Thinking about Magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
In April 2010, a group of scholars convened at the University of Auckland to discuss 'Miracles, Medicine, and Magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe'. Among the speakers, many focused on magic. As they engaged with and challenged existing scholarship, one theme recurred with special frequency: the systems of thought that made the different notions of magic thinkable. This Special Issue of Parergon is the result of those exchanges, bringing together articles that explore how magic was imagined in England, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland between the late fourteenth and late seventeenth centuries. This Introduction, with its brief survey of recent scholarship, is intended to offer context, scholarly and historical, for the articles, each of which seeks in some way to reconstruct the overlapping mental structures within which magic seemed plausible to contemporary observers.
Venturing into premodern texts brings us into contact with ideas simultaneously familiar and bizarre, arousing the experience of unheimlichkeit ('the uncanny'), and nothing provokes the sensation as intensely as texts dealing with magic. (2) Imagining magical causes for incidents to which modern societies readily attribute natural causes (convulsions, the transmission of viruses, eclipses), past societies were wary of much that seems perfectly normal today. We find an example of such wariness in a solemn determinatio published on 19 September 1398, by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris which condemned twenty-eight articles related to magic. (3) The document held all magic to be blameworthy, even practices aimed at procuring positive effects for the community. The University's primary motivation in promulgating the determinatio, stated in the document's first lines, was the desire to protect the Catholic faith against the 'abomination of heresy': unfit to assume the honour or domination that properly belongs to God, the document warned, humans must keep to their place. But in addition to holding the line against heresy, the document betrays genuine anxiety that dabbling in magic might unleash demonic power: demons could easily escape the rocks, rings, and mirrors in which they are restrained to do harm in the world. Modern readers are initially struck by the document's strange assumptions about magic. And yet, the desire to control imperfectly understood, invisible forces is not alien to modern readers. As Ioan P. Couliano has explained, medieval magicians, capable of convincing crowds that they could conjure up demons or chase them from the possessed, had a 'deep knowledge of personal and collective erotic impulses'. (4) By manipulating collective social fantasies, they unleashed demons that were perhaps hallucinatory but nonetheless disruptive. In such collective mental manipulation, Couliano continues, we find the remote ancestor of 'applied psychosociology and mass psychology'. In the modern era, talented charlatans have created echo-chamber-like environments where untruths become believable to whole populations. When we think of the destruction caused by such manipulation of social fantasies, it is not hard to imagine why medieval authorities might have wished to limit the exercise of demonic power over the masses. Considered from this perspective, the determinatio with its bizarre condemnation of 'magical arts and other superstitious practices prohibited by God and the Church' begins to seem rational. (5)
Indeed, since the late 1980s scholarship has emphasised how rational and ordered beliefs regarding magic were. For example, if one starts from the position that the 'physical matter of the cosmos' is filled with meaning, nothing follows more naturally than the belief that '[g]estures and rituals might somehow or other lead to physical effects of material transformation'. (6) Neither the attempts to create such transformations, nor reflection upon these attempts were the products of 'random or undisciplined thinking or loose nature-mysticism'. (7) It is just that in approaching the subject of premodern magic we have to reconceive certain boundaries. Like us, premodern educated authorities distinguished 'magia (magic) from scientia and certainly from proper religio and fides (faith)' and, furthermore, from superstitio, but their bases for distinction differed from ours. (8) Today we tend to distinguish between magic, interested in 'effective results', and religion, which is supplicatory, but this was not the case in the past. (9) Moreover, the
sharp separation of the spiritual world and religious belief from the physical world and scientific rationalism, which is such a fundamental feature of modern Western culture, is a relatively recent product of Europe's movement toward modernity. (10)
Another category requiring adjustment is 'natural'. Our forebears sometimes assigned a divine provenance to things that we recognise as natural phenomena, like comets, but classified as 'natural' things that we understand to be supernatural, like 'astral magic'.
