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“Magic in the Middle Ages” by Richard Kieckhefer Essay

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Updated: Nov 8th, 2021

Trying to understand the ideas of the past is not the exercise in futility that many people seem to believe it to be. By understanding the thought and ideas that have shaped the past, we can begin to understand how we came to believe in a particular set of ideas that are either fundamentally based on the assumptions of our forebears or are a direct reaction against them. Although we tend to look at the ideas of the past as naïve and simplistic, it is sometimes surprising to discover just how many of these ideas continue to shape our thinking today. One of the areas in which we continue to be strongly influenced by the ideas of the past without truly questioning why we think the way we do is in the area of magic, particularly as it relates to science and religion. While we seem to make a clear distinction between these fields today, an investigation into how these terms were distinguished and practiced in the middle ages reveals that we don’t really have any more defined ideas of the division line between these concepts than our ancestors did almost 1000 years ago. The common impression of medieval thought is that there wasn’t too much thought to go around: most citizens of the medieval period were ignorant buffoons who believed any outlandish claim made while the educated used their knowledge to prey on the weak. However, Richard Kieckhefer’s book Magic in the Middle Ages demonstrates that the ideas of magic, religion, and science experienced a great deal of investigative thought and skepticism among the educated and the ignorant alike.

The purposes of Kieckhefer’s book are to explore the concepts of magic as they were understood by the people of the middle ages, whether they were of the educated minority or the largely uneducated majority. In making this exploration, the author attempts to provide a starting definition of what was meant by the term magic acknowledging that these definitions were ambiguous at best both within the culture and throughout history and imprecise in their application to various practices. In addition to attempting to discover a particular definition of what falls under the classification of ‘magic’, the book also attempts to discover which elements of society actually practiced magic. This, again, is imprecise due to the changeable nature of the definition of the term. Under one definition, the miracles of Christ would be considered nothing less than magic, but under another definition, it is decidedly something different because of its association with the one true God. In exploring this seeming contradiction, Kieckhefer discusses the perceived differences between natural magic as a manifestation of the principles of the earth and the substances on it as compared to demonic magic which depends upon coercion of demons in order to accomplish its objectives. Again, though, these distinctions are not hard and fast rules and boundaries between one and another shifted easily depending upon individual interpretation. This interpretation often depended upon how the church viewed the various practices, whether they were beneficial or harmful to the physical and spiritual well-being of the community. This investigation begins to reveal the links that exist between perceptions and practice of magic and the beliefs and practices of Christendom. Much of what is learned about the ideas of magic in the middle ages is assisted by the study of the ideas of magic as they existed in other cultures, such as among the Arab nations where much of the classical knowledge had been preserved and studied for ages. This is because these ideas also had a large influence on how the medieval people themselves viewed the concept of magic.

The book is logically divided into eight chapters that attempt to address the topic from a number of different viewpoints to provide a well-rounded view of the issue. Kieckhefer begins the book with an introduction to the topic that attempts to explain the difficulties of definition and clarity when dealing with a topic this old, this controversial, and shrouded by attempts to alternately eradicate it and preserve it. Following this explanatory text, the second chapter begins to explore the subject more directly by attempting to trace the classical background of many of the magical theories and formulas. Both because there is not much information available and because it is not the focus of his investigation, Kieckhefer doesn’t spend a great deal of time on ancient thought and attempts to draw connections even here to the ideas that emerged in the middle ages. The third chapter attempts to discover some of the older Celtic and Germanic traditions that would have fed into the ideas of magic during medieval times, but there is even less written information available regarding this period, and the chapter is kept short. The fourth chapter examines the common ideas of magic within the general population, particularly those ideas that were widespread across large segments of the population. This leads to a more in-depth examination into what was believed and felt within the courtly culture that emerged during the late middle ages which are discussed in the fifth chapter. It is primarily through these more cosmopolitan centers that the ideas that were coming out of the Arabic culture were disseminated to the rest of the population. The ideas of the Arabs are explored in the sixth chapter. The seventh chapter looks more deeply into the ideas of necromancy and the clerical underworld and the book concludes in the eighth chapter with a discussion of the reactions of the church and state to the ideas of magic through the time periods discussed in the text.

