As stated on our home page, the scope of this guide is intended to ranges roughly from the 4th to 15th centuries. Though large in scope, the sources we have gathered in this guide cover the significant trends in the exploration of the historical interplay between magic, religion, and technology throughout the Middle Ages. This essay seeks to contextualize certain key texts and their importance in this ranging history in order to provide an introduction to some of the key sources for this given topic.
6th century BC-135 CE, known as the Second Temple period, saw the spread of a dominant Greek culture, a period of Hellenization under Alexander. This was a period of religious diversity and changes within the Jewish community, such as new attitudes on inter marriage, gentile conversion, and religious doctrines. This was also a period of profuse cultural mingling, with interplay between Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, pagan and even early Christian traditions and rituals. There are early sources from these years through the 5th century that outline the syncretic nature of the larger Greco-Egyptian world, and the transition to the legal and religious disapproval of common folk practices and rituals considered magic in nature.The forms of magic in late antiquity (2nd century-7th century) were most often amulets, which were typically thin sheets of metal with symbols or an illustrated scene on it meant for protection; defixiones, Greek curse tablets or binding spells; and gems and rings often inscribed with an image. A number of records of magical practices have survived from this period, which are valuable in understanding the interplay of religion, medicine, and magic in late antiquity, such as The Greek Magical Papyri, as well as 5th c. intellectual and theological treatises from significant church fathers, such as Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.
The Greek Magical Papyri is a body of papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt. It is significant because it is a depository of religious literature from over many centuries. The materials in the papyri date from the 3rd century AD, and the corpus as a whole is derived from earlier Egyptian religious and magical beliefs and practices. Many of the pieces of the papyrus are pages or fragmentary extracts from spell books, repositories of arcane knowledge. The pages contain citations of hymns, rituals, formulae from liturgies otherwise unknown, and bits of mythology called historiolae. The spells range from the impressive summoning of demons, to folk remedies and mere tricks; from fatal curses to love charms, and cures for minor medical complaints. The materials assembled under the name Greek magical papyri presents a collection of texts and traditions of diverse origin and nature. The collection includes individual spells and remedies as well as collection made by ancient magicians, from the early Hellenistic period to late antiquity. The religion in the papyri is a syncretism of Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, and even early gnostic Christian religious influences engendered by the unique profusion of cultural influences in Greco-Roman Egypt. This collection reflects the religious and cultural pluralism of Greco-Roman Egypt. This is exemplified in a variety of ways in the papyri, such as the use of Greek as well as Demotic, or the referral to Egyptian deities by Greek names or in the guise of their Greek counterpart. There is a strong influence of Egyptian religion throughout the papyri, however the texts still show a great variety. Similarly, Jewish magic was well known in antiquity, but the origins of the sections that contain Jewish magic in the papyri are unclear. It is unknown if the material actually originated from Jewish sources, or how those magicians who did write the papyri knew of Jewish magical traditions.
The most influential Latin Christian Theologian was Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. During this time, there was no Church or doctrinal authority, only individual thinkers. His writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity and Western Philosophy. Augustine’s discussion of magic represents the increasing concern with magical practices, and the perceived role of religion within them. In other works, Augustine argues that it is the weakness of humans, their pride and curiosity that leads them to worship demons instead of God. Augustine’s most important discussion of the subject occurs in On Christian Teaching, begun in 395-398 and completed in 426. As one of the most influential church fathers writing in the 4th and 5th centuries, Augustine’s condemnation of what he calls harmful superstitions established magic as outside of good Christian faith. Augustine also asserts that while God knows of the evils occurring, because he is omniscient, it is ultimately the already existing faults and signs of losing faith in a human that the spirits deceive and manipulate. This idea is seen again in the 15th century emergence of witch trials when determining guilt. Not only does Augustine take a strong religious stance against the art of magic as an act against God, but he also belittled common magical folk practices, and endowed the practitioners with guilt in their being mislead, asserting it is their preexisting faults that enabled the fall.
Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century and essays by influential church fathers in the 5th century began a period of conflict between religion, magic, and science. Up to this point, magical practices were pseudo scientific in their application towards medicinal care. With these shifts in Christian dominance, the at once plural though assimilated and unified cultural plethora of Greco-Egyptian religious and cultural traditions was branded as superstitious nonsense that was to be avoided at all costs by a good Christian. Before 1100 AD, no doctors in the modern sense existed. It was still a time before an organized church and the standardization of a unified Christian theology were established. If someone were suffering from a physical malady, they would go to a cleric, a leech, or perhaps a cunning folk; there were few other options for medical care in Europe. Clerics had access to medieval texts as well as early Roman medical texts, which contained cult elements. Clerics at this time were considered to have magical powers that could help cleanse sins and other afflictions, and would also perform fertility rites. Leechcraft is an example of a body of knowledge, scientific in nature, that was considered magical in its application, as knowledge of healing herbs and techniques were considered quasi-magical in Anglo-Saxon times rather than being understood as an applied science. Leechcraft demonstrates the continued application of magic towards medical purposes. However, its increased diligence towards the properties and qualities of plants, as well as the importance placed on gathering them during certain astrologically significant times as well as in a certain manner, ultimately began the shift of these rituals from mere folkloric medical tradition to what can be considered an early study of natural science as well as an advance in the precision of scientific techniques as demonstrated by the particular gathering and care taken of the ingredients.