Still, the principal distinguishing feature for early authorities was whether an intervention appealed to demons or natural magic. Richard Kieckhefer explains that although the specific qualities of magic changed over time and space, this dichotomy was nonetheless commonly recognised by intellectuals throughout the period. (11) Natural magic was the branch of science dealing with the invisible forces of nature; demonic magic, in contrast, was perverted religion, the turning away from God to request intervention from demons. Until the twelfth century, Kieckhefer notes, natural magic was little theorised. However, the twelfth century saw an influx of knowledge pertaining to astrology and alchemy, diffused primarily through the translation into Latin of over one hundred works in Arabic that had been inherited by Muslim scholars from late Greek antiquity. (12) In the context of this intellectual ferment, a classificatory system that defined licit types of magic was necessary to assure that the different practices would not be lumped together indiscriminately and condemned as a group. For example, William of Auvergne, Bishop of Paris (1228-49) and early proponent for the reconciliation of Aristotle's writings with Christian doctrine, insisted that 'part of the domain known as "magic" was actually concerned with the study of natural processes'. (13) This assertion, explains Wouter Hanegraaff, 'went hand in hand with a renewed, and extremely formulated, emphasis on pagan idolatry as its demonic counterpart that must be exterminated with "fire and sword"'. (14)
Effects of this influx of knowledge included an increased interest in astrology. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle propounds that heavenly bodies exercised physical effects upon their earthly counterparts, and astrologers defined their practice as natural, produced by 'craft'. (15) Rivals jostling for power at princely courts turned to astrology, seeking to control the environment to advance themselves, while princes began to employ astrologers and magicians among their advisers and aides. (16) And yet, astrology was always controversial, irreconcilable with Christian belief in free will. (17) The 1277 condemnations of Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, reveal hostility toward natural philosophy in general; that is, toward 'the idea that the physical universe was governed by its own natural laws and could best be explained in those terms'. (18) Another reason for criticising astrology had nothing to do with religion. This rather mundane idea was that no one on earth could ever master the vast amount of material contained in the firmament, which meant that, even if astrology made sense in theory, the practice was necessarily inaccurate. The late thirteen-century Summa perfectionis attacks astrology because 'the unknowable and indeed infinite crowd of celestial configurations makes exact predictions of their effects on matter impossible'. (19) But most important for our purposes, astrology was always suspected of encouraging dabbling with demonic connections. Thomas Aquinas devotes question 95, article 5, of the Summa Theologica to 'Superstition in Divinations', concluding that it is a vain and false opinion to believe that the practice of astrology can predict future human acts (as opposed to weather and natural disasters) with certainty, and, furthermore, that if, in making a prediction, an astrologer summons a demon, he is guilty of superstitious and unlawful behaviour. (20) Christians had to beware of astrologers, particularly those whose predictions were correct, because they were the most likely of all to have demonic connections.
Discussion of astrology, magic, and sorcery was lively at the court of Charles V of France (1338-1380), where the best thinkers of the time gathered to dispel irrational beliefs and further knowledge, often through translations into the vernacular of works previously available only to clerics. (21) However, at the court of Charles V's son, the mad King Charles VI (1380-1422), thinking about such topics moved beyond the theoretical as political rivals accused each other of bewitching the King. The article by Tracy Adams examines the many layers of intrigue present in the accusation in 1395 of sorcery against Valentina Visconti, the King's sister-in-law, and shows that such allegations were motivated both by political opportunism and genuine belief that the King's insanity was caused by sorcery. Moreover, medieval chroniclers were well aware of this. As Adams demonstrates, within the context of Charles VI's mental illness, Valentina's story is part of a larger story of how courtiers imagined and attempted to manage the King's condition through magic.
Tracing the development of attitudes towards magic from the late fifteenth century onwards, scholars have discussed the effects of the renewed interest in antique writings that characterised the period generally referred to as the Renaissance. In particular, Hermetic texts--generally believed to have been composed during the second or third centuries and lost to Western culture after the fall of the Roman Empire--were rediscovered by Italian scholars in Byzantine copies. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was instrumental in spreading Hermetic texts, translating and publishing a collection of thirteen tractates in 1471. These texts profoundly influenced the Renaissance development of alchemy and magic, and such thinkers as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), and Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). The renowned German theologian, astrologer, alchemist, and magician, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) explains that the practitioner of magic is highly educated in fields that modern readers would not hesitate to describe as rational, 'mathematics, and in the aspects and figures of the stars, upon which depends the sublime virtue and property of everything'. (22) Without such knowledge, 'he cannot possibly be able to understand the rationality of magic'.
