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Council of Malines (1607) put it: 'to expect any effect from anything, when such an effect cannot be produced by natural causes, by divine institution, or by the ordination or approval of the Church'.11 In this sense, the word 'superstition' became a general term for all actions and beliefs that were considered contrary to God's will, as expressed by his church. In everyday idiom, however, superstition could have a variety of meanings, depending on the period under consideration and the relations between the different religious communities involved.

All the Reformers devoted a large and intellectually essential part of their work to the fight against superstition, although in actual practice ministers could take rather different attitudes towards the 'relics of paganism', as they often called it. The notion of superstition, of medieval origin, entailed a variety of beliefs and practices considered as pagan or illicit for the true believer, and viewed as sources of unruliness within a well-ordered church community. Yet, in the confessional conflicts of the post-Reformation period, superstition became a label denoting not so much a specific level of religious culture (less valued than official religious creed and practice), than a different or alternative, or at any rate an excessive form of religious culture. In fact, Protestant church authorities widely employed the term 'superstition' in two different ways. First, they used it to denounce all those forms of mass religious practice which did not fit into a well-ordered church community of their own conception. Second, and more broadly, they used it to denounce whole competing religious communions, especially Roman Catholicism, including the higher, well-ordered forms of Catholicism which were, in fact, rather close to their Protestant equivalents.

The intellectual rejection of magic and superstition - and also of a whole range of Christian beliefs and practices which were more or less equated with magic and superstition by Protestant theologians and ecclesiastical leaders -must not blind us to what happened in real life. In fact, the early modern world-view, whether Catholic or Protestant, was fundamentally theocentric. In their daily lives, people were prone to accept interventions from outside the natural world as real events, charged with meaning. The extraordinary, the marvellous, the miraculous, or any other event that was perceived as unnatural - these were readily interpreted as tokens, signs of some other reality, in the common understanding of the world, although specific forms and meanings evolved throughout the centuries, and although the symbolic meaning of the supernatural was more compelling than that of the preternatural. In this respect, Protestants did not really differ from Catholics - at least not until Enlightened thought changed the stakes in the eighteenth century.

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