Magic in the Middle Ages

Review From User :

Richard Kieckefer has written a broad, detailed and objective examination of magic in the Middle Ages. The reader is presented with various perspectives, and over the course of the book a vivid picture is built up showing how these various perspectives interconnect, allowing the reader to come away with a lucid understanding of the Medieval conception of magic.

The start of the book is broadly concerned with defining magic and also exploring how magic has been perceived since Antiquity. The key point in defining magic is that there existed both natural magic and demonic magic in Medieval thought. The former was believed to make use of natural but occult (hidden) powers within nature and was essentially a branch of science, whilst the latter involved demons, whether implicitly or explicitly, and was heavily connected with religion. It is nonetheless shown that these definitions were not fixed and often the line between them blurred.

Another important point raised in these early chapters is that the usual definition of magic as being coercive and religion as being supplicatory completely falls apart when we consider how magic was actually practiced. Often, it is impossible to separate the two because magic often had a heavy Christian component, both in practice and conception. And this is one of the things I love about the book; it dispels many misconceptions and forces the reader to consider the mind-set of these people. For instance, while it would be easy to assume that it was a purely magical act when people used relics or the Eucharist to bless or to heal, these objects in fact had power because they were connected to God in some way, and so to strip away this religious element and call it a magical act only, would be to misunderstand the intent and belief of the people who did such acts. The same can be said about charms, blessings and adjurations which were often heavily Christian, drawing upon the power of biblical figures, passages and allegories. Having said this, many charms did also contain pre-Christian elements and their evolution is described.

It is commonly thought that opposition to magic is a Christian concept, but the book shows that magic and its practitioners have always been looked upon with high suspicion. We find evidence of this from as far back as antiquity with fictional literature as well as non-fictional writings. The Medieval Church did elaborate on these themes, and certainly in the Late Middle Ages took them to a whole new level, but the pool they drew from was pretty well established.

The book then begins to explore what types of people practiced magic. First explored is the common tradition of magic, which was a diverse range of magical practices, practiced by a wide range of people. These people include monks, leeches, parish priests, lay healers, diviners, physicians, surgeons, barber surgeons, midwives and friars. The magic of the common tradition was accessible to anyone in society and was perhaps what is termed 'low-magic'. Healing was a big component of this genre and we find various people using what we might call healing magic, though it is unlikely that we would hear the practitioners use this term. First described are leech books, which although had a natural magic element to them, also contained a religious component. The chapter progresses through various topics such as charms, amulets and talismans, sorcery, divination and popular astrology, and trickery. It is a pretty long chapter and contains a plethora of examples which I enjoyed. I find the Medieval conception of sorcery interesting, it being defined as magic that infringed upon a person's freewill and magic that deliberately caused harm. This definition proved to be problematic because it was pretty subjective, but love magic was widely considered sorcery, as were cases of impotence. The actual magic used in Sorcery was on the whole simply healing magic inverted and the use of biblical allegories was interesting.

Next the romance of magic in courtly culture is examined, and it is here that a different perception and understanding of magic begins to emerge. While the romances do acknowledge the danger of magic, it becomes more synonymous with "enchantment" and other such terms. Magicians were common at court, as was divination, love magic and poisoning, and magic or the accusation of magic often acted as a type of barometer for the tension within court. We also see a different type of magic emerge, with automations and magical gems. In the Norse Sagas, words were the main source of magic, but in the romances gems play a much more prominent role, as do potions, herbs and artefacts with marvellous properties. We see further difference in the role played by magic in the Arthurian Legends because it becomes much more symbolic and is often portrayed as a catalyst for psychological change or betterment.

Next we come to quite an in-depth chapter about the importation of Arabic learning in the 12th Century and how this lead to major changes in the West. With the flow of new translations of Arabic texts came many new ideas regarding Alchemy and Astrology, which also had Greek influences too. Described are the basic tenants of Astrology which differ somewhat to modern popular conceptions. A major dilemma was whether the ability to predict the future impinged on God's prerogative, so there was much discussion about how Medieval thinkers tackled the idea of determinism. Astral magic was given a short exploration, before going on to Alchemy, a particularly interesting subject. The reader is shown how alchemy lead to many advances in science and medicine, and although this chapter was long, I felt the subject could take up an entire book. The chapter closes with a discussion on the Cult of Secrecy and Renaissance Magus, the latter again highlighting the importance of religion. So too does this chapter chart the journey away from the common tradition into a much more learned type of magic, only available to a section of society who are fully literate. This separation is shown to have major consequences as we head into the penultimate chapter.