Yet, the distinction between natural and demonic magic continued to structure thinking about magic. Indeed, the distinction gained renewed urgency with the publication in 1487 of the Malleus maleficarum, one of the instigators of the witch craze that swept through parts of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Those interested in researching natural magic were obliged to delimit their area of study very precisely in order to keep the domain free for study without worry of persecution by the authorities. (23) Gregory W. Dawes details some of the mental framework, the theoretical reasoning drawn from natural philosophy or theology, within which Renaissance theoreticians of natural magic worked. Renaissance magic has the reputation of being obscure and impenetrable, but in laying out some of its general principles, Dawes shows the inaccuracy of modern readers' perception that magic was irrational. If by 'irrational', one means incorrect according to the kind of evidence that is available to us today, then magic may well be a form of 'unreason'. However, by the evidence available to early modern thinkers, theoreticians of magic in Renaissance Europe were entirely rational, in the sense of being responsive to evidence and argument. (24)
The notion of a radical break, or abrupt paradigm shift, between natural magic and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century was challenged by the ground-breaking work of Lynn Thorndike and Frances Yates, who posited that the Hermetic tradition made science possible. Throughout the entirety of his eight-volume History of Magic and Experimental Science, Thorndike compared the magical with the philosophical tradition, stressing the former's practical attitude towards the world and crediting it with the development of the experiment as a means of proof. (25) Yates saw the image of nature as subdued by humans as a core similarity between the two apparently opposed mentalities. She saw the Scientific Revolution in two phases: 'the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase, of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics.' (26) Although scholars who argue that the distinction between an animistic and mechanical universe is, after all, fundamental have challenged Yates's thesis, scholars now argue for a long period of transformation, during which small-scale confrontations between the two worldviews manifest both the affinities and incompatibilities between the systems. Thus the paradigm shift in science, culminating in the principle that the only valid scientific proof was empirical, is generally understood today to have resulted from a countless series of confrontations that occurred over a long period in many places. (27)
The article by Karen Jillings explores one such confrontation, examining the contradictory and controversial beliefs regarding the healing properties of water from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century as laid out in some treatises and pamphlets produced in Reformation Scotland between 1580 and 1636. Should the occult power attributed to medicinal waters in Scotland be attributed a divine but natural cause, on the one hand, or a saintly cause, on the other? The point was to discredit the notion of saintly intervention in the world. Therefore, the waters' powers were emphatically interpreted as divine, but natural rather than miraculous. The treatises all noted that mineral waters could work in unexpected ways and produce effects that did not always seem to fit within Galenic humoral theory. And yet, their causes were emphatically not supernatural. Rather, in the words of the sixteenth-century physician Jean Fernel, they were 'held within natural limits'. (28)
We have seen that one basic distinction observed by people of the Middle Ages and early modern period was that between natural and demonic magic. (29) And yet, what theologians held to be demonic was not necessarily accepted by all, but depended on the time and place. (30) Thus, another striking development in thought about magic during the early modern period was the emergence of an 'essentially new category of diabolical, conspiratorial witchcraft'. (31) We see the first stirrings of the witch-hunt in the late fifteenth century, with an increase in the number of prosecutions for practising magic that would grow over the next two centuries. In this new environment, a copious literature on witchcraft ('many dozens of books and hundreds of pamphlets' (32)) developed. Recent scholars have drawn upon the large corpus left by such writers to recreate the larger contexts that made witchcraft, first, thinkable, and, second, a valuable tool. (33) Stuart Clark has shown that the demands on the part of intellectuals for the harsh treatment of alleged witches went hand in hand with charges of kingly inefficacy. Keith Thomas has discussed the 'utility of witch-beliefs' in social environments, that is, witchcraft as a supplement 'for the deficiencies of contemporary technique, particularly of medical technique'. (34) Studying accusations of witchcraft, he notes, is 'complicated by the existence of cases in which the witch-beliefs of the day were exploited for selfish purposes, often by downright fraud'. (35) The article by Vrajabhumi Vanderheyden that examines a case that began as a mundane fainting spell, contributes to this type of scholarship.
