This is an area I've always found fascinating and this probably links into the other post on interpreting Houdin's old maxim but, I think warrants its own thread.
What I'm interested in is conditions, throughout the ages, where the illusions created by a magician are perceived as genuinely supernatural feats. We could probably go back as far as our collective knowledge permits but there are a couple of eras I think are particularly interesting.
In biblical times, there's talk of false prophets and when Moses turns his staff into a snake, the Pharoah's wise men are able to duplicate this feat, albeit suggested in an inferior way to Moses. This, to the onlookers cast doubt on divine intervention and moreover suggested that the select accepted the idea of trickery/illusion by casting Moses' alleged miracle in the same light. It's obviously difficult to treat the Bible as a rigidly historical document but this and other passages suggest that, whilst there may have been an emergent belief in miracles, there was also an understanding of trickery.
Some books also refer to the roman and egyptian 'street magicians' performing something akin to cup and ball with pebbles and this also does not appear to have been interpreted as a miracle. Appreciate that the lines blur thougn and that impossible things are reported throughout the ages.
Here we get to the bit that most fascinates me though - European witchcraft of the late 16th/early 17th century. (teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here but) Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 is famously the first English text on witchcraft but this is interestingly slotted into a book 'exposing' every type of superstition.
Scot's surrounding text appears to be abit of an unveiled and mildly comical rant against catholicism, comparing the more ritualistic elements of the latter to what he's trying to expose as ineffectual and often quite silly folk superstitions. His introduction to his section on 'juggling' contains an apology along the lines that he's sorry to spoil these tricks as they're generally quite entertaing, but felt it a good idea given the general theme of the book, so that others might not be maliciously taken in by them. (forgive this, perhaps subjective, paraphrasing)
Now this is where it's open to interpretation because we know that the reason so few complete copies of Discoverie are thought to exist is that James 1st ordered them to be destroyed because they contradicted his book, Daemonologie, which was published in 1597 (I believe while he was King of Scotland?)
Now, my question is was there a general belief in magic, both wrought by 'jugglers' of the time and generally in witchcraft? A belief in witchcraft doesn't initially seem to be in historical dispute given the numerous deaths in this cause. However, I'm gradually coming to a different interpretation, albeit partially formed.
James 1st was obviously catholic, so he would have naturally found Scot's surrounding text offensive. He was also a champion of the kind of occult hysteria that had spread thtough Europe after the publication of Sprenger and Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 - and Daemonology was his own effective re-writing of this book to justify the punishment of witches under his regime.
Natually a book by someone of an opposing - and insulting - religious view wasn't going to be among his favourites.
Where it gets interesting though is if we take his publication with a pinch of salt and imagine that he may have had other motives behind his own book and the surpression of Scot's. It's significant that he also translated the Bible into English (containing the understood-to-be-mistranslated passage, 'thou shallt not suffer a witch to live') and whilst it may be uncharitable to imagine he had any reason other than making religion accessable to his subjects, it firmly associates his name with that of God, even today, as the King James Bible.
So we can perhaps imagine that, like other monarchs, another motive was to assert his divine right as king, which was probably all the more important to him after the reformation and subsequent revival under Elizabeth. My thinking is though, putting myself in the shoes of the average peasant (which is easily done, believe me!), your common man was so far removed from kings and queens in their everyday lives that they were probably indifferent to the subtleties of the different religions and rights. It was more a drudge for survival.
Sermons were in latin and your average man couldn't read these books or any others. I think James was probably aware of this indifference and aware that these weren't the countrymen who would fight for his cause if necessary. Moreover, although it's difficult to determine whether James himself believed his own PR, he would probably have sensed that general support was, at best, not keen.
The folk superstitions that still prevail in some forms today were, I think, innocently adhered to in the same way that they are today - more for nostalgia than anything else. But this in itself was probably a sign that people were not concerned for the more weighty doctrines he had to preach and so, you're average disaffected peasant became a target of perceived 'heresy'.
I think (And this is just a supposition) that far from a general belief in the supernatural, your average man had more material concerns. The language is interesting - that previously a magician was called a 'juggler', which is actually a far more accurate description of what we physically do (and this ties in with Houdin), whereas now we go for the more ambiguous 'magician' (perhaps because there is no longer a perceived supernatural alternative).
So, going back to Mr average, I think he knew that a jugglers tricks were just that and I think James himself knew this and, unable to tie them to the same heretical conspiracies as his other 'witches', accused them of deception, being against the general principles of the bible.
If we go back to actual belief: before the disillusioned Victorians romantically revived and formalised arcane belief systems, there wasn't a rigid belief system behind witchcraft. The church defined it as the evocation of lesser demons, like incubus and sucubus, at the bidding of the devil - which ironically requires a belief in both the devil and god. But the point is that none of this was written down. The alleged practitioners had nothing other than old bits of custom and perhaps the odd folk remedy and charm - and if you look at the actual stuff 'exposed' in discoverie, it's from all over the place - probably for want of sensationalism.
Cornelius Agrippa had written his books on Occult Philosophy, which James also lambasts but, realistically, with their latin blend of magic, philsophy and science, I think this was probably the equivalent of a brief history of time - a shelf ornament that few people actually read or understood.
I think Scot's text is best read as a 'tongue in cheek expose' written to amuse and entertain those who could read and my conclusion from this is that your average man didn't hold any particular views on the occult and didn't hold a literal belief in magic - despite the support of witch trials. Arthur Miller seems to have it right on writing the crucible as an allegory on McCarthyism.
The interesting point is the presentation of magic - why the wand and other seemingly occultish paraphernalia? I think the answer to this is that magic was referencing popular culture in the same way as, for example, plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe and books by Scot and the King.
And it's always sought a 'fringe explanation' - from the pseudo science of 19th century 'professors' to the last unexplored fringes of the mind of this generation's 'psychological illusionsts.'
Obviously, there are figures that cross over - sometimes literally - like in the rise of spiritualism. I find it very interesting that today's spiritualists don't submit themselves to the 'tests' of yesteryear, with incarceration and bodily manifestations - it would make for an entertaining show and I wonder if this shows that we're less credulous these days or whether it's just easier and less risky to cold read to the converted.
It's interesting to be in the audience of somebody like Derren Brown and listen to the remarks from people who take his presentation literally - and to experience this yourself if you ever use patter about using body language etc. I think there is a nostalgic desire to believe that perseveres throughout the ages, resurfacing at times when material concerns would otherwise dominate. Why is this and what do we think about a belief in magic now, or at any time?
Finally, a vaguely relevant anecdote. The president of my local club is a benedictine monk and I was chatting to him about this same thing a while ago and was naturally steered towards the doctrine of trans-substantiation. He interestingly said that he personally reads it as a metaphor but that in his youth, it was literally held to be the physical manifestation blood and body of christ. It's always difficult to judge what other people are actually thinking - particularly in matters of religion - but can there have been such a shift in received belief? I suppose that religion itself is at least suspension of disbelief or at most faith in the face of contradiction (and I mean this positively). It is controversial but what do we think about the connection between religion and other supernatural belief systems? Is there an evolution in belief in the same way as science etc? - Are more particular beliefs outmoded in favour of more universal ones? Is there a profile to believers? Can skeptics be converted?
I'd love to hear what you think!