Necromancy is the subject of this chapter. A brief introduction explains how the term was changed during the Middle Ages to denote explicitly demonic magic. Originally the term meant divination using the dead, but medieval theology saw this as trickery by demons. The people who engaged in this practice were clerics, who were of course literate and books were essential to this practice. A clerical underground is described as a mixture of young clerics, chantry priests, monks and Friars, and what connected them was broadly a combination of free time and partial or incomplete training. The reader is then provided with examples of rituals and formulas for conjuring spirits. The practice of necromancy was explicitly demonic magic in medieval terms, and practitioners not only inverted the practices of the common tradition, but showed the demons reverence. Often, the aims of practitioners included the control of minds and wills of other people or animals, the creation of various illusions or the divination things normally unknowable, all with the help of demons. While this may seem fanciful, we find corroboration not only in the writings of those who opposed the practice, but also in the books and manuals of the practitioners. The chapter is really good and contains lots of information about how it was practiced, the mentality of the necromancer, and also how it was portrayed in the exemplas. An interesting point of difference between the exempla and practice is the use of the circle; in the former, it is seen as protective, whereas in practice it was actually used to contain inscriptions and other paraphernalia rather than acting as a protective boundary. There is shown to be an important connection between necromancy and exorcisms, with the aim to command rather than expel demons, and also with astral magic. The mentality of the necromancer is complex because he often seeks God's help in his work, and although many would openly admit to working with malign entities, in some cases the morality of the being invoked and of the necromancer himself is much more ambiguous. In a sense the necromancer is shown to have a perverse sense of piety.

The final chapter deals with the reaction to all of these diverse practices and is focused on the closing years of the middle ages. The concerns were both legal and moral; legalisation was concerned with the harm caused by magic, whereas the moralists were concerned with diabolic implications of all magic and also with the superstitious (unsanctioned) use of holy objects and ceremony. However, the line between the two was often faint and it was common for theological concerns to taint secular legislation, and records show that cases in which harm was caused by natural means (poison) were charged under the same law codes as harmful magic. Punishment was often severe if it was dealt by the secular authorities, while the punishment handed out by the church was generally less lethal and consisted of penance in various kinds, which was self-imposed, as well as excommunication for varying lengths of time. The increase in law education meant that expert opinion was increasingly sought, causing a more nuanced approach to who was prosecuted and for what. The chapter then goes on to discuss the moralist concerns and the sequence of events start to head steadily downhill from here. The preachers conflated many aspects of magic in their sermons, and while it has to be said that there were some thinkers who were willing to explain a wide variety of phenomena in terms of natural magic - incantations for example were said to work via auto-suggestion - the broad trend was towards the stance that all magic was demonic, whether you knew it or not. Towards the end of the Middle Ages much effort was put towards reforming the Catholic Church and to rid it from superstitious practices, and it was during this time that a misogynistic view began to fully emerge of magic and its practitioners. The in-house reform coincided with the actual 16th Century Reformation and is seen as a broad effort at reform, and the notion of superstition is a key cog in this movement.

The closing pages of the book further elucidate upon this crucial conflation between natural magic and demonic magic, charting the rise of persecution, from its humble accusatory beginnings all the way through to the inquisitions. Along the way the evolution of the Witch stereotype is tracked, with its explicit anti-Christian connotations. Undoubtedly the implications of church doctrine underpin this stereotype, and yet equally it is shown that the structure of society plays an important role too. The thinkers who conflated the natural magic of the common tradition with demonic magic were within the same corner of society as the necromancers, and so when they peered out of their offices on high, they merely saw their own image reflected back at them and thus their perception was ill informed. In short, here existed a huge chasm between the perception of judges, theologians and inquisitors, and the actual practices and beliefs of those condemned and persecuted. The chapter closes by detailing the specific components of the witch stereotype and also lays out the conditions that gave rise to the witch hunts in the mid-fifteenth century including the spark that ignited them. The spark was the Catholic reform within its church, while the conditions were a mixture of the use of torture and inquisitorial investigations, the suspicion that natural magic might turn out to be demonic, the idea of an anti-Christian sect and the witch stereotype itself.

To sum up, this is a fantastic read. It is in depth, extremely objective and enjoyable. It teaches you the importance of context and it encourages you to appreciate the nuances of history. It is sufficiently focused, and yet you are able to appreciate the many diverse perspectives that create the history of magic in the middle ages. It is well written and easy to understand, and there is no agenda. Facts are presented with no bias, and the reader is always given exceptions so as to avoid generalisations. If you are a historian, you will enjoy the objectivity with which the author handles the sources. There are adequate notes, but they are kept to a minimum, with a good bibliography at the end. If you are interested in magical practices, many examples are given, and you will learn how to appreciate the context in which they were practiced. The physical book is deceptively thin because the font is small, but inside is a wealth of information.

Highly recommended.


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