Witchcraft Wednesday

This is Part II of a series on witchcraft, where we look at medieval attitudes toward magic and witchcraft. Part I explained why we are in a witchy mood this season and gave a very brief overview of the Classical influences on western Europe when it came to magic, gender, and power.

The Late Antique world was changing rapidly, but the arbitrary separation of religion and magic by those in power was still a prevalent tool to control communities. Early Christianity was a minor religion that had not yet been fully defined or codified, particularly with respect to its boundaries with Judaism. The New Testament does include the Magi, eastern wise men given the power of prophecy in the Nativity story, and other New Testament books, Gnostic gospel, and apocrypha (stories that are not officially or widely recognized throughout Christendom), tell stories of a convert named Simon Magus that sought power and fame through magical works. These stories rely on recognisable forms of the Greek mageia discussed briefly in our previous witchcraft post. During this period, Christian authorities associate the Roman pantheon, and other gods found throughout the Empire, with fallen angels or demons. We can see the early seeds of orthodoxy, but these are blurry and malleable lines between what is accepted and what is heresy. There’s this incredible shift where Christianity that started on the fringes of society rises to dominance, becoming writ large on empire for centuries, but the conversion period hits different regions over those centuries at different times.

Scholar Karen Jolly and her comrades have produced a thought-provoking volume on the medieval period in the series Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe (2002). They describe three main phases of medieval attitude shifts: conversion period, 12th-century scholasticism, and 14th-century upheaval.

Phase I: Conversion Period(s)

The conversion period, although staggered through time, is a period of syncretism (the merging of multiple cultures or religion into something not quite clearly one of the components). There’s strong influence of the Classical (Greek and Roman, in particular), the Christian, and the “pagan” roughly Iron Age systems that have survived in western and central Europe in the development and form of medieval magic. These systems include the Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, and even Slavic traditions. In Scandinavia especially, conversion comes centuries after, say, Ireland and Britain, with a long period of coexistence that allows us in our time to read contemporary documentation of magic traditions that may be analogous to earlier northern Germanic practice. The conversion of peoples in Britain may have started as early as the 5th century, but Saint Augustine (of Rome, later Canterbury) is credited along with the Frankish Queen Bertha, wife of Aethelberht of Kent, for bringing Roman Christianity to the English. (Up here amongst the Northumbrians, Celtic Christianity was the converting force due to our beloved Saint Aidan).

Documents that talk about magic and witchcraft in the early parts of this period in Europe fall into both negative and positive approaches. The former are the condemnations which often juxtapose the power of prayerful words and saintly miracles against incantations and demonic illusions perpetrated by fraudsters. Saint Augustine (of Hippo) wrote numerous condemnations in the 4th-5th centuries as did Isidore of Seville in the 6th-7th centuries; these denunciations get repeated during the medieval period forming a basis for some of the most heinous persecutions in the early modern period. The latter includes saints’ lives (hagiography), medical texts, and guides to appropriate rituals for clerics and laity, including penitential texts that describe how to atone for minor and major sins. These texts in Britain and Ireland especially in regard to magic and witchcraft made their way to the Continent, and in return the laws of Charlemagne and his dynasty were imported, and their vocabulary translated into Old English. Bald’s Leechbook, a book of medical texts in Old English written down in the 10th century, contains several charms that require ritualistic behavior and/or herbal concoction. Where does the line between magic and medicine lie?

Folio 012v of Bald’s Leechbook via the British Library digitised copy. Royal MS 12 D XVII

Phase II: 12thC Scholasticism

The second phase evolves in the intellectual revolution beginning in the 12th century; the rise of towns and cities create changing socio-economic structures and division of labour, and old and new ideas are shared across Europe. Classical texts are rediscovered and reinterpreted, such as Aristotle’s discourse on science. Contemporary Arab and Jewish thinkers are being incorporated into the emerging philosophical approach of scholasticism, yet, at the same time, those scholars are portrayed as “The Other,” worthy of fear and persecution. All sorts of questions on the nature of things, including nature itself, the worlds of faith and reason, and the supernatural are asked and debated during this period of scholasticism. Many scholars theorise a natural magic or white magic that examines and manipulates phenomena of the natural world, giving rise to what today we consider sciences like botany, chemistry, and astronomy. The occult was not immediately negative, not instantly demonic, but rather the harnessing of hidden knowledge of nature. This further develops into the opposing forces of white and black magic, and high and low magic, which seeks to differentiate process and intent when passing judgement on magical pursuits. These frameworks push the focus of authorities like the Church away from writing off magic as simplistic paganism due to ignorance, and into the realm of purposeful heresy. The Church takes its growing role as an arbiter of knowledge seriously, but reserves handling cases of magic and witchcraft on a local or mid-level scale, rather than with the full force of the institution. Punishment was limited to excommunication or exile rather than death. Pastoral care, by way of warnings against witchcraft and magic and the introduction of confession as preventive and restitutive measures respectively, became a duty of the religious class.

Phase III: 14thC-16thC

The final phase aligns with the political upheaval across western and central Europe in the 14th and 15th century. This is when the millennia-old assertion of magic as at all times demonic (asserted by Saint Augustine) becomes truly entrenched. The increase in literacy and the earliest days of printing create new channels for communication, as ritual and folk medicinal texts become more widely available. Some have noted that the prevalence of anti-magic treatises may have actually led to more popular interest and the transmission of stories of magic. But now magic is active allegiance with the devil, a conspiracy of organised groups to endanger souls (and the authority of the Church). What were once dismissed as illusions is now mortal (and eternal) peril. Political scandals during the period were riddled with accusations of magic, witchcraft, and poisoning in royal courts and papal circles. The early inquisitor Bernard Gui publishes a guide in 1323 for the investigation and prosecution of those who dare to threaten the order of things with magic. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (literally “Hammer of Women who Commit Crimes of Magic”) goes straight at the diabolical roots, targeting witches and urging further social persecution and legal prosecution; its provocative and violent approach to the subject matter was even debated at its publication. This movement is not universal, but we see higher tiers of authority picking up these cases, sending ripples upward and downward through the ranks of society.

One such case occurred just across the Irish Sea in 1324 when Alice Kyteler, a well-off heiress to a merchant family’s fortune, was accused of witchcraft. Clearly the intersection of her status in the community, her gender, and her degree of independence all could have been perceived as a threat to rivals and local authorities. Her trial included a number of firsts such as the accusation of an organised conspiracy to commit heresy, which sadly led to the torture and burning of her servant Petronilla later that year. In addition, she is the first documented reference to a woman having sexual intercourse with a demon to gain her power. Women, regardless of their influence, were still disempowered when accused; they were unable to be independent perpetrators but were easily-seduced victims of the devil and his demons. Secular laws and well-timed escapes to England kept Kyteler out of the flames, but various Continental authorities in the Church and secular roles were inspired to pursue charges of heresy for witchcraft.

The fervor died down in the early 16th century…but not for long.

Further reading:

Jolly, K., Raudvere, C., & Peters, E. (2002). The Athlone history of witchcraft and magic in Europe: Volume 3: the Middle Ages. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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