Religion as well plays an interesting part in the practice of leechcraft. Although this magical healing was earth based, it relied on the use of a series of Latin prayers to be sung over herbal infusions to increase their potency. For example, a recipe to create a Holy salve in the Lacnunga Manuscript calls for a variety of plants as well as other organic ingredients, but requires various religious elements as well. However, by the mid 11th century, the creation of medical schools and an increased awareness of anatomy and medical manuals, doctors became an expanding group of medical professionals who would instruct surgeons in procedure. With this change came an emphasis on the professionalism and standardization of medical practices, as well as a shift in what medicine was viewed as superstitious or legitimate. This, in turn, meant a movement to stop the practices of cunning folk and leeches. The tradition of magic as practiced by leeches continued to use many of the earlier magical traditions as demonstrated in the Greek magical papyri, such as the invocation to a deity for help as well as the arcane gathering of ingredients and the recitation of predetermined prayer-like incantations. However, the particularity and specificity with which leeches gathered their ingredients was determined by certain external factors. This is a significant advance in science, as it is an acknowledgment that these external factors can change reactions, and in turn, could affect it could the potency of certain ingredients. So, while this earth based magical healing was eventually marginalized by attempts made to standardize medicine and put a stop to local folk medical practices, the earlier practical application of it actually made significant advances in early science and technique. Furthermore, even though leechdom included Christian prayers and can ultimately be evaluated for the advancements it made in early forms of plant science, its inclusion and continuation of folk practices influenced by occult transitions, which were deemed superstitious, eventually resulted in the mobilization of more conservative bodies against them, similar to the legal and moral movement to stop common folk practices in the 4th and 5th centuries.
The 11th & 12th centuries saw the introduction of a new range of intellectual knowledge, and the rise of the universities in the 12th & 13th centuries. Constantine the African (1020-1087) brought Arabic language texts, specifically about medical knowledge, to Latin learning and translation. There was also a rediscovery of Greek culture, literature, and intellectual thought that had been preserved in Arabic. With this influx of classical material, magic was tied to philosophical and medical knowledge influenced by occult transitions. The early Church condemned magic because of its associations with the pagan Roman world, while the later Church, largely due to the assimilation of Aristotle and Arabic astrological works, adopted more of a tolerant attitude, often accepting magic, astrology in particular, for its scientific purposes such as meteorology or medicine. Astral magic, however, remained dubious because of the belief that it relied on the summoning of demons. It became largely accepted that planets and constellations have personalities and certain qualities. Christian apologists even claimed astrology is a part of humankind’s study of the natural world and did not go against the faith.
The 14th century began the Renaissance and the birth of Humanism. Humanism was an Italian intellectual movement fathered by Francesco Petrarch. At its core it was a philological study. It was believed that if one could study and master Roman texts and language, they could learn and master the Roman ethical example. It therefore attempted to reconstruct and imitate Roman culture in order to champion virtues of Republicanism. It was supported by Rome who considered themselves the rebirth of Roman impartiality. With this period came further academic discussion of magic.One of the most significant compendiums produced during this period of intellectual discourse surrounding magic (14th and 15th centuries) is Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia libri tres, or, Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Agrippa’s study of occult philosophy was a significant contribution to the Renaissance intellectual discussion surrounding the powers of ritual magic and its relationship with religion. The three books deal with elemental, celestial, and intellectual magic. The books outline basically all aspects and histories dealing with the evolution of magic up to that point; such as the elements, astrology, kabbalah, numbers, angels, true names, the soul of the world, alchemy, and origins of different cultural influences. Agrippa’s interpretation of magic is similar to other humanist authors, such as Ficino, who synthesized magic, science, and religion and emphasized an exploration of nature.
However, the 15th century was also a period of growing concern towards the division between magic and religion, and the prevalence of superstition, which was highly criticized. This new way of teaching, which viewed sorcery as the work of demons, influenced the 15th century scholasticism and teaching in universities. This encouraged accusations and trials of a new malefici, or harmful magic, and even of non-aggressive ritual practices like folk magic and herbal remedies. This marked the emergence of the witch in the 15th century.
Previously, magic was largely viewed as backwards practices born out of ignorance rather than mal intent or sin. It is with this shift in thinking and the publication of a number of religious treatises surrounding the nature of witchcraft that recast it as an unforgivable mortal sin. This way of thinking influenced the ecclesiastical authority, which in turn sought to root out demonic cults in local communities, viewing witches and their work for the devil as threats to the greater Christian community as a whole.
The Humanist critique of the persecution of witches and the development of their intellectual discourses surrounding magic and religion in general emerged simultaneously. They viewed inquisitors as over zealous, fanatical, and often hypocritical, but did not deny the existence of witchcraft. It is during this period of humanist skepticism that Agrippa (1486-1535) wrote his books. The persecution of witches occurred largely in areas that did not have a strong central authority. These places were often rural, independent, and removed, and such isolation encouraged witch trials. Whereas Humanist writers most often were in urban city centers such as Florence or Naples, with already strong and existing central authority.
The development of these drastically different opinions on magic during the same period is ultimately an interesting pinnacle in the interplay among religion, magic, and science. The humanists argued in favor of magic as something that, if practiced properly and by a stout and pious mind, could be used for true intellectual pursuit, which pleased God. On the other side of the spectrum, the condemnation of magical practices by significant theological writers and eventually certain communities as a mortal sin removed magic completely from its proto scientific roots, which at one time required the practitioners to consider the elements and properties of the earth, the cosmos, and certain ingredients, and transformed it into a blanket term for the evildoing of those who made pacts with the devil for ultimately frivolous and petty things. However, in equating magic with heresy, magic and religion were once again conflated, but this time with magic cast as a kind of anti religion.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2013.
Augustine, “On Christian Teaching,” Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700, A Documentary History. Edited by Kors, Alan Charles. Peters, Edward. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Edited by Dieter Betz, Hans. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Edited by Pollington, Stephen. England: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000.