"They served as a passage between Montaigne's world, a world of belief and misplaced conviction, and our world, the world of reliable and effective knowledge." -- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 565
This is an astounding contention: before science, human beings had no "reliable knowledge"! Our ancestors weren't sure whether planting seeds or stones would grow wheat. When they went to hunt deer, they didn't know if they should put arrowheads or fur on the end of their arrows. If they were thirsty, they were uncertain if they should ingest water or sand. When freezing, sometimes they put on furs, but other times they laid down naked in the snow: who knew which would work?
In our world of "reliable knowledge," how is it that a man as smart as Wootton can believe such rubbish?
He does provide examples of extremely fanciful beliefs our forebears held, for example, that garlic negates the power of magnets. But, as Wootton himself notes, before the compass, magnets were rarely encountered and of no practical import. To place this in perspective, for people before 1400 or so, magnets were like conservatives are to Park Slope progressives today: they have heard rumors that such things exist, but they never have and never expect to encounter them. Thus, if you go to a wine party in Park Slope and inform the guests that conservatives teach their children to shoot by age four, so that they can pick off women entering abortion clinics, your audience will nod in appreciation of your exotic knowledge.