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Magic: Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe


Information about medieval and early modern notions of magic is derived mainly from two types of source: (1) theological writings that describe and condemn magic, generally referring to it explicitly by the term magic, and (2) other works telling in greater or lesser detail how to perform particular types of magical operation, which are usually not identified explicitly as magical. The word magic is mainly an abstract and analytical term used in the theological literature. Practitioners more often described the purposes their operations served (e.g., healing, cursing, arousing love), without troubling to place these operations in an abstract category such as magic. In the fifteenth century this distinction broke down, and individuals who prescribed and practiced magic began referring to themselves as magicians or workers of magic. Apart from the theological works dealing with magic and the descriptions of concrete magical procedures, the study of law codes and the records of prosecution also provide some insights.

Magical techniques mentioned in medieval and early modern sources are largely identical with those found in many other cultures: manipulation of images to afflict another person physically or emotionally, administration of potions for these same ends, recitation of charms for healing or curses for harm, placing curative or apotropaic substances on a client's body, placing harmful substances in a victim's bed or under the threshold, gazing into reflective surfaces to divine the future or learn about hidden affairs, and conjuring spirits and bidding them to provide aid.

The Theological Tradition

Many early Christian writers condemned magical practices, which they associated with the pagan traditions of Greco-Roman society. The North African writer Tertullian (c. 200 ce) represented magic as a kind of fraud taught by demons to impressionable women. Origen (c. 185c. 254) discussed magic chiefly in his work against the pagan writer Celsus. He too represented magic as an art taught by demons, but he emphasized the real efficacy of words, whether sacred or magical. The early Christian attacks on magic were transmitted to the medieval West primarily by The City of God and other writings of Augustine of Hippo (354430). Although Augustine wrote after the Roman emperor Constantine (d. 337) and his successors had given Christianity an official status as an established religion, he still felt a need to respond to pagan critics of Christianity, and one part of his argument was the link between paganism and magic. For Augustine, magic was taught by demons and worked through the power of demons. Magical plants and stones might seem to have inherent power, but it is demons who disclose this power. Augustine conceded that there are objects in nature (such as the magnet) that do have inexplicable properties, but what he referred to specifically as magic was for him a form of pagan idolatry.

From the seventh century into the twelfth, the theological tradition was passed down through writers, including Isidore of Seville (c. 560636) and Hincmar of Rheims (c. 806882), who continued to draw on early Christian literature. This tradition's concern was fourfold: (1) to trace the origins of magic, seen as largely the invention of Zoroaster; (2) to categorize various types of magic, particularly forms of divination such as pyromancy (divination by fire), aeromany (air), hydromancy (water), geomancy (earth), and necromancy (consultation of spirits); (3) to expose the effects of magic as largely illusory; and (4) to explain its real effects as caused by the aid of demons. Within this tradition, magicians were so named because of the greatness of their evil actsthe noun magus (magician) is derived from the adjective magnus (great). They cause storms by disrupting the elements, they transform natural objects, they cause disturbance to people's minds, and, by the power of incantations, they can kill their victims.

John of Salisbury's (11201180) Polycraticus stands within this tradition. John divided magic into three primary categories: illusions (praestigia ), bewitchments (maleficia ), and divination (mathematica ). He took over from classical and early medieval sources various subdivisions of divination, depending on the means used for divining the future. Among the many practitioners he catalogued are vultivoli, who use figures of wax or clay to bewitch people; imaginarii, who use images to gain control over spirits; specularii, who gaze into reflecting surfaces such as mirrors or basins and foretell the future according to what they see. If these arts have any efficacy, it can only be through their reliance on demons. John himself was exposed to the operations of the specularii when he was a boy, and he was sent to learn Latin from a priest who engaged in these practices and used his pupils as mediums.

Hugh of Saint Victor (d. 1142) in his Didascolicon gave a classification of the types of magic similar to John of Salisbury's categories. He argued that magic is alien both to philosophy and religion, that it is immoral and illegal, and that it is false and thus deceptive. True law, religion, and erudition, he insisted, all repudiate it.

Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) spoke of magic as used for purposes such as disclosing the future and finding hidden treasure, opening closed doors, making people invisible, causing inanimate bodies to move about and speak, and summoning spirits. He believed that magicians make use of herbs and other natural objects, verbal formulas, and inscribed figures and characters. They use rituals such as sacrifices and prostrations. With astrological calculation, they observe the proper times for obtaining their effects. He also described the notory art (ars notoria ), which claims to acquire knowledge through rituals of fasting and prayer, along with occult figures and formulas. However, the underlying cause of these effects is the working of demons. Still, Thomas recognized in his letter "On the Occult Works of Nature" that many wondrous effects are possible through manipulation of occult forces within the natural order. But many practices that might elsewhere have been categorized as magic he included under the category of superstition, which he defined as the inappropriate veneration of a proper object or the directing of veneration to an improper object.

The position of Albert the Great (11931280) is more difficult to summarize. In his strictly theological writings he repeats traditional condemnations of magic, but his scientific works tend to portray magic in a more benign light. He recognizes plants as having divine or magical effects, and he writes with apparent approbation about the efficacy of magical stones and inscriptions. The Speculum astronomiae, plausibly attributed to Albert, is concerned mainly with distinguishing between the valid prescriptions of astrological magic (i.e., operations making use of inscribed astrological symbols for exploiting the powers of heavenly bodies) and the reprobate operations of necromancy (which appeal to demonic powers). Also complex was the position of William of Auvergne (c. 11801249), who had studied and condemned works of demonic necromancy but explicitly recognized natural magic as a branch of science that might be rarified (many of its operations required substances that might be plentiful in India and other lands but were rare in Europe) but was not forbidden.

The Literature of Magical Instructions

Before the twelfth century, works telling how to make use of occultor magical, to the theologianspowers fell mainly into three categories: (1) works of medicinal magic that might combine Galenic conceptions of healing with the use of occult substances and formulas; (2) instructions for divination; and (3) lists of the wondrous properties to be found in gems and other natural objects.

Medicine could be classed as magical if it made use of symbolic remedies or adjurations. The late Anglo-Saxon text Lacnunga recommended, for example, that a pregnant woman fearful of miscarrying should obtain milk from a cow that is of one color, pour it into running water, retrieve the water and drink it, return from the stream by a route different from the one she took in approaching it, enter into a different house from the one she left, and throughout the procedure remain silent and take care not to look around. The symbolic meanings in this operation are not obvious, but it is at least clear that by taking these measures the woman is ensuring that she will bear a child and have milk for it to drink, and that, with the variations in her route, she is breaking from a past experience of a presumably difficult pregnancy. Medical adjurations are usually more explicit in their meaning: An adjuration is a type of charm addressed to the disease itself, or to the disease agent (pictured as a demon, a worm, an elf, or some other maleficent being), which is commanded to depart. Adjurations and other medicinal charms were widely recommended and used, sometimes by physicians, throughout medieval Europe. The body parts of animals and birds (e.g., the various organs of the vulture) were also sometimes catalogued according to their medical utility.

Instructions for divination were various and ranged from simple lists (e.g., of favorable or unfavorable days for various undertakings) to more complicated procedures for telling the future. One particularly famous text, the Sortes Sangallenses (Saint Gall Oracles) is found in a manuscript from around the year 600. Individuals wanting to know about medical prognoses, fortunes in love, the outcome of judicial business, or other matters could consult these oracles, using dice to find the correct answers to their questions. Astrology could furnish more sophisticated counsel about one's fortunes and was also popularized in simpler forms of lunar astrologyin particular, by giving almanac-like indications of what one might expect for each day in the moon's phases.

Of the works on the wonders of nature, one of the more famous was the lapidary written by Marbode of Renne (10351123). Writing in literary Latin, Marbode recommended using a sapphire to gain the favor of God and of mortals, chalcedony to obtain victory in battle, selenite to reconcile quarreling lovers, and other gems for a wide range of purposesalthough it is difficult to know whether readers actually used these gems with the expectation of obtaining concrete results or merely read the compilation for the excitement of knowing about marvelous magical effects.