One of the primary ideas that emerge from this book is that the ideas of magic that give us reason to ridicule our ancestors as ignorant and naïve do not necessarily accurately portray what these people believed. As Kieckhefer says, “Many of the recipes for magic that we will encounter in this book may strike a modern reader as amusing or frivolous, and may indeed have been written in a playful spirit, but it is seldom easy to know for sure whether a medieval audience would have been amused or shocked by such material.” As a result, even though there might be evidence of ridiculous or outlandish spells or procedures to accomplish a particular desired result, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the people of the middle ages gave the spell any more credence than we would today. Examples of such claims include the idea that “a man could be rendered impotent for the rest of his life by being so careless as to imbibe forty ants boiled in daffodil juice” or that dogs can be kept from barking if one uses the right foot of a hare in just the right way. That these ideas might not have always been taken seriously is proven by Kieckdefer’s notation that in one of the magic books from the middle ages that he found a hand-written note dating from the medieval period that states: “This is utterly false, superstitious, and practically heretical.” Another person writing in the same book at a slightly later time wrote: “This would be good if it were true.” There is even evidence of ancient ridicule of some of the claims within the magical realm. “Cicero ridiculed the notion that the gods communicate messages in dreams, which are in fact merely confused and ambiguous recollections from waking life.” Thus it seems clear that the idea that people of the middle ages were not the naïve fools that the modern era envisions them to have been.

At the same time, though, there’s no proof that these ideas were not devoutly believed in, and equally as much evidence exists to suggest that they were practiced. Kieckhefer opens his second chapter with one such piece of evidence in the form of a lead plate that was discovered in London. The plate dated to the era of the Roman Empire. It was etched with a curse upon a certain Tretia Maria which was reinforced by driving seven nails through the plate to emphasize the strength of the sentiment. Kieckhefer finds evidence that Christian saints and pagans alike were invoked against each other in contests to see which was greater or more powerful. Although the topic remains very broad and necessarily vague, Kieckhefer fills his pages with hundreds of relevant anecdotes that illustrate the various ideas and attitudes held toward magic during this time period. His survey of beliefs helps to clarify some of the ideas that came out of antiquity to contribute to western ideas of magic such as Pliny the Elder’s concepts regarding matter and antimatter and how one might cancel out the other as in the concept that the ignoble goat could, by the power of its blood, reduce the noble diamond into dust. Another concept by Plotinus suggests that we are all connected with each other and the universe like spiders in a gigantic web and a tug on one end in the form of a prayer or a spell necessarily creates a tug on another end because of this connection. This idea proves useful in tracing concepts up into the medieval period and humanist tradition. Although he provides a great deal of evidence that these ideas were present in society, practiced at least to some degree, and thus believed in by someone, he doesn’t attempt to pursue the extent to which these beliefs served to contribute to cultural identification or conception.

One weak point of the book is that it claims to recognize a significant difference between the educated and the popular views of magic, but it does little to illuminate the popular view. Kieckhefer suggests that this weakness is not due to any lack of research of his own but is instead the result of a lack of information handed down out of the popular class. Those capable of reading and writing and thus preserving their ideas and the prevailing understanding of their time were themselves a part of the minority educated class. The only way the popular class had to preserve their knowledge and understanding was through folklore and legend, neither of which is particularly reliable in capturing the attitudes of a particular time because they tend to morph and change as time and attitudes change. In addition, the populace was greatly subject to the attitudes and beliefs of the ruling classes. As a result, any ideas or thoughts that they had that differed from the educated mindset were either subdued entirely or hidden under the radar of these classes and thus lost to history. In the end, much of what people seemed to use magic for, whether educated or uneducated, was to fulfill some of their deepest desires for love, revenge, comfort, and health. Perhaps the strongest weak spot of the book, though, is its lack of true direction. Kieckhefer has collected a great deal of evidence regarding his subject and has organized it well within his own imposed framework, but it never seems pulled together sufficiently to provide us with any true direction or solid understanding regarding its relevance to our conception of medieval life. The stories he’s found are amusing and enlightening regarding that particular element of magic, but they don’t tell us much about whether they were widely believed, practiced, or simply dismissed.

Overall, Kieckhefer’s book provides a well-rounded look at the ideas and concepts that shaped thoughts and hopes of magic in the middle ages, but he fails to provide his reader with any true sense of relevance to the modern-day audience. By tracing the ideas of magic from the ancient world into twelfth through sixteenth-century Europe, Kieckhefer is successful in bringing the people of the time to real life, dispelling some of the ideas that these people were backward, lacked sense, and were incapable of logical thought thanks to a general lack of education. His incorporation of information from the ancient world of the Greeks and Egyptians, as well as his discussion of the Arab influence, remind the reader that, as much as we tend to think of this time period in Europe as a time of extreme social inclusion, it is impossible for a society such as this to remain entirely secluded. His addition of the anecdotes brings the people of this time period more immediately alive for the modern reader and one is able to envision the new age mystic alongside the academic theologian as representative examples of the old world society. In terms of cultural connections, he is able to demonstrate how the ideas of magic were generally divided into either natural magic, which was closely related to the ideas of science, and what benefits could be gained through intelligent use of the planet’s natural properties and demonic magic, which was more closely related to the concepts of religion and the world of the spirits. While Kieckhefer doesn’t necessarily make the connection for us, perhaps the most relevant element of his book to today’s audience is to gain a greater understanding of how our ideas are shaped by the ideas of the past and the importance of questioning the beliefs we hold in order to have a firm grasp of what we actually believe.

Works Cited

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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