Magic in the Middle Ages

Richard Kieckhefer

Cambridge University Press 2000 [1989]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
In Magic in the Middle Ages Kieckhefer has produced an insightful account of magic "as a kind of crossroads where different pathways in medieval culture converge". His approach is fairly tightly focused on the sources; he starts by looking at two from fifteenth century Germany, an estate management handbook in the vernacular that contains scattered magical elements and a Latin handbook for conjuring demons. In defining "magic" he eschews modern anthropological frameworks such as the coercion/supplication typology, instead using the term "for those phenomena which [late medieval] intellectuals would have recognized as either demonic or natural magic" — while recognising that "distinguishing between natural and demonic forms of magic was not easy... The history of medieval magic is essentially one of conflicting perceptions on just this issue".

Kieckhefer devotes two chapters to the sources for medieval magic. The first surveys magic in Greek and Roman philosophy, science, and fiction, and in early Christian writings (and in late antiquity as Christianity became an established religion). One significant contribution was the association of magic with women; another was the persistent strand of Christian thought that considered all magic demonic (in contrast to widespread classical sentiment that magic was bad only when used to evil ends, or when it posed a threat to the social order). Turning to Germanic and Celtic influences, Kieckhefer doesn't downplay the difficulties of using later Christian sources, but he looks at a range of sources: early Christian penitentials, runic inscriptions, Icelandic sagas and poetry, and Irish literature.

Recognising that "much of the magic in medieval Europe was distributed widely, and that it was not limited to any specific group", Kieckhefer surveys what he calls "the common tradition of medieval magic". Magic had strong connections with healing, at all levels (from midwives to physicians), and the preparation of medicines often involved taboos, sympathetic magic, and attention to heavenly bodies. Charms (prayers, blessings, and exorcisms) were considered magic by some, though most probably worried about whether rather than how they worked. Amulets and talismans were natural magic; even if they were holy objects used improperly that was usually considered "superstition" rather than demonic magic. Sorcery was the use of any of these, and particularly of healing magic, for evil ends. Divination and popular astrology were also part of the tradition, as was "performative" magic that used trickery and sleight of hand for entertainment.

Three chapters then look at more specialised aspects of magic. Here courtly culture was not so different to broader society: "it is misleading to portray the situation at court as different in principle from that elsewhere. There were rivalries and animosities in all walks of life that led to the use and suspicion of magic". But of course the more "expensive" forms of magic were specific to courts: automations and mechanical wonders and magical gems and lapidary handbooks. Many rulers also had official astrologers and diviners, and more about courtly magic survives in written sources. The courtly romances are particularly useful: "unhelpful as sources for events, but invaluable as guides to attitudes and values".

Another strand in medieval magic was associated with the growth of universities and the importation of Arabic learning. Kieckhefer gives a nice account of the practice and principles of astrology, and the debates over its claims. Much astrology was entirely non-controversial — the belief that "the stars have influence on earthly persons and objects in ways that are not manifest" was common to Aquinas and Aristotle — but at the other extreme there was astral magic. Kieckhefer also covers alchemy (looking at the fifteenth century English alchemist Thomas Norton), the cult of secrecy and books of "secrets", and Hermes Trismegistus and the Kabbalah (associated with the Humanist scholars such as Marcilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola).

The existence of large numbers of people who had a little religious training was one factor contributing to a "clerical underworld" where necromancy was practised. This was not open, of course, but there is scattered evidence from manuals and inquisition records for formulae and rituals for conjuring spirits. Kieckhefer sees necromancy as "a blend of various practices, all incorporated into the framework of explicitly demonic magic ... a merger of astral magic and exorcism. The former is a foreign import, derived from Islamic culture; the latter is essentially a domestic product, long established within Christendom."

A final chapter considers official opposition to magic. Early legislation often focused more on effects than methods (some treated sorcery alongside poisoning, for example); later prohibitions used more refined concepts of magic. Theological and moral condemnations were tied up with attacks on superstition and pagan survivals, and later with attempts to reform the church. The spread of inquisitorial rather than adversarial prosecution reduced the risks for those making accusations — and these were often used for "political" ends, from local animosities to the suppression of the Templars. Attacks also tended to be targeted at those who were vulnerable and marginal, with a focus on women that was to be particularly notable with the rise of witch trials in the mid-fifteenth century.

October 2001

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%T Magic in the Middle Ages
%A Kieckhefer, Richard
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2000 [1989]
%O paperback, halftones, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521785766
%P xv,219pp