Exploring the supernatural in early modern Scotland
in The supernatural in early modern Scotland
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This introductory chapter surveys existing scholarship on the supernatural and clarifies the book’s field of enquiry. We use the term ‘supernatural’ to refer to events or beings that transcend the natural order. This includes orthodox elements of Protestantism, as explored in chapters on providence and the supernatural in sermons. Then there were beliefs that almost all educated folk would have rejected as superstitious, such as pagan gods or ghostly spirit-guides. In between these were borderline cases, including astrology and prophecy. The chapter discusses how early modern people formulated the boundaries between natural and supernatural. It also reflects on the problems historians encounter when setting out to write about early modern beliefs.

Thereafter, the chapter outlines the book’s central themes. It explores how early modern Scots formed concepts of the supernatural, looking first at the influence of literary works, before considering the emotional and cognitive dimensions of reported supernatural encounters. It discusses areas of overlap and divergence between popular and elite ways of envisaging the supernatural world and highlights the importance of binary classifications such as orthodox/unorthodox, good/evil and superstitious/demonic. Lastly, it reflects on how understandings of the supernatural changed over the course of the early modern period, with particular reference to Max Weber’s controversial theory of disenchantment.

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