By Kathryn Walton
Many today tend to associate magic in the Middle Ages with evil: with sorcerers attempting to summon demons or witches enchanting someone. The idea that magic is an evil thing, however, is something of a modern phenomenon. In the Middle Ages magic was an accepted and common part of many people’s lives.
If you think of medieval magic something like an image of a magician with a long staff standing atop a mountain conjuring a storm might come to mind. Or perhaps you might imagine an evil-looking sorcerer pouring over a dusty manuscript while he attempts to conjure a demon. Or you might even think of a witch performing a ritual from within some kind of magical circle. Somewhat disappointingly, these images couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When I started my doctoral research on medieval magic, I was eager to find these kinds of images in the literature and culture of the time. I soon found, however, that these kinds of practices are infrequent in medieval literature and difficult to find in historical records. There are some surviving examples of nefarious magic, but they were not all that common. The idea that magic in the Middle Ages was seen as evil comes more from contemporary attitudes towards magic than medieval ones. In the Middle Ages magic was a common and accepted part of everyday life and even, often, within the bounds of church authority.
When I use the term everyday magic in the Middle Ages (as opposed to say the kind of magic that appears in medieval literature, which is a bit different), I am talking about the kinds of actions that medieval people took to influence their world in some way. Everyday magic basically refers to a set of superstitious ideas and actions that individuals in the Middle Ages used to attempt to influence something outside of the bounds of the natural world. Individuals would combine words and actions to attempt to change or influence something in their lives that they couldn’t control through ordinary means. In the Middle Ages, many things were outside of people’s control. They did not have access to the scientific knowledge and technology that we do today, and so they turned to magic to influence things like the weather or to gain knowledge about some inexplicable or hidden phenomenon. Magic for many medieval people was essentially a reaction to an uncontrollable and sometimes inexplicable world.
And it was very common. It could be found in all levels of society amongst all kinds of different people. It was also generally well looked upon. Authorities did not object overly to its use and in most instances, it looked nothing like the nefarious practices we tend to dwell on today.
Here are some of the different kinds of everyday magic popular in the Middle Ages:
Magic for Healing
Probably the most extensive and popular kind of magic prominent amongst people of all social classes in the Middle Ages was magic that could be used to heal a person or animal. A huge amount of the surviving magical material that we have today tells its practitioners how to cure someone of something or help someone recover from an injury. There is an early surviving Old English Leechbook that gives some idea of the kinds of practices that might have been common. This book advises practitioners not how to conjure demons but how to use natural elements to cure illness. Most of the material within basically tells the reader how to create an herbal remedy for an illness, but it also advises the practitioner to say various words or perform various actions that draw on pagan or Christian supernatural forces to heighten the potency of the medicine.
The Old English charm to use in the case of a delayed birth, for example, tells the sufferer to go to a grave, step over it three times, and say the following:
This will help me against the hateful late-birth,
this will help me against the ponderous heavy-birth,
this will help me against the hateful lame-birth.
The charm then combines various actions and other phrases to attempt to help the suffering woman. You can read the full thing here.
Magic for Finding Information
If a person in the Middle Ages has lost something or if something has been stolen from them, they might turn to magic to attempt to find that item. There is a sequence of charms, for example, intended to help a farmer find his lost cattle. Practitioners would appeal to the elements or other supernatural sources to help them determine the place of their lost item. You can read all about the kinds of charms often used in farming in my feature Farming with Charms.
Magic for Protection
Individuals in the Middle Ages also often turned to magic for protection. In the Leechbook mentioned above, there is a recipe for a drink that protects against malevolent spirits. To make the drink, the individual must trace a prayer on a piece of paper before asking a virgin to wash the paper in running water. The practitioner must then add the paper to a mixture of herbs and consecrated wine.
Amulets were also very popular, and many individuals would carry amulets with them to ward off disease and other evil influences. Amulets were some kind of physical object that was thought to be powerful in some way: they could be an image from a saint, a pouch with certain herbs in it, a superstitious, natural object of some kind, or even a piece of consecrated bread. They would be worn to ward off diseases as well as invisible or visible attacks from various enemies. A hare’s foot, for example, worn on the left arm would allow the wearer to go anywhere without danger. A spring of rosemary attached to the door of a person’s house would keep venomous snakes at bay. Someone could also carry rosemary around to keep evil spirits at bay when they were out and about.
Magic for Determining the Future
There was also a rich culture of astrology that existed across the Middle Ages in all kinds of different forms. Much of the more learned tradition of magic involved accessing the stars or other natural phenomena to determine the future. There were detailed charts that told people what days would be best for various activities. Dreams were also often used to predict the future. So too could the calls of birds or the paths that they took as they flew across the sky be used to determine the course of events. Even the sound of thunder could provide a warning of what was to come: if it sounded from the east it was thought to foretell a year with a great deal of bloodshed.
And so much more!
What I have relayed above is just a small sample of the different kinds of magic that medieval people accessed. There are many books that lay out the different kinds of everyday magic that appeared at the time. The one I relied most on here is Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages. This book, and the many, many others on the topic show just how extensive the practice was. Magic, as I said at the outset, was popular and prominent. It was used for all kinds of things and in all kinds of ways.
And, I think most surprisingly for contemporary audiences, everyday magic in the Middle Ages was not always outside of the bounds of church authority. Sometimes it was right within it.
Church Attitudes Towards Magic
While the church did on occasion object to magic practiced by the laity, magic and Christianity blended in a much more harmonious way in the Middle Ages than they do today.
Most magical practices drew on Christian elements. Practitioners would use religious objects (relics, holy water, images of saints), and prayer (either official prayers or words with religious significance) to influence the course of events. Monks and priests were even often involved in the rituals. The Old English “Charm for Unfruitful Land,” for example, instructs the practitioner to bring four chunks of soil taken up in the night from the four corners of the field to the church where the priest will sing four masses over them while turning the green side towards the altar. The charm blends superstitious magical actions with Christian ritual and is a typical example of the harmonious blend between Christianity and magic in the Middle Ages. The division between magic and religion really was much less stark than it is today.
As the Middle Ages progressed magic did begin to become less and less accepted by church authorities. Eventually in the later 15th centuries it was more universally condemned, but throughout most of the Middle Ages’ magic was a common and accepted practice.
And many medieval people who said a charm over a healing salve or looked to the skies to determine what might happen tomorrow would not have thought they were doing anything out of the ordinary or wrong. Magical practices made up a part of the fabric of many people’s lives in a very ordinary kind of way. Magic was a staple of many people’s lives because it offered a means of control in an uncontrollable world, which is something many people still look for today.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
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Top Image: An inscribed Medieval silver pendant set with a re-used Roman intaglio of dark orange cornelian. The inscription around the front of the pendant reads: +ERIGERARI . AGLA . OZA – The inscription, which was probably intended to be amuletic or magical to protect the wearer. Image courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.