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Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 132-138 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0004

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This excellent book aims to rectify a lacuna in the study of Nordic witchcraft beliefs. As the author notes, the periods before and after the Middle Ages (c. 1100-1525) have received ample scholarly attention, but this is the first comprehensive examination of "the responses in the legal, literary and popular cultures of the Nordic Middle Ages to the belief that there existed people capable of manipulating the world through magical practices" (ix). This is no small undertaking. The Nordic region was and is extraordinarily varied with a wide range of cultures and subcultures. Moreover, medieval cultures in the region were highly dynamic, and although this point has often been missed, the period was one of enormous cultural development and change. Not least, the topic of magic and witchcraft could touch every sphere of life, from religion to law, politics to food production, love to warfare, and every social class. To do the subject matter justice requires both a deep understanding of the history and social structures of the region and period and an ability to work with a huge and complex corpus of source materials. Mitchell is exceptionally well suited to the task.

The book is structured into six main chapters. The first, "Witchcraft and the Past," provides a good example of the care with which Mitchell approaches his source materials through the wonderful concept of the "data midden":

Interpreting bygone cultures clearly requires access to "data," the information-laden detritus that history capriciously bequeaths. Having collected it, scholars grandly organize these materials into what we trust are sensible taxonomies and refer to the results with all-too-obvious high hopes as "databases" and the like. In seeking meaningful patterns in what are more realistically called "data middens," mounds of serendipitously preserved intelligence, what images of witchcraft and magic precipitate out?


The chapter also includes a brief but pithy survey of medieval Nordic political history and a discussion of the issue of syncretism, which inevitably surfaces in any treatment of medieval beliefs or practices not obviously traceable to normative Christian texts. Here and throughout, Mitchell avoids reductionist thought and reminds the reader of the necessity of looking at surviving materials in context, of the incompleteness of the data available, and, nonetheless, of the great interest of those materials that do survive.

The second chapter, "Magic and Witchcraft in Daily Life," draws on sources including law codes, the famous rune staves from medieval Bergen, a wide range of Icelandic sagas and poetry, the miracle narratives collected as part of the promotion of the cult of St. Katarina of Vadstena (d. 1381), and the Revelaciones of St. Birgitta (mother of the above), to discuss the use of magic in various aspects of daily life. These include the healing of people and livestock, the promotion or prevention of "love" in its various aspects, curses of various kinds, prophecy, and the control of weather. Although the source materials are largely textual, Mitchell underscores the importance of the actual performance in the production of magic (73).

Chapter 3, "Narrating Magic, Sorcery, and Witchcraft," contains—easily—enough material for several book-length studies. This detailed survey of depictions of witchcraft, sorcery, and related practices in medieval Nordic written narrative begins with a discussion of how such narratives ought to be regarded. Are they statements of what medieval Scandinavians thought about these subjects? Or were they intended to shape how their audiences thought? Or are they some kind of mediating alternative (75)? Mitchell agrees with Pernille Hermann's view that medieval Icelandic literature should be regarded both as preservation of the past and creation of a past and also with Jenny Jochens's position that Icelandic sagas comprise mainly thirteenth- and fourteenth-century uses of the past to express contemporary perspectives. The chapter's two subsections are "Icelandic Poetry and Saga" and "Ecclesiastical and Court Literature." In the first, Mitchell reviews the treatment of witchcraft, magic, and sorcery in texts ranging from the poems of the Poetic Edda and the largely later-medieval rímur to the famous Icelandic saga tradition. He notes that these poems, rímur and the "pagan theophanies in some of the sagas make it apparent that knowledge, and use, of...

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