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Mitchell, Stephen A.: Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages.

Mitchell, Stephen A. Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 365 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-812242904. $49.95.

In Witches and Neighbors (1996), Robin Briggs defines a witch as "a human being who has betrayed his or her natural allegiances to become an agent of evil" (3). But this agent role is itself tied to the fifteenth-century concept of the witch as part of a conspiratorial demonic cult, rather than one who uses various means to achieve power in the manipulation of the world around her or him. Stephen A. Mitchell argues in Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages that this view only developed within the Scandinavian world after beliefs regarding witchcraft and those who practiced magic at the end of the Viking Age evolved into the Early Modern witches of the Reformation. Mitchell says no one would try to use the weird sisters of Macbeth "as source material for eleventh-century Scottish witchcraft beliefs rather than those of Jacobean Britain" (xi). This study focuses on the period 1100-1525 because the use of late medieval Icelandic sagas to recover the magical worldview of the Viking Age (ca. 800-1100) is deeply flawed, as is using the accounts of the early modern witch-hunts to describe medieval witchcraft practices. A commonplace in studies of witchcraft is that the principal shift in the understanding of magic happened in the fifteenth century, a view often supported by reference to Kramer and Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum (1486). But Mitchell contends that the actual change begins during the twelfth-century renaissance, when the reintroduction of Roman law and the inquisitorial (as opposed to accusatorial) process entered Scandinavia through Denmark, Sweden, and the cities of the Hanseatic League. Knowledge of "black magic"-necromancy-also entered the Nordic world in this era via clerical elites. Both helped to alter the native non-Christian beliefs of magic and eventually bring them more in line with continental views of diabolical pacts, Faustian bargains, and belief that all magic was demonic in origin.

A pitfall of some ethnographers is to use such a tight focus that they portray Scandinavia as a homogenous culture with one set of orthodox beliefs. But the pan-Nordic sphere of Mitchell's monograph is vast; it spans northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, portions of Finland, and the Faroe and Shetland Islands, and it also incorporates the diverse cultures of alpine and maritime economies, isolated farms in remote valleys, and international trade cities. Mitchell uses the techniques of a folklorist, and draws on Neil Price's The Viking Way (2002) and Jenny Jochens's Women in Old Norse Society (1995) and Old Norse Images of Women (1996) in foregrounding the twelfth century, and the work of Richard Kieckhefer, Robin Briggs, and Brian Levack as context for his discussion of the late Middle Ages. Rather than a chronological narrative, Mitchell attempts to interweave the "accommodation of native views about magic, sorcery, and the supernatural to church teaching on witchcraft" (9).

The introduction foregrounds the study by establishing the range of related texts and scholarship on medieval magic and witchcraft, and highlighting the disciplines that have come to define key topics of inquiry including archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, and philology; an overview of the formation of the church's views on witchcraft; and a brief definition of core concepts and vocabulary. Each of the following six chapters is organized around an "idea complex" that focuses on, but is not limited to, certain genres, with a conclusion that summarizes these changes and how they help establish a framework for the later witch-hunts. Throughout these chapters, Mitchell operates from the premise that our initial understanding of northern magic is based on a very skewed perspective of Norse paganism, one that overemphasizes Odin and Freya. Magic and its rituals were not just pagan worship, but part of daily life that continued after the Catholic Church assimilated various practices, rites, and beliefs into its own magical framework. In fact, during this process of accommodation, Mitchell suggests that magic was used as a meta-language for communication between pagans and Christians.

The first chapter, "Witchcraft and the Past," offers a survey of the available materials and key approaches to the topic for Nordic and continental specialists. In defining the past, this chapter clarifies how vernacular belief and popular sources met and were altered by church doctrine. Mitchell also broadens the Nordic perspective by specifying the influence of interactions with those who had shamanic traditions in Greenland and among the Sami. Mitchell emphasizes that the charms and talismans used for protection and empowerment were initially regarded as superstition and as minor affronts, but by the sixteenth century they were viewed as evidence of diabolism-when the Church did not appropriate them. Mitchell also delves into witchcraft theory here by elaborating on the "magic-religion-science" paradigm and the notion of magic as manipulation vs. religion as supplication. "Magic and Witchcraft in Daily Life," the second chapter, reviews the presence of magic in daily life--for pagans and Christians-and its major uses of magic in romance, fortune, health, weather, and malediction. The appropriation by the Church of the Yuletide beer brewing tradition with its toasts to the gods for abundant crops and peace is a form of syncretism used to thank Christ (or the Virgin Mary) for similar harvests.

"Narrating Magic" is the focus of chapter 3, in which Mitchell examines how Nordic authors represent and use magic and witchcraft among a number of texts. Magic and sorcery were more prevalent in Scandinavian tradition and everyday culture, and Mitchell considers questions of patronage, authorship, and the intended audience for texts that include Icelandic poetry and sagas, and ecclesiastical and court literature. He notes one particular recurrent theme: magic as a pagan resistance to the inevitability of Christianity in stories of dreams, visions, and prophecies, although there are few witches, sorcerers, or spells. The fourth chapter engages "Medieval Mythologies" by reconstructing the cultural codes not found within church documents. The myths include the growth of the belief in the devil's pact (pactum cum diabolo) as the root of power, rather than earlier "natural magic"; the Journey to Blakulla (the German-inspired "witch ride"); and the tales of the Milk Stealing Witch (who also expropriates butter and beer--the goods of others). As there is little textual evidence, much of this reconstruction is based on the analysis of material artifacts including church paintings and murals.

Mitchell examines the importance of reputation in Nordic culture and its use as a defense against accusations of witchcraft in chapter 5; the harsh penalties exacted for slander or false witness under the accusatorial legal system leave an indelible impression. The importance of slander in the "Gray Goose" laws is only one example within the fifth chapter's exegesis of "Witchcraft, Magic, and Law." The author also notes that there really was such a thing as "medieval justice" and that much of our understanding of witchcraft is related the legal thinking and sanctions that derive from the legal codes that address slander. This chapter also articulates the gradual shift in the severity of penalties exacted for convictions of witchcraft; initially, punishment only involves minor forms of outlawry in cases of private practice, but after the thirteenth century, all pagan practices are outlawed and the sentence is death. Mitchell also makes the distinction that women are associated with acts that have a sexual component, and are most often accused of maleficium, trolldom (folk magic, hexes), and galdr (incantations, often love spells), while men are accused of apostasy, heresy, and other crimes against authority.

Chapter 6 extends this discussion in "Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Gender" and discusses the "evil woman" as Sko-Ella (shoe woman) or Titta-Gra as the "trouble-making woman" whose behavior was thought to corrupt men and challenge the patriarchy. This chapter returns to the "Milk Stealing Woman" again, but couches the analysis in terms of gender, and more importantly, as a form of performance. The witch was male or female, but over time the crime of witchcraft went from being considered a perversion akin to incest and bestiality to being categorized with murder, treason, and armed rebellion. Mitchell links this shift to a growing sense of national identity with national law codes, rather than regional ones or those of a city-state.

Scholars who want a cultural touchstone for the use of Norse and Germanic magic in works of fantasy are one potential audience, as are those interested in the analytical use of material culture. Mitchell not only offers (black and white) plates of the murals, passages from Icelandic annals and sagas, and legal documents and church records, but also a clear cultural context. This is also a monograph for a specialized collection or library. Contemporary urban fantasy increasingly draws on Celtic and Norse influences, and Mitchell's articulation of the changing legal, popular, and church views of magic and witchcraft might be especially useful for those who consider magic as a liminal metatext to understand the evolution of medieval cultural beliefs.
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Author:Mulligan, Rikk
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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