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History of Magic

The belief in magic anc magical powers dates back to the earliest recorded history. In Egypt, for example, large number of magical papyri, in Greek, Coptic, and Demotic, have been recovered. These sources contain early instances of much of the magical lore that later became part of Western cultural expectations about the practice of magic, especially ceremonial magic. They contain early instances of:

  • magic words said to have the power to command the spirits
  • use of magic wands and other ritual tools
  • use of a magic circle to defend the magician against the spirits he is invoking or evoking
  • use of mysterious symbols or sigils thought useful to invoke or evoke spirits.

The use of spirit mediums is also documented in these texts; many of the spells call for a child to be brought to the magic circle to act as a conduit for messages from the spirits. The time of the Emperor Julian of Rome, marked by a reaction against the influence of Christianity, saw a revival of magical practices associated with neo-Platonism under the guise of theurgy.

Magic in the Middle Ages

Mediæval authors, under the control of the Church, confined their magic to compilations of wonderlore and collections of spells. Albertus Magnus was credited, rightly or wrongly, with a number of such compilations. Specifically Christianised varieties of magic were devised at this period. During the early Middle Ages, the cult of relics as objects not only of veneration but also of supernatural power arose. Miraculous tales were told of the power of relics of the saints to work miracles, not only to heal the sick, but for purposes like swaying the outcome of a battle. The relics had become amulets, and various churches strove to purchase scarce or valuable examples, hoping to become places of pilgrimage. As in any other economic endeavour, demand gave rise to supply. Tales of the miracle-working relics of the saints were compiled later into quite popular collections like the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine or the Dialogus miraculorum of Caesar of Heisterbach.

There were other, officially proscribed varieties of Christianized magic. The demonology and angelology contained in the earliest grimoires assume a life surrounded by Christian implements and sacred rituals. The underlying theology in these works of Christian demonology encourages the magician to fortify himself with fasting, prayers, and sacraments, so that by using garbled versions of the holy names of God in foreign languages, he can use divine power to coerce demons into appearing and serving his usually lustful or avaricious magical goals. Not surprisingly, the church disapproved of these rites; nevertheless, they are Christianised, and assume a theology of mechanical sacramentalism.

Magic in the Renaissance

Renaissance humanism saw a resurgence in hermeticism and other Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, saw the rise of scientism, in such forms as the substitution of chemistry for alchemy, the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe assumed by astrology, the development of the germ theory of disease, that restricted the scope of applied magic and threatened the belief systems it relied on. Tensions roused by the Protestant Reformation led to an upswing in witch-hunting, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland; but ultimately, the new theology of Protestantism proved a worse foe to magic by undermining belief in the sort of ritualism that allowed religious rites to be re-purposed towards earthly, magical ends. Scientism, more than religion, proved to be magic's deadliest foe.

Alongside the ceremonial magic followed by the better educated were the everyday activities of folk practitioners of magic across Europe, typified by the cunning folk found in Great Britain. In their magical practices astrology, folklore, and distorted versions of Christian ritual magic worked alongside each other to answer customer demand.


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