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Magic in the Middle Ages: Home

Magic in the Middle Ages

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur

“The world wishes to be deceived, and so it may be deceived”

 Roman aphorism, Hans Dieter Betz, Greek Magical Papyri, p. xlviii

We are a group of Librarians that have created a guide for students interested in the academic study of history, specifically of the historical and cultural ideas of magic, religion, and science. The lines between magic, science, and religion did not exist for early practitioners and clients of magic. However, throughout the Middle Ages, from late antiquity to the 15th century, there were significant shifts in the perception of magic and its place in society, largely dictated by and intertwined with religious thought from a very early point. It is within these magical ritual traditions and practices that early scientific advances in technique were made, and a greater understanding of the world and cosmos was developed. Magical beliefs and practices cannot be overestimated in their importance in the daily life of the people in the Middle Ages. The religious beliefs and practices of most people were identical with some form of magic. The distinction between approved and disapproved forms of religion—calling the former ‘religion’ and ‘church’ and the latter ‘magic’ and ‘cult’—did not exist in antiquity except among a few intellectuals, and only developed over the course of the Middle Ages. It is our hope that this guide can provide a starting point for researchers delving into this rich topic for academic or independent research. This guide includes physical and online primary and secondary sources that explore these topics as well as search tips and important terminology for the study of history.


The scope of this guide's contents ranges from the 4th to 15th centuries. The 4th and 5th centuries saw the Christianization of the Roman Empire, and the first move by influential church fathers to take a religious and moral stance towards magical folk practices. The 11th and 12th centuries show the increasing use of magic for proto scientific applications, such as medicine and astrology. Finally, the 15th century was a time of significant change in the entire perception of magic, with the emergence of the witch trials, and in turn, the rise of Humanist discourses defending the proper exploration of magical practices. It becomes clear that throughout the evolution of magical traditions and the public, religious, and political opinions surrounding them, science, magic, and religion are constantly interacting with one another, whether they be in conflict, or at times, indistinguishable.


While this guide would be useful to anyone with an interest in the Middle ages, classical & historical scholarship, shifting views and practices of magic, or the development of scientific and medicinal knowledge, this guide is specifically geared towards undergraduate students just beginning their journey into historical study. We intend to provide not only crucial sources for understanding this specific topic, but additionally some tips for understanding what is required of historical scholarship as well as how to evaluate sources with this in mind. 


Your Librarians

Chelsea Fritz

Sophie Harding 

Ursula Romero

Pratt School of Information and Library Science 2018



How to Use This LibGuide