Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer

20 May 2008

More on magic — this topic will probably need its own tag soon enough.

Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer

Historical and sociological studies of witchcraft and popular belief in magic in pre-Reformation Europe have to consider a very basic question: what exactly counted as ‘magic’ to a person in the Middle Ages? The accounts of witchcraft trials from the period often include macabre descriptions of child murder, crop destruction, and other acts of malevolent magic (maleficium) intended to harm persons or property. Equally, records of murder cases might refer to sinister-sounding methods — an accused poisoner, for instance, might have collected the herbs used for the deed on the night of a full moon, believing that the lunar influence would heighten the plant’s deadly effects. But what about herbalists and folk healers, whose remedies might include special formulaic prayers written on slips of parchment or nonsensical Latin- and Greek-sounding phrases said over a patient? Or the accepted scholarly texts on medicine, philosophy, and history that attributed quasi-magical abilities to notable figures from antiquity, such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder? What of the stories of clerics who dabbled in alchemy or necromancy, or royal advisors who specialised in casting horoscopes, or organisations like the Templars that were accused of practising magic in addition to heresy? How can modern scholars make sense of these different facets of mediaeval magic, where law, religion, science, and folklore all seemed to be jumbled together?

In Magic in the Middle Ages, Richard Kieckhefer examines the complex and often confusing ideas of magic and its uses in the mediaeval world. He draws from a wide array of sources, from court proceedings to household records, to look at the origins of beliefs in magic (most notably in its connections to the writings of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians) and attempts to differentiate among the various prevailing strands of thought about magic. He sets aside several of the traditional methods of looking at the magic/religion dichotomy — namely the idea that religion focuses on supplication (i.e., prayer) while magic focuses on coercion (i.e., compelling demons to do one’s bidding) — in order to study the places where the two overlap. In doing so, for instance, he describes how Christians beliefs clashed with the existing pagan traditions to produce distinct trends in the magic common to Norse and Celtic literature, such as Scandinavian rune-based magic and Irish tales of saints and secular heroes. The blurry line between magic and early scientific knowledge also features prominently in the text, most notably in his discussion of the influence of scholarly writings from the Arab world and their focus on mathematics and astrology. From popular imagery to persecutions, Kieckhefer provides a basic foundation for approaching the topic as a whole and in parts, and his prose remains readable and lively throughout.

Other reviews I’ve read of Kieckhefer’s book seemed disappointed by what the reviewers seem to regard as his oversimplification of the topic or his inability to produce a comprehensive and rigidly defined account of magical beliefs. It is true that the book relies (quite heavily, at times) on conclusions drawn from anecdotes, even going so far as to include handwritten notes found in the margins of certain books and parchments that indicate a particular reader’s opinion on certain statements in the text. Yet Kieckhefer’s anecdotal evidence and the willingness to be flexible with the evidence seemed to me to better indicate the fluid nature of belief in magic and the often contradictory views that people of the Middle Ages held about what constituted magical power. His scope may be too broad for some people’s liking, but his focus is predominantly on the areas where the boundaries of magic were less than clear and where a more rigid definition might exclude useful but lesser-known sources. For a brief but nonetheless thought-provoking introduction to subject, Magic of the Middle Ages is a sound choice — and for those who may find his work somewhat lacking, Kieckhefer has provided an extensive and excellent list of further reading for curious, dedicated readers to explore.

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