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  • The Age of MagiciansPeriodization in the History of European Magic
  • Michael D. Bailey

John Maynard Keynes once described Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest figure of the scientific revolution, as being "not the first of the age of reason" but "the last of the magicians."1 Keynes was commenting, among other things, on Newton's fascination with alchemy and the influence it may have had on his mathematical studies of gravitation and optics.2 This quip, no doubt originally deployed for its pithiness, raises broad questions of historical periodization. Was there an age of magicians, sharply distinct from the modern era of scientific reason, and if so when did one age pass into the other? Did the premodern world comprise, as Keynes's remark might be taken to imply, an unbroken epoch uniformly benighted by its magical beliefs and superstitions, or were there, in fact, distinct ages of magic into which the past might be divided? Unpacking these questions will involve mapping the history of magic onto the standard scheme of European periodization, from late antique to early modern, and seeing what concurrences or disruptions occur. As Joan Kelly-Gadol once famously asked concerning women, one can also ask about magicians—did they have a Renaissance?3 Similarly, did magic undergo [End Page 1] a Reformation or a scientific revolution? Looking earlier, did magic experience distinctly late antique or early medieval transformations? Did it have a high medieval zenith or suffer through a late medieval crisis or decline?

When seeking distinct periods within the history of magic, one must begin by asserting that magic does, in fact, have a history.4 Many people, some scholars not excepted, tend to regard common magical practices as essentially unchanging elements of folk culture.5 Other scholars recognize how "magic" in any period is always understood and measured, both by contemporaries and by modern historians, in terms of other structures of knowledge or belief (religious, scientific, legal, and so forth) that always change. The modern conceptions of religion and science, against which magic is so often contrasted, are post-Reformation and really post-Enlightenment constructions,6 and the farther back in time one imposes such distinctions the less useful they become. Certainly nothing like the modern Western distinction between magic and religion existed in antiquity,7 and this has led to arguments that we should dispense with the terms "magic" and "magician" altogether, and focus instead on identifying different forms of ritual expertise.8 Yet antiquity [End Page 2] also bequeathed laterWestern societies the term "magic" (Greek mageia, later Latin magia), amid a plethora of other terms for various "magical" practices.9 Originally, these terms may have carried clear and distinct meanings, but usage frequently became blurred and connotations tended to overlap.10

Magical practices, as well as the conceptualization and frequent condemnation of mageia and related categories, underwent major shifts in Greco Roman antiquity.11 The place of magic in the classical world is so complex and varied, however, that it must remain outside the scope of this survey. The advent of Christianity and its rise to eventual hegemony over the ancient West inaugurated a new era in the history of magic. Yet the rise of Christianity was as slow and gradual as was the ancient world's purported "decline and fall." There was no sharp break between antiquity and the Middle Ages, but rather a long transition from the late antique to the early medieval period, and the history of magic reflects some of the nature of this shift.

Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Early Christian authorities liked to envision themselves as standing distinct from, and ultimately triumphing over, pagan antiquity. Conceptualizations of magic played an important role in this rhetoric. Roman society had always tolerated a multiplicity of religious cults and observances, even if it castigated some as dangerous or depraved. Superstitio was the most common category Roman writers used to denigrate unrespectable beliefs or ritual practices, and one of the cults they often derided in this way was Christianity.12 Christian authorities responded with an even more sweeping conceptual counterattack. The Apostle Paul had declared that all pagan deities were in fact Christian demons, and so church...


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