Although this fainting spell in a boarding school for poor girls in the early seventeenth-century Spanish Netherlands appeared insignificant at first, it sparked a series of spectacular fits that affected all of the girls living in the institution. Drawing upon trial records related to a case of collective 'bewitchment', Vanderheyden examines how the phenomenon was identified and experienced by the girls, and how witnesses suggested several interpretational frameworks for the strange symptoms, eventually attributing the convulsions to bewitchment. Vanderheyden argues that this interpretation resulted from the interaction of several factors including the problematic nature of the girls' relationships with their headmistress and each other, as well as their access to medical and supernatural diagnoses.
The articles collected here begin in the realm of erudite magic; they end in domestic spaces. In her contribution, Sarah Randles examines the practice of deliberately hiding clothing within the structure of buildings. Although clothing has long been discovered hidden in walls or beneath the floorboards of domestic buildings, such finds have been dismissed as accidental. But over the past several decades the practice of concealing clothing has increasingly attracted the attention of scholars, some of whom have linked it to pre-Christian ritual deposits for protection. As Randles illustrates, personal garments, hidden from view in a liminal space between human and nonhuman worlds, had the ability to take on supernatural powers by association.
The history of magic has long been imagined as a movement from the darkness of superstition into the light of a disenchanted world of science. Moreover, this narrative of progress traditionally has been arranged around the notion of a 'coherent, cataclysmic, and climactic event that fundamentally and irrevocably changed what people knew about the natural world and how they secured proper knowledge of that world', the Scientific Revolution. (36) This understanding of the Scientific Revolution has been revised over the past decades. Initial challenges to the idea, as we have seen, were based on a perceived similarity between the goals of Renaissance hermetic thinkers and Enlightenment scientists, both of whom sought to control nature. More recently, similarity of goals has been discarded as a way of approaching the gradual transformation that took place between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, with scholars like Steven Shapin emphasising instead the non-uniformity of the practices that produced the transformation: the 'diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change'. (37) Michael Bailey explains that the reality of the shift was much more complicated than the old idea of the Scientific Revolution had implied. For example, when erudite magic--the ideas of Hermeticism, Kabbalah, occult astrology--were condemned by universities, it was not because ideas were deemed 'magical', 'in contrast to some clearly emerging "scientific" point of view, but rather because they stood in direct opposition to long-established Aristotelian conceptions of the natural world and its operations'. Bailey adds that universities condemned the 'scientific' ideas that the planets revolved around the sun for the same reason. (38) The Scientific Revolution must be seen not as an abrupt transformation but as the result of a centuries-long series of engagements. This revision in the understanding of the nature of the Scientific Revolution has led in turn to a fundamental reconceptualisation of the history of magic.
The articles of this Special Issue testify to the diversity of thinking about magic during the medieval and early modern periods. In different ways, magic was a phenomenon that permeated all aspects of private and social life. No longer viewed as a fully independent phenomenon whose history can be abstracted and traced separate from the social life in which it was embedded, magic is now studied by scholars at 'crossroads where different pathways in medieval culture converge'. (39) This collection is intended to reveal some of the larger mental structures that made magic thinkable. Such efforts inevitably evoke the sensation of unheimlikchkeit, wonder at the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of our predecessors' attitudes about magic.
The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies
The University of Auckland
(1) Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989), p. 13.
(2) See Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919; London: Penguin Books, 2003).
(3) Jean-Patrice Boudet, 'Les Condamnations de la magie a Paris en 1398', Revue Mabillon, 12 (2001), 121-57.
(4) Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. xviii.
(5) Boudet, p. 151: 'quod licitum est uti magicis artibus vel aliis quibuscunque superstitionibus a Deo et Ecclesia prohibitis pro quocumque bon fine. Error, qui, secundum Apostulum, non sunt facienda mala ut bona eveniant.'
(6) Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 3.