The literature of magical instructions was greatly expanded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when interaction between Christians and Muslims (especially in Spain) resulted in the transmission of a substantial mass of astrological and magical learning to western Europe that had long been preserved in Arabic. Adelard of Bath (10751160) was a particularly important Christian student of the Arabic occult sciences and did much to make them available to Europeans in the twelfth century. The most famous work of Arabic astrological magic, translated into Spanish and Latin in the thirteenth century at the behest of King Alfonso the Wise of Castile (12521284), was a compilation known in the West as Picatrix. This book told in detail how to conjure the spirits associated with the planets, how to inscribe on metal the images of the heavenly bodies to accomplish one's purposes (including bodily harm to individuals and groups), and how to use other magical procedures and objects. The book also gives instructions on how to use fumigations to attract spirits with the smoke of particular plants and other substances and on how to manufacture a magical mirror, which must be fumigated with a mixture of effluvia from the human body. More explicitly than most magical texts, Picatrix recognizes magic as a noble science and the magician as an exalted and honorable figure.

The astrological magic of Picatrix was at times referred to as necromancy, but in the later Middle Ages this term more often referred to conjuring of demons. The term originally meant summoning the spirits of the deceased, but in late medieval Europe the terms necromantia (necromancy) and nigromantia (roughly, black magic) were fundamentally interchangeable. Works describing how to conjure demons were, not surprisingly, often prey to inquisitorial fires, but some have survived. They center mainly on verbal formulas commanding the demons to present themselves and to carry out the will of the necromancer. The terms coniuro (I conjure), exorcizo (I exorcize), and impero (I command) meant the same thing: a conjuration or an exorcism was a command addressed to a demon, whether it was being ordered to come or to depart. The necromancer typically made reference to sacred names and sacred events as sources of magical power over the demons; thus, the conjuration "I conjure you by the passion and death of Christ" might be used to invoke a demon to appear and perform some service. Necromancers often stood within circles, which served mainly as further means of magical power but also could be seen as protecting the necromancer from the demons summoned. Practitioners of necromancy were expected to know Latin and basic liturgical formulas. They clearly were, for the most part, clerics. Writings on the conjuration of demons continued to circulate in the early modern period, when they became known as grimoires.

Although the magic of Western Christendom from the twelfth century onward was heavily indebted to Arabic sources, it drew also on Jewish tradition for inspiration. One particularly interesting example is the notory art ascribed in the later Middle Ages to King Solomon. This was a method of prayers and meditations meant to instill command of the liberal arts and other knowledge. There was a long Jewish tradition of gaining knowledge through magical contact with angels, and the ars notoria built on this tradition.

The Magicians of Renaissance Europe

For the most part, the literature of magical instruction either was anonymous or was pseudonymously ascribed (e.g., to Solomon, to Aristotle, or to Albert the Great). Beginning in the later fifteenth century, it was far more common for notable figures in society to practice and to write about what they themselves called magic. Their practices might be indebted to the Arabic tradition of the occult sciences, but two further sources that commanded attention from the 1480s onward were the writings from antiquity ascribed to the mythical Hermes Trismegistus titled Hermetic Corpus and the aspect of Jewish mysticism known as practical Qabbalah.

The Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino (14331499), in his Three Books on Life (completed 1489), provided one of the most important and influential syntheses of magical literature. Ficino was associated with Cosimo de' Medici (15191574), at whose urging he translated the Hermetic Corpus into Latin. He was also well acquainted with the third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (205270), from whom he took the notion of the universe as a great living being whose members worked in sympathetic harmony one with another; the fourth-century Neoplatonist Iamblichus, who had taught how to summon and make use of spirits by means of magical procedures; the Picatrix, which he used as a source for some of his prescriptions; and other works of Arabic astrological magic. His main interest was in using the beneficent influence of heavenly bodies (particularly the Sun and Jupiter) to enhance human life and health. This might be done by fashioning astrological images with the symbols of these celestial bodies, but in general Ficino was more favorably disposed to astrological "medicines" by which astral influences could be transmitted more effectively to humans: Saffron and honey, for example, were good repositories of solar virtue. Ficino also made use of Orphic hymns for their beneficent effect. Anticipating criticism for his use of magic, he pointed out that the magi in Matthew's gospel were honorable models for imitation, that Jesus had exercised healing arts, and that it was thus fitting for a priest and healer such as Ficino himself to use magical techniques to promote health and enhanced life. He insisted that he was advocating only natural magic, not demonic magic, although he did see astral powers as coming from heavenly bodies that were associated with attendant spirits, and he left himself open to the suspicion that these spirits were demonic.

