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  • Why Music and Magic in the Middle Ages?
  • John Haines

If we define magic and music in their broadest possible sense—magic as encompassing both demonic and natural practices condemned by the Church, and music as both learned speculation and everyday performance— then we might well begin, not with the title question of this article, but with a related one: why not music and magic in the Middle Ages?1 That is to say, why do we find little to no research on the interaction of these two major arts during the longest historical period of Western Civilization? It is important to answer this question first, since the reasons for the scholarly neglect of magic and music can ultimately suggest helpful directions for future work on this important dyad, which is a goal of this article. This article is addressed to both musicologists—originally philologists (e.g. Pierre Aubry) and historians (e.g. Friedrich Ludwig) with a peculiar interest in medieval music—and nonmusicologists alike.2 For it is only through the concerted effort of historians of all kinds crisscrossing the artificial barriers of modern academic disciplines that a deeper appreciation of magic and music can be achieved, two medieval arts that were fully inter-disciplinary in the modern sense.

One of the reasons for the neglect of music and magic in the Middle Ages is the relatively new status of medieval magic as a legitimated, mainstream academic domain within the historical sciences. Readers of this journal are well acquainted with Lynn Thorndike’s foundational eight-volume work The History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923–1958), the first four volumes of which span the Middle Ages. Thorndike was writing at a time when little of a scientific nature had been written on the topic in English-speaking lands. [End Page 149] As he noted in the preface to the first volume, the historical study of magic was “a rather new field.”3 Throughout his work, Thorndike implicitly stressed the importance of music in this new field by referring to it in various contexts. He wrote of the occult power of numbers and its connection to the music of the spheres with learned writers such as Macrobius, this writer being the inspiration for a great deal of Neo-Platonic thought in the High Middle Ages.4 Elsewhere, in the area of performance practice, Thorndike implicitly referred to music in his frequent discussion of medicinal incantations, for instance.5

Although Thorndike’s History of Magic and Experimental Science raised many possibilities for the study of magic in the Middle Ages, medievalists were relatively slow to respond, in contrast to Renaissance specialists. The major works of Frances Yates and D. P. Walker on Renaissance magic (to cite only two major figures) are well known.6 Renaissance writers such as Ficino, including his important testimony on music, received a great deal of scholarly attention from Thorndike onwards; but not so for major medieval writers on magic such as Adelard of Bath and Roger Bacon—until recently, that is.7 With notable exceptions such as Richard Kieckhefer’s 1976 book on late medieval witch trials or the 1991 history of magic in the early Middle Ages by Valerie Flint, it is only in the last decade or so that the study of magic has made its presence felt in medieval studies, with the founding of the Societas Magica in 1994, the “Magic in History” book series at Pennsylvania State University Press four years later, and the Salomon Latinus series published by Sismel, whose first volume appeared only a few years ago.8 [End Page 150]

Even as this chorus of magic studies has grown louder, music historians have stubbornly refused to join it. To date, the only available study of music in medieval magic is Jules Combarieu’s La musique et la magie (1909); in fact, only a dozen scattered pages of this book are devoted to the Middle Ages.9 The primary reason for the dearth of research on medