This 'Christianizing offensive' was a form of acculturation, conceived to transform 'pagan' peasants and townspeople into truly Christian believers, and ultimately to make the religion of the clerics the religion of the whole community. It found a marvellous and ready instrument in the visitation practice that had existed since the later Middle Ages but that had never been properly used for this target. Over the course of two centuries, Roman Catholic bishops everywhere in Europe organized on a regular, sometimes even annual basis the systematic visitation of all the parishes within their dioceses. An ever more precise and elaborate questionnaire attempted to identify the vices of the flock and permitted the bishop to follow the pastoral efforts of the parish priests and their achievements in eradicating unruly practices.23 The many surviving copies of these questionnaires provide an illuminating view of the rich varieties of popular religion. However, they also reveal something of the Catholic Reformation paradox: while the clergy undoubtedly succeeded in eliminating many of the most blatant 'abuses' (as they were commonly called) through different forms of acculturation to the standards of the ecclesiastical elite, many other customs went underground and escaped ecclesiastical control. They surfaced again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as simple forms of local folklore, pertaining to the broad domain of everyday religion, but without much ecclesiastical impact.24 Moreover, parish priests often played a mediating role between the demands of the ecclesiastical elite, on the one hand, and the faithful entrusted to their moral and spiritual care, on the other. Many priests tended to listen to both sides and to invest new forms with old meanings, or vice versa. Loyalty to their flocks often took precedence over obedience to higher authorities.

The fight against superstition was also one of the major objectives of the Protestant Reformation. Even after the effective repression of'papist superstitions' by the coalition of public and religious authorities, the denunciation of such practices remained a favourite pastime of zealous ministers, whether they were Reformed, Puritan, Arminian, Lutheran, or Anabaptist - not to mention the various new communities in the Anglo-Saxon world, such as Quakers and Methodists. By denouncing the adversary, often through the use of fictitious epithets such as 'the Jesuits' (in many cases a general term of invective, with much the same meaning as 'Antichrist'), they delimited their territory. They confirmed their own religious, moral, and public order, and effectively affirmed their identity. Not to be outdone, and faced with this Protestant offensive, the Catholic Church developed its own cultural identity, either by rejecting superstitions, or by using them to its advantage by transforming practices of an apparent magical nature into purified and church-bound identity rituals.25

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