"The Superstitious Mind" by Judith Devlin

The Superstitious Mind French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century Judith Devlin

Publication date:
10 Sep 1987
Yale University Press
316 pages: 235 x 165mm
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This intriguing book examines popular religion, traditional medicine, witchcraft, apparitions, demonology, and magic in nineteenth-century rural France. Devlin demonstrates that many of the impulses and mental processes now considered superstitious constituted a wholly reasonable response to the pressures of a harsh and impoverished life. Far from the product of a primitive mentality, many of these beliefs have survived in modern culture and can even illuminate the nature of modern mass politics.

"A dense and fascinating study of weird and wonderful beliefs in nineteenth century rural France."?Elizabeth Grice, Country Life                 

"The book is welcome because it breaks new ground. No one who has read Devlin can rest content with Burke's view of superstition as the religion of feeble minds. Superstition is, quite simple, a belief we do not share. To say that answers no questions; but it raises enough questions for a bushel of books."?Eugen Weber, Times Literary Supplement 

"A handsome and wholesome offering not just to the historian or anthropologist but for anyone with a mind to delve into the cause and effect of superstition."?Marie Hobbins, The Irish Press

"Devlin's study draws on extensive readings of nineteenth-century accounts of belief and practice: folklorists' transcriptions of colorful tales, Catholic clerics' reports on the state of Christianity in French villages, physicians' descriptions of medical practice, and protopsychiatrists' observations on unusual states of mind."?John Markoff, American Journal of Sociology

"An often provocative and always interesting book. It will be useful to historians of popular culture and French rural life, and it is a good read."?Robert S. Gottfried

"Devlin's research is impressive and without doubt she knows France."?Charles Fenyvesi, Smithsonian

"Useful to historians of popular culture and French rural life, and it is a good read, filled with enough anecdotal material to supply several lectures."?Robert S. Gottfried, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 

"[Devlin's] book serves as a useful introduction to those fantastic legends which lingered, for good reason, into the modern world."?Michael Burns, Journal of Social History

"[This book] discusses popular beliefs in rural nineteenth-century France. Religion, witchcraft, demonology, prophecy, magic, and medicine are the major themes, but werewolves, elves, and ghosts make cameo appearances.The book would make a fine reference point for any course in the history of popular culture or popular beliefs."?Patrick J. Harrigan, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Original, lively and erudite. . . . A splendid read and a valuable addition to a fascinating field of study."?James F. McMillan, History: Reviews of New

"Devlin's is one of the most illuminating books I have read for a long time, and one of the most enjoyable. It combines intellectual power and originality of a high order with a literary skill that is almost that of a novelist, for whom every individual is full of surprises and every incident pregnant with emotion. An intriguing and subtle portrait of a twilight zone, as full of weird characters and poses as a canvas of Hieronymus Bosch."?Theodore Zeldin, London Review of Books

"Often provocative and always interesting."?Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

"A highly enjoyable overview of popular culture in nineteenth-century rural France."?Matthew Ramsey, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Judith Devlin brings a genuine sense of wonder to her study of France and the nineteenth-century peasantry."?Joseph F. Byrnes, Religious Studies Review 

"This unusual book can be read in two ways. On one level, it is a highly enjoyable overview of popular culture in nineteenth-century rural France. . . . There is nothing else quite like it in any language, and the book seems destined to appeal to a broad public of scholars, students, and general readers. But this study has a deeper purpose and can be read on a second level. . . . [Devlin] argues that superstitions persist because they perform certain social and psychological functions;  in this respect they are more pragmatic, reasonable, and even sophisticated than historians have generally allowed. . . . Devlin's argument should itself give historians . . . pause for thought."?Matthew Ramsey, Bulletin of Historical Medicine

"Illuminating to students of popular culture."?R. D. Anderson, English Historical Review

"A distinguished contribution. . . . Original, lively and erudite. . . . Dr. Devlin makes the most of her often highly entertaining material and undoubtedly offers many insights into the religious mentalit‚ of the French peasant world. . . . A splendid read and a valuable addition to a fascinating field of study."?James F. McMillan, History: Reviews of New Books

"Intriguing as a study of popular culture, The Superstitious Mind is a colorfully textured work, filled with evidence of the 'superstitious culture' of peasants in France. . . . Devlin's nuanced interpretation of witchcraft and her other assertions merit careful study and further analysis. This is a work that historians of nineteenth-century popular culture should not miss. It, in fact, may be the beginning of a new debate on the meaning of superstition and the definitions of rationality and irrationality in rural life."?Susan P. Conner, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 

"Judith Devlin's book is based on a knowledge of nineteenth-century French peasant culture that would make even Eugen Weber blink. Her conclusions . . . are solidly documented and argued."?Ralph Gibson, European History Quarterly

"This well-documented socio-historical study deserves a place on the shelf near Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, to which it will prove a useful appendix. . . . Judith Devlin's book is a very welcome contribution to the interpretation of folk beliefs, not merely in France but in any Western society."?Jacqueline Simpson, Folklore