural world. The need to develop a language with which to frame this discourse naturally led magicians, alchemists, historians, and philosophers to turn to that facet of society which already possessed the terminology necessary to deal with epistemological deviation; namely, the Christian religion. The adoption of traditionally religious terms such as “idol,” “vanity,” and “superstition” by investigators of nature afforded the opportunity to differentiate claims to true knowledge, at the same time as it facilitated virulent attacks between rival cultures of knowledge. Beyond the merely rhetorical, though, this process of adoption began to shift the established semantic landscape of early modernity. The very act of employing such religious terms within the context of the inquiry into nature infused them with new meanings; meanings which contributed, in turn, to the myriad new ways in which Europeans began to view both themselves and the world around them. Of particular importance was the notion of “superstition” (superstitio). More than many other terms, the meaning of superstition began an extensive transformation from its traditional sense of incorrect beliefs within the sphere of religion to incorrect beliefs within the sphere of nature. Discourses of superstition entered into numerous debates about the study of nature: they contributed to the development of definable relationships between the natural and the preternatural, for instance; helped to map new models of the mind and legitimize the practitioners of new, naturalistic vocations; and underwrote emergent ideas of “progress,” “advancement,” and “enlightenment” in tandem with beliefs about the nature of the (preter)natural.

This special issue of Preternature seeks papers which address shifting conceptualizations of “superstition” as it relates to both the natural and preternatural in the early modern period. Papers should examine the ways in which various discourses of superstition contributed to the emergence of new cultures of natural and preternatural knowledge, thereby helping to shape the early modern world.

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • The various ways in which the study of nature came to be conceived as a remedy for the apparent spread of superstition in the post-Reformation period.
  • How the concept of superstition was altered by emerging definitions of “true” and “false” knowledge with regards to the natural world.
  • How the idea of superstition contributed to the creation of a definable relationship between the natural world and the preternatural.
  • Whether new ways of thinking about nature ultimately led to the trivialization of superstition and superstitions.
  • The use of discourses of superstition in defense of natural magic, demonology, witchcraft, and the occult, etc.
  • The relationship between ideas of “progress,” “advancement,” “enlightenment” and superstition in early modern cultures of knowledge.

Contributions should usually be 8,000 – 12,000 words, including all documentation and critical apparatus. However, exceptions can be made in certain circumstances. If accepted for publication, manuscripts will be required to adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition (style 1, employing footnotes).

Final papers will be due 15 January 2014. Submissions should be made through the journal’s online submission module at:


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