In Anna’s world, scientific knowledge is almost non-existent and most people believe that supernatural forces, both benevolent and malign, are active in everyday life. Christian institutions affirm God’s presence in every human event, and characters like Aphra assert the existence of a whole host of spirits, fairies, and demons, some of which might help cure an illness or attract a lover, but some of whom are working for the Devil. Meanwhile, most people are suspicious of the few scientific practices to which they have access, like herbal medicine. As she becomes a bona fide doctor, Anna begins to disentangle beliefs which are spurious superstitions from those which have a basis in rationality and science. Eventually, she asserts that even the accepted customs of organized religion are no different from superstitions. By the end of the novel, Anna is committed to pursuing a highly rational, scientific worldview at the expense of cultural and religious superstitions.
The residents of Eyam give credence to a multitude of supernatural practices. Some of these practices are considered contestable superstitions, while others are completely accepted because they are associated with religious practice. As the novel progresses, Anna finds it harder and harder to distinguish between these two groups. Because Aphra is afraid that Anys Goodwin is a witch, she arranges various charms in her house when Anys comes to bring an herb tonic. Anna scolds her for this and says the charms are ridiculous. Later, after Anys is murdered, Aphra poses as her ghost, selling fake charms that purport to kill the plague. While many people buy them, Anna, the Mompellions, and the more astute townspeople immediately realize it’s a hoax, and eventually catch Aphra in the act.
However, other superstitions are more powerful because they are closely tied to accepted religious doctrine. For example, most people believe that putting women in water to see if they float is a good way to identify witches. Mompellion is radically progressive in trying to eradicate this belief, although he doesn’t do so fast enough to save the Goodwins. Mompellion also treats the craze of flagellation as misguided and superstitious, but he recognizes that many people might believe it works, which is why he treats it seriously and acts quickly to stamp it out in the town.
Anna grows to suppose that, if commonly-held superstitions and widely-accepted religious practices are equally devoid of meaning, then the actual teachings of organized religion might be invalid as well. Anna immediately realizes that although Mompellion’s treatment of Elinor was based in Christian teachings, he twisted religious teachings into a fanaticism that scarred her friend’s life – not so different from John Gordon’s insistence that his wife flagellate herself. As a result of this episode, Anna begins to question all the previously unexamined practices and customs of her community.
As she is learning to question both superstition and religion, Anna develops an admiration for the scientific practices that most people fear. While most people are wary of the Goodwins, whom they suspect of witchcraft, Anna always has a soft spot for them. She admires their practical manner and the fact that they can often solve medical problems that elude the trained and expensive barber surgeons. Anna notes that when she was pregnant, she consulted Anys about what plants to eat. Thus, even at this early point she values their scientific knowledge, even if she can’t quite distinguish it from superstition. When the plague strikes, many believe that the Goodwins caused it, and a mob eventually kills both of them. Ironically, the townspeople are so blinded by superstition that they kill the only medical providers who might have some knowledge to alleviate the disease. Anna’s instinctive realization that the accusations are nonsense and her horror at the killings shows that she’s moving away from common reliance on superstition.
After this, Anna and Elinor inherit the Goodwin’s mantle. Using the herbs from their garden, they develop a two-pronged medical plan to treat plague victims and strengthen healthy people with appropriate herbs. Elinor even maps out the spread of the plague from house to house in order to understand the rational nature of the disease. Anna concludes that they should treat the plague with “the tools and the method and the resolve” that a farmer might use to “rid his field of unwanted tare.” Science is shown to be a far more effective and rational way to combat the plague than superstition.
Ultimately, science replaces both superstition and faith as the guiding force of Anna’s life. She moves to an Muslim society, which at the time were exponentially more scientifically advanced than European ones. Although society is organized around religion here as well, Anna is removed from the superstitious practices that have dominated her life for so long and which she has come to fundamentally mistrust. Ultimately, she decides to only give credence to those beliefs that can be demonstrated or proven. While the modern reader may be able to easily distinguish between superstition, science, and religious practices, for Anna this process requires a radical change of thought.
Science and Superstition ThemeTracker
Science and Superstition Quotes in Year of Wonders
Dark and light, dark and light…that was how I had been taught to view the world. The Puritans who had ministered to us here had held that all actions and thoughts could be only one of two natures: godly and right, or Satanic and evil. But Anys Gowdie confounded such thinking. There was no doubt that she did good: in many ways, the well-being of our village rested more on her works, and those of her aunt, than on the works of the rectory’s occupant. And yet, her fornication and her blasphemy branded her a sinner in the reckoning of our religion.
“The man who sent it is a well-esteemed physician, and he says it is a remedy much thought of among the Florentine doctors…”
“But what is it?” I asked again.
“It contains a dried toad,” she said. I wept then, even though I knew her intentions were all of the best.
“I have lain with him. Yes! I have lain with the Devil, and he is mighty and cold as ice to the touch. His seed, too, is cold and abundant as a river running between our thighs. For I have not lain with him alone! No! I tell you now, I have seen your wives lie with him! Yours, Brad Hamilton, and yours, John Gordon, and yours too, Martin Highfield!”
That man was a ship’s barber; he pulled teeth and amputated limbs. He knew nothing of women’s bodies. But you do know. You can do this, Anna. Use your mother-hands.
I saw that she had fashioned, instead, a figure that looked like a manikin. This she lay atop the cairn. I commenced to say the Lord’s Prayer, and I thought she was saying it with me in a low, deep-throated murmur. But when I said amen, her muttering continued, and the sign she made at the end of it did not resemble the sign of the cross.
Why, I wondered, did we, all of us, both the rector in his pulpit and simple Lottie in her croft, seek to put the Plague in unseen hands? Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false, equally.
For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about the grand celestial design that had to be contemplated before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.
But fear, as I have said, was working strange changes in all of us, corroding our ability for clear thought. Within a sennight, Martin Miller had girt his family in sack cloth and fashioned a scourge. Randoll Daniel did likewise, though thankfully he did not ask it of his wife and babe. Together, Randoll and the Millers went about the village exhorting others to join them in their bloody self-chastisement.
She plunged and leapt, barking out a nonsense chant that rose in pitch to a piercing cry: “Arataly, rataly, ataly, taly, aly, ly…..” She darted then toward the fire, seizing out the ends of an iron that had lain in the blaze, and placed them on the earthen floor so as to form an X. She prostrated herself four times, in each notch of the figure, and then reached up her arms as if in supplication.
“I thought I spoke for God. Fool. My whole life, all I have done, all I have said, all I have felt, has been based upon a lie. Untrue in everything. So now,” he said, “I have learned at last to do as I please!”
Why, I wondered, had the surgeon abandoned this case as hopeless? Had he persevered here he could easily have done what I was about to attempt. It came to me then that he must have arrived under instruction to be negligent.
This little girl seemed to me, at that moment, answer enough to all my questions. To have saved this small, singular one – this alone seemed reason enough that I lived. I knew then that this was how I was meant to go on: away from death and toward life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom, living my life amongst wonders.
We have spoken much since then about faith: the adamantine one by which the doctor measures every moment of his day, and that flimsy, tattered thing that is the remnant of my own belief. I see it like the faded threads of a banner on a battlement, shot-shredded, and if it once bore a device, none could now say what it might have been. I have told Ahmed Bey that I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do, for now.