Willem Frijhoff

Approaches to popular religion

In historical discourse, the term 'popular religion' has long had widely differing meanings depending upon the social group, the place, the time, and even the religious context for which it is used. One of the leading contemporary historians of popular culture, Michel Vovelle - closely linked to the celebrated Annales school of French historiography - has usefully distinguished between four approaches to this subject taken by historians in the twentieth century.1 The first approach considers popular religion as a sort of'original', primitive religiosity of humankind, which over the centuries repeatedly adapted itself to the current cultural context, but remained fundamentally the same. Popular religion in this view is pre-Christian and even anti-Christian. It continues quietly to live its own life independent from ecclesiastical rules, often as a kind of underground religion, undocumented by official society. The anthropologist Margaret Murray was one of the first to make use of this powerful image in her 1921 book The witch cult in Western Europe. A similar approach has recently been used by certain medieval historians, who postulate the existence throughout the Middle Ages of a substantial, semi-Christianized rural and urban population which continued to embrace older religious concepts and to interpret Christian dogma and liturgy in its own essentially pagan manner.2 The Protestant and Catholic Reformations were, in this view, massive efforts to eradicate the 'pagan' or 'magical' legacy of pre-medieval and medieval society.

A second approachto popular religion isbased on social stratificationtheory. For the early modern period, the best example comes from the work of Robert Mandrou. He distinguishes the religious culture of three different social strata: firstly, elite piety, largely individualized and open to high levels of spiritual creativity (as, for instance, in Baroque mysticism or Jansenist piety); secondly, the institutionalized and ordered religion of the urban classes, increasingly controlled by the clergy and organized in clear institutional structures with

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