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The power of identifying superstition

Freitag, 10. Juni
09:15 bis 10:45 Uhr
Raum 3017

The concept of “superstition” has fluid boundaries and has been given several definitions: “reverent”, “vain” or “irrational awe”, “excessive religion”, “improper worship of the Creator or worship of the creature”, “belief in a causal relationship between unrelated events”. The accents of these definitions show not only that the yardstick by which superstition has been measured has varied, but also that several authorities have claimed the power of identifying it. Indeed, theologians, priests, ministers, doctors, philosophers, and jurists have evaluated the beliefs of their (close or distant) contemporaries or forefathers in order to detect in them this threat to faith, religion, science or reason. These various authorities to which society acknowledges the power of defining superstition lie at the heart of this panel. We will try to understand how this power has been legitimised, which forms it has taken and in which circumstances it has been mobilized.

The way in which each competing authority claims this power for itself can for example be seen in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants over numerous beliefs and practices of the “old faith”. Do other conflicts show similar confrontations of authorities on the issue? Is the power of defining and condemning superstition legitimised by resorting to an institution, a text, a tradition, knowledge or reason? Which kind of power relationships do identification and denunciation of superstition reveal?

The question of whether the mobilization or the (re)definition of superstition happens in specific contexts may also be addressed. Is this notion more regularly put forward when the dogma is to be reaffirmed, a new political power or reforms to be established, or habits or religion to be “purified”? Do the incriminated individuals belong to the community defining superstition (the common people, the countrymen, the heretics) or are they superstitious “on the outside” (“the savages”, adepts of other religions)? Is the accusation of superstition articulated with other strategies of stigmatization?

Finally, several discourses tend to see in superstition a typically feminine mood. This appears in expressions such as “old wives’ tale” or “remèdes de bonne femme” (in which – significantly – “bonne femme” replaces a previous “bonne fame”, good reputation). Should the power of identifying superstition therefore be seen as a form of male domination?

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Tagungsorganisation: Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Historische Institute der Universität Lausanne | Kontakt