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Thinking About Magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 1-10 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0086

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Thinking About Magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

"Magical thinking is the belief that (a) transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place simply because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, or (b) that one's thoughts, words or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information."1

In April 2010, a group of scholars convened at the University of Auckland to discuss 'Miracles, Medicine, and Magic in Medieval and Early Modern Europe'. Among the speakers, many focused on magic. As they engaged with and challenged existing scholarship, one theme recurred with special frequency: the systems of thought that made the different notions of magic thinkable. This Special Issue of Parergon is the result of those exchanges, bringing together articles that explore how magic was imagined in England, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland between the late fourteenth and late seventeenth centuries. This Introduction, with its brief survey of recent scholarship, is intended to offer context, scholarly and historical, for the articles, each of which seeks in some way to reconstruct the overlapping mental structures within which magic seemed plausible to contemporary observers.

Venturing into premodern texts brings us into contact with ideas simultaneously familiar and bizarre, arousing the experience of unheimlichkeit ('the uncanny'), and nothing provokes the sensation as intensely as texts dealing with magic.2 Imagining magical causes for incidents to which modern societies readily attribute natural causes (convulsions, the transmission of viruses, eclipses), past societies were wary of much that seems perfectly normal today. We find an example of such wariness in a solemn determinatio published on 19 September 1398, by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris which condemned twenty-eight articles related to magic.3 The document held all magic to be blameworthy, even practices aimed at procuring positive effects for the community. The University's primary motivation in promulgating the [End Page 1] determinatio, stated in the document's first lines, was the desire to protect the Catholic faith against the 'abomination of heresy': unfit to assume the honour or domination that properly belongs to God, the document warned, humans must keep to their place. But in addition to holding the line against heresy, the document betrays genuine anxiety that dabbling in magic might unleash demonic power: demons could easily escape the rocks, rings, and mirrors in which they are restrained to do harm in the world. Modern readers are initially struck by the document's strange assumptions about magic. And yet, the desire to control imperfectly understood, invisible forces is not alien to modern readers. As Ioan P. Couliano has explained, medieval magicians, capable of convincing crowds that they could conjure up demons or chase them from the possessed, had a 'deep knowledge of personal and collective erotic impulses'.4 By manipulating collective social fantasies, they unleashed demons that were perhaps hallucinatory but nonetheless disruptive. In such collective mental manipulation, Couliano continues, we find the remote ancestor of 'applied psychosociology and mass psychology'. In the modern era, talented charlatans have created echo-chamber-like environments where untruths become believable to whole populations. When we think of the destruction caused by such manipulation of social fantasies, it is not hard to imagine why medieval authorities might have wished to limit the exercise of demonic power over the masses. Considered from this perspective, the determinatio with its bizarre condemnation of 'magical arts and other superstitious practices prohibited by God and the Church' begins to seem rational.5

Indeed, since the late 1980s scholarship has emphasised how rational and ordered beliefs regarding magic were. For example, if one starts from the position that the 'physical matter of the cosmos' is filled with meaning, nothing follows more naturally than the belief that '[g]estures and rituals might somehow or other lead to physical effects of material transformation'.6 Neither the attempts to create such transformations, nor reflection upon these attempts were the products of 'random or undisciplined thinking or loose nature-mysticism'.7 It is just that in approaching the subject of premodern magic we...