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Defining Nature’s Limits

The Roman Inquisition and the Boundaries of Science

A look at the history of censorship, science, and magic from the Middle Ages to the post-Reformation era.
Neil Tarrant challenges conventional thinking by looking at the longer history of censorship, considering a five-hundred-year continuity of goals and methods stretching from the late eleventh century to well into the sixteenth.
Unlike earlier studies, Defining Nature’s Limits engages the history of both learned and popular magic. Tarrant explains how the church developed a program that sought to codify what was proper belief through confession, inquisition, and punishment and prosecuted what they considered superstition or heresy that stretched beyond the boundaries of religion. These efforts were continued by the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542. Although it was designed primarily to combat Protestantism, from the outset the new institution investigated both practitioners of “illicit” magic and inquiries into natural philosophy, delegitimizing certain practices and thus shaping the development of early modern science. Describing the dynamics of censorship that continued well into the post-Reformation era, Defining Nature's Limits is revisionist history that will interest scholars of the history science, the history of magic, and the history of the church alike.

288 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2022

History of Science

Medieval Studies

Religion: Christianity


“In a sweeping analysis that extends across multiple fields of study, Tarrant traces currents of religious reform, inquisitorial processes, and scholastic theology from the late medieval period into the early modern. He offers an important new perspective not just on the history of magic but also on the history of science and of religion across this pivotal period.”

Michael D. Bailey, Iowa State University

Defining Nature’s Limits plays an important role in bridging medieval and early modern theological traditions on magic and inquisition.”

Christine Caldwell Ames, University of South Carolina

Defining Nature’s Limits provides an invaluable contribution to the field of late medieval and early modern intellectual and cultural history, focusing on magic and science. Tarrant’s scholarship is impeccable, his argument is innovative and wholly original, and the book makes important, corrective contributions to the history of both science and magic. The book is a major contribution that will enrich the fields of premodern science and the occult, religious history, and intellectual history.”

Michael Ryan, University of New Mexico

"Tarrant’s book is an important contribution both to the history of science and to the history of magic in the early modern period. In telling the intertwining stories of the intellectual history of Thomist conceptions of magic from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century and the history of the Roman Inquisition’s persecution of magic in Italy, Tarrant reveals how the censorship of magic re-drew the boundaries of legitimate natural knowledge and thus had a radical impact on the subsequent development of science."

Stephen Clucas, Birkbeck, University of London

Table of Contents

Introduction: Magic, Science, and the Counter-Reformation

I. Medieval Foundations
1. The Origins of the Inquisition of Magic
2. The Dominican Order and the Construction of Orthodox Magic
3. The Inquisition of Learned Magic in the Fourteenth Century

II. Mendicant Reform and the Inquisition of Magic
4. The Crisis of Papal Authority and Observant Reform, 1378–1500
5. The Pursuit of Superstition in an Age of Reform, 1500–1517
6. The Reformation: Trent and the Establishment of the Roman Inquisition, 1517–49
7. Between Trent and the Roman Inquisition, 1549–64
Conclusion: The Ambiguities of Censorship in Post-Tridentine Italy

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