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The Devil's Art

Divination and Discipline in Early Modern Germany
Jason Philip Coy

BUY Cloth · 192 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813944074 · $35.00 · Jun 2020
BUY Ebook · 192 pp. · ISBN 9780813944081 · $35.00 · Jun 2020

In early modern Germany, soothsayers known as wise women and men roamed the countryside. Fixtures of village life, they identified thieves and witches, read palms, and cast horoscopes. German villagers regularly consulted these fortune-tellers and practiced divination in their everyday lives. Jason Phillip Coy brings their enchanted world to life by examining theological discourse alongside archival records of prosecution for popular divination in Thuringia, a diverse region in central Germany divided into a patchwork of princely territories, imperial cities, small towns, and rural villages. Popular divination faced centuries of elite condemnation, as the Lutheran clergy attempted to suppress these practices in the wake of the Reformation and learned elites sought to eradicate them during the Enlightenment. As Coy finds, both of these reform efforts failed, and divination remained a prominent feature of rural life in Thuringia until well into the nineteenth century.

The century after 1550 saw intense confessional conflict accompanied by widespread censure and disciplinary measures, with prominent Lutheran theologians and demonologists preaching that divination was a demonic threat to the Christian community and that soothsayers deserved the death penalty. Rulers, however, refused to treat divination as a capital crime, and the populace continued to embrace it alongside official Christianity in troubled times. The Devil’s Art highlights the limits of Reformation-era disciplinary efforts and demonstrates the extent to which reformers’ efforts to inculcate new cultural norms relied upon the support of secular authorities and the acquiescence of parishioners. Negotiation, accommodation, and local resistance blunted official reform efforts and ensured that occult activities persisted and even flourished in Germany into the modern era, surviving Reformation-era preaching and Enlightenment-era ridicule alike.

Studies in Early Modern German History


Divination was a major category of magical activity, both at the elite level but more importantly here at the popular level. Yet popular divination has almost never been studied. This book will fill a major lacuna in scholarship and will be a touchstone for years to come, in magic/witchcraft studies and for the study of early modern popular culture. A major contribution to the topic of European disenchantment.

Michael Bailey, Iowa State University, author of Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe

A revealing, well-researched, and very interesting study of popular divination in early modern Europe.

Joel Harrington, Vanderbilt University, author of Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within

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