Book Review–Magic in the Middle Ages

Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle AgesCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xv, 219. $17.99.

Recently reprinted in a revised edition through the Canto series, Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages is a comprehensive and panoramic introduction to magic. Drawing on a wide range of primary source documents from antiquity through the sixteenth century and supplementing this with numerous illustrations and an extensive bibliography of secondary materials, Kieckhefer provides a history of the theoretical study and practical use of magic in the medieval world. Although the book is by no means exhaustive in its treatment of the subject of medieval magic, it provides an excellent base from which to begin further exploration in the field. Furthermore, the numerous entertaining anecdotes concerning the use of magic in the Middle Ages, culled from primary sources, renders the text as enjoyable as it is seminal for the students interested in medieval magic.

Kieckhefer begins with an introduction defining magic and arguing that magic in the Middle Ages was classified as either natural or demonic. In this view, if an action relies on already-present powers in nature or on divine power, it is not magical, whereas if an action requires the use of demonic or occult powers in nature, it is magical (x). Kieckhefer further distinguishes between religion and magic, and claims that popular thinking in the Middle Ages held that magic was a natural event in the world, whereas among intellectuals it was believed that all magic held forth from demons, that a great deal of magic was also natural, and that magical practices, no matter how innocent in nature, involved the invocation of demons. Kieckhefer also makes an important distinction, carried throughout the book, between academic and intellectual forms of magic — those found in courtly situations — and popular belief concerning magical practices, which occurred regularly in medieval society outside of the academy or court setting. Following this definition of magic, Kieckhefer puts forth a plan of the book, which begins with a history of magic in the Graeco-Roman tradition in chapter two and continues through a discussion of the various types of magic found in Europe through 1500.

Chapter three deals with the issues of pagan magic in Norse and Irish culture by focusing on the presence of magical potions, spells and Runic inscriptions in the Norse sagas and the magic of fairies and druids in Irish texts. The bibliographic entries from this chapter may be of more interest to scholars of Norse and Irish culture than the chapter itself. However, for non-specialists, the chapter provides an accessible overview of the pertinent subject matter.

Chapter four is an overview of the various types of magic and magical practitioners in the Middle Ages. This chapter is particularly strong in its handling of the various distinctions between healers, diviners, surgeons, and other members of society associated with natural and practical magic in the form of prayers, spells, incantations, divination, herbology, charms, amulets, talismans, potions, and the like. The examples presented from primary source materials throughout the chapter are not only important as documented evidence of Kieckhefer’s claims, but are also amusing anecdotes of the superstitions and magic beliefs and customs of the medieval era.

Chapter five deals with the presence of magic in courtly culture, both in the courts, themselves and also in the literature of the courtly tradition. Kieckhefer points out that diviners and astrologers in particular were important presences in numerous medieval courts, and that the practice of divination and astrology for political purposes was fairly widespread. He also discusses the propagation and use of manuals describing the properties of gemstones and talismans at court, as well as the presence and popularity of “automatons” or machinery, such as mechanical birds, which “writers of fiction persisted in teasing their readers…[suggesting]…that such things were done by necromancy” (101). The chapter concludes with a discussion of magic in the romance literary tradition, with particular attention to the works of Chrétien de Troyes and other Arthurian writers.

Chapter six explains the transmission of Arabic and occult scientific texts from the twelfth century on, with special attention to the subject fields of astrology and alchemy as well as the cult of secrecy and the creation and promulgation of Books of Secrets from the later Middle Ages. This chapter builds on the subject matter of chapter five by demonstrating through numerous examples culled from extant texts of the practice and use of astrology and alchemy in courts throughout medieval Europe. It then turns to a discussion of how magic came to be viewed as an increasingly secret and occult practice throughout the course of the Middle Ages for two main reasons. First, practitioners needed to be well-educated in Latin and ritual practices, and therefore were removed from everyday life by means of their knowledge. Secondly, it was considered increasingly dangerous for magical knowledge to fall into the hands of laypeople, so that magical texts were created and guarded by those who studied and practiced magic.

Chapter seven discusses the rise of necromancy as a “clerical underworld in the later Middle Ages” (152). Kieckhefer argues that for the medieval writers on this subject, necromancy was not so much a raising of the dead as a conjuring of demonic spirits that assumed the appearance of deceased people and behaved as they did. This renders necromancy an “explicitly demonic” form of magic (152). In this chapter, in addition to explaining the study and practice of necromancy, Kieckhefer also points out the difficulty of defining a “cleric” in medieval thought, arguing that the term referred to priests, men in minor orders, monks, friars, and boys in training for various forms of the priesthood, and states that what they all had in common was “at least a little learning, and for them this learning was a dangerous thing” (155). Necromancy required Latin and an understanding of ritual, both of which were provided by clerical training; the misuse of such knowledge even with good intentions gave rise to charges of necromancy and demonic conjuring by various men in orders.

Chapter eight focuses on the prohibition, condemnation and persecution of practitioners of magic. Of particular note in this chapter are the distinctions made between secular and religious laws concerning magic, as well as the historical development of such laws. He also explores the implications of the increasingly sophisticated legal system of medieval Europe, in which cases involving magic were tried. Kieckhefer rightly points out that “as trials for magic increased in the later Middle Ages, there was little real change in the laws against magic but a great deal of development in [these] guidelines for prosecution” (180). Kieckhefer moves through a brief overview of the Malleus Maleficarum and the rise in witch trials that followed its production and dissemination, before concluding that “distinguishing between natural and demonic forms of magic was not easy; agreement on the distinction was not to be expected. The history of medieval magic is essentially one of conflicting perceptions” (200).

This book offers a significant amount of introductory matter on the subject of magic in the medieval world. Its primary usefulness lies in the comprehensive presentation of the subject matter and in Kieckhefer’s extensive use of primary and secondary sources. Its secondary usefulness is as a springboard for further research, particularly in the area of pagan Celtic and Norse magical traditions, which surely influenced magic in the British Isles, at least, to a greater degree than that suggested by this text. An annoyance for particularly busy scholars is the fact that the footnotes are inconveniently not listed in bibliographic form at the end of the book, which means that one must page through the text itself to locate documented primary sources of interest. The bibliography for further reading, however, is conveniently sub-divided into areas of interest corresponding to the chapters, themselves. Overall, Magic in the Middle Ages is a seminal work in the field and an important starting point for scholars interested in magic in the Middle Ages.

Melissa Ridley-Elmes

Melissa Ridley-Elmes received her MA in Medieval Literature from Longwood University in May, 2009. She currently serves as the Art History and British Literature instructor at the Carlbrook School in Halifax, Virginia.

Creative Commons Licence
Book Review–Magic in the Middle Ages by Melissa Ridley-Elmes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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