(7) Cameron, p. 3.
(8) Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p. 3. Indeed, ambiguities have been present in the word 'magic' and its cognates from the term's very inception in Greece of the fifth century BCE. See Jan N. Bremmer, 'The Birth of the Term Magic', in The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, eds Jan N. Bremmer and Jan R. Veenstra (Peeters: Leuven, 2002), pp. 1-12.
(9) See, for example, Bailey, Magic and Superstition, p. 3; and Karen Louise Jolly, Catharina Raudvere, and Edward Peters, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (London: Athlone Press, 2002), p. 8.
(10) Bailey, Magic and Superstition, p. 3; see also Jan N. Bremmer and Jan R. Veenstra, 'Introduction: The Metamorphoses of Magic', in Metamorphosis of Magic, eds Bremmer and Veenstra, pp. ix-xiv (p. ix).
(11) Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 9. Other major studies of medieval magic not already cited include P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, ed. and trans., The Occult in Mediaeval Europe, 500-1500: A Documentary History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). Specifically on medieval texts on magic see Clare Fanger, ed., Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998). Sophie Page's short but fascinating Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) explores the practice of medieval magic through manuscript illustrations.
(12) Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 118.
(13) Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 173.
(14) Hanegraaff, p. 173.
(15) Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 112.
(16) Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 96.
(17) According to Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II, Question 95: 'Of Superstition in Divination', esp. Article 5: 'Whether divination by the stars is unlawful?'; see also Joseph Bernard McAllister, The Letter of Saint Thomas Aquinas De Occultis Operibus Naturae ad Quemdam Militem Ultramontanum (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1939).
(18) Robert Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 139; see La Condamnation Parisienne de 1277, ed. and trans. David Piche (Paris: Vrin, 1999), pp. 118-23.
(19) William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton, 'Introduction: The Problematic Status of Astrology and Alchemy in Premodern Europe', in Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, eds Newman and Grafton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 1-37 (p. 21).
(20) See above, n. 17.
(21) Joan Cadden, 'Charles V, Nicole Oresme, and Christine de Pizan: Unities and Uses of Knowledge in Fourteenth-Century France', in Texts and Contexts in Ancient and Medieval Science: Studies on the Occasion of John E. Murdoch's Seventieth Birthday, eds Edith Sylla and Michael McVaugh (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 208-44.
(22) Cited in Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult in Mediaeval Europe, p. 116.
(23) Paola Zambelli, White Magic, Black Magic in the European Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 24 p. 22.
(24) For another way of considering the 'rationality' of magic, see Richard Kieckhefer, 'The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic', American Historical Review, 99 (1994), 813-36.
(25) Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols (New York, Columbia University Press, 1923-58).
(26) Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 452.
(27) As argued by Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). See also Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 294-311; and Michael Wasser's 'The Mechanical World-View and the Decline of Witch Beliefs in Scotland', in Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland, eds Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, and Joyce Miller (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), pp. 206-26. On witchcraft in medieval and early modern English literature, see Heidi Breuer, Crafting the Witch: Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 2009). Other major studies on early modern witchcraft include Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002); Lyndal Roper, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality, and Religion in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 1994); Brian P. Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London and New York: Longman, 1995).
(28) Jean Fernel, On the Hidden Causes of Things: Forms, Souls and Occult Diseases in Renaissance Medicine, eds John M. Forrester and John Henry (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 46-47.
(29) Cameron, Enchanted Europe, p. 42.
(30) Cameron, p. 42.
(31) Bailey, Magic and Superstition, p. 108.
(32) Jonathan L. Pearl, The Crime of Crimes: Demonology and Politics in France, 1560-1620 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999), p. 1.
(33) Michael D. Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).
(34) Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), p. 538.
(35) Thomas, p. 541.
(36) See H. Floris Cohen, How Modern Science Came Into The World: Four Civilizations, One Seventeenth-Century Breakthrough (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), p. xvii; and Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, pp. 1-4.
(37) Shapin, p. 4.
(38) Bailey, Magic and Superstition, p. 201.
(39) Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 1.
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|Author:||Adams, Tracy; Olsen, Kerryn; Smith, Michelle A.|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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