Ficino's younger contemporary, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494), was also eclectic in his use of material but, unlike Ficino, he ascribed special importance to the magical efficacy of the practical Qabbalahin particular, the power found in Hebrew words. In 1486 Pico proposed nine hundred theses for public debate at Romemany of which had to do with natural magic and Qabbalah. In the theses and in his defense of them, he was concerned more with the theory of these arts than with concrete prescriptions for its practice. He provoked a systematic refutation of his arguments (published 1489) by the Spaniard Pedro Garcia, who refused to acknowledge that there was such an art as natural magic as distinct from the demonic sort.

In northern Europe, the most comprehensive Renaissance articulation of magic was that of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (14861535), whose encyclopedic Three Books on Occult Philosophy showed how natural substances, astral powers, mathematical figures, sacred names, and rituals could be used to magical effect. Agrippa wrote his work in 1510 as a young man, and he later condemned all occult learning as vain. Yet he finally published his compendium in 1533, perhaps because he had renewed confidence in its validity, but possibly (as some have suggested) in a cynical quest of publicity. The incorporation of demonic magic only hinted at in Ficino is more explicit in Agrippa, who explains how demons may be conjured and commanded, although he warns that the magician must do this with the aid of good spirits.

The image of the Renaissance magician gave rise to the legend of Doctor Faust, who conjured and made a pact with the demon Mephistopheles, resigning his soul to Satan in return for twenty-four years in which Mephistopheles would be at his service. Loosely based on the report of a historical person, this legend was popularized in a German Faust Book published in 1587, which inspired Christopher Marlowe to write his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The assumption behind the legend is that Renaissance magicians were more like necromancers than they themselves claimed to be.

Giordano Bruno (15481600) is sometimes viewed as bringing Renaissance magic to its culmination, chiefly for his use of the Hermetic corpus and Qabbalah. His work On Magic, written late in his life, advocated the use of imagination as a way of gaining access to demonic power and discussed means for "binding" spirits. But this work was not published until 1891, and Bruno's notoriety in his own time was based mostly on his cosmological and philosophical theories. Still, On Magic is important in the history of Renaissance magic for its frank acknowledgment of the demonic element in magic. In Bruno, the complex relationship between natural and demonic magic that runs through Renaissance tradition from Ficino onward finds a striking resolution.


The most general and comprehensive study of the history of magic is Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York, 19231958). For medieval magic in particular, see Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law (Philadelphia, 1978), Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, U.K., 1989), Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, N.J., 1991), and Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, eds., Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 3, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 2002).

Numerous texts of magical instruction from medieval Europe have been edited, translated, and studied. For example, see Godfrid Storms, ed., Anglo-Saxon Magic (The Hague, 1948), Karen Louise Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996), Marbode of Renne, De lapidibus, edited by John M. Riddle and translated by C. W. King (Wiesbaden, 1977), Charles Burnett, Magic and Divination in the Middle Ages: Texts and Techniques in the Islamic and Christian Worlds (Aldershot, U.K., 1996), and David Pingree, ed., Picatrix: The Latin Version of the Ghāyat Al-akīm (London, 1986). For a discussion of necromancy and related forms of ritual magic, see Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Stroud, U.K., 1997; reprint, University Park, Penn., 1998), and Claire Fanger, ed., Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (University Park, Pa., 1998).

For general studies of Renaissance magic, see Daniel P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (University Park, Pa., 2000), and Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London, 1964). More specific texts and studies include Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, with introduction and notes by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Binghamton, N.Y., 1989), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Syncretism in the West: Pico's 900 Theses (1486): The Evolution of Traditional, Religious, and Philosophical Systems: Text, Translation, and Commentary, translated by S. A. Farmer (Tempe, Ariz., 1998), Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, translated by James Freake and edited by Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minn., 1993), and Charles Garfield Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana, Ill., 1965).

Richard Kieckhefer (2005)

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