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  • Kulturgeschichte der Mittelalterlichen Wahrsagerei by Christa Agnest Tuczay
  • Edward Bever

divination, Christa Tuczay, magic, witchcraft, soothsaying, fortunetelling

Christa Agnest Tuczay. Kulturgeschichte der Mittelalterlichen Wahrsagerei. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012. Pp. x + 371.

There were innumerable forms of fortune-telling in the Middle Ages. They ranged from spontaneous observation of portents and omens through ritual systems that mechanically connected the casting of lots to predefined prognostications to rites that fostered prophetic dreams and visions. Their practice was pervasive, employed by everyone from beggars to kings for everything from predicting how the day would go to deciding whether to commit thousands of men to desperate battle, and they could involve anything from which foot was first put on the floor in the morning to the configuration of the celestial orbs. Nevertheless, studies of medieval soothsaying [End Page 87] are relatively sparse, at least compared to work on ancient forms of divination and prophesy and early modern witchcraft, and until now there has been no comprehensive modern survey of the subject, at least in English or German.

The present work thus fills a definite lacuna, providing a systematic overview of medieval fortune-telling. The book starts with an extended examination of its ancient roots and then considers the continuities and developments in the transition to and during the Middle Ages. The balance, and main portion, of the book catalogs the various forms of prophesy and divination that made up medieval soothsaying. It discusses first passive, and then active, forms. Passive forms involved observation of natural and human phenomena like weather patterns, the activities of animals, images produced by flames or the surface of water, and various human features and behaviors like the pattern of lines on the hands or sneezing. Active divination included astrological and calendric calculations, ritual employment of devices like pendulums, interpreting ‘‘random’’ acts like casting lots and opening books, and tapping ‘‘intuitive’’ knowledge. The latter encompassed inducing visions and premonitions, interpreting dreams, and invoking spirits.

In the process of discussing the background and nature of these various forms of medieval fortune-telling, Tuczay makes a series of insightful points. For example, she argues that soothsaying did not only, or even mainly, involve prognostication; discerning hidden information about the present, and even the past, were equally vital. Interpreting omens and employing divinatory techniques did not imply a rigidly deterministic understanding of fate, but instead was seen as interpreting the will of God in order to align decisions with it. Repeated casting of lots could even be seen not as a pathetic cheat, but as a powerful form of magic coercing spirits to bend fate to the diviner’s will. The alterations of consciousness ‘‘intuitive’’ forms of divination like scrying involved did not constitute some ‘‘on/off’’ state, but instead gradations from mild dissociation to full-blown trance. Divination was a form of magic, but contrary to modern typologies it was not a polar opposite of religion, but instead overlapped it significantly. Some forms, like calendric calculations, dream interpretation, and serendipitous book (Bible) opening, were not only accepted, but widely adopted as Christian practice. Other forms, of course, were anathema, basically because they were seen to involve, or be vulnerable to manipulation by, demons. The demonization of divination, part of the broader diabolization of magic and its repression, is another theme Tuczay carries through the book, just as she discusses gender roles and the way that women’s stronger association with ‘‘intuitive’’ as opposed to mechanistic forms of divination contributed to their susceptibility to being demonized as witches. [End Page 88]

In her discussion of the material, Tuczay conveys a nuanced understanding of the usefulness and cultural validity of divinatory and oracular magic, and her bibliography is sprinkled with works on divination in contemporary practice, its relationship to shamanism and extra-European cultures, and even parapsychology, all indicative of a commendably broad-minded approach to the subject. At the same time, both her discussion of the material and her extensive bibliography convey the strength of her command of the scholarly literature and the ancient and medieval sources as well. She is admirably restrained in presenting the material and drawing conclusions, balancing her openness to the sincere and even valid uses...


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pp. 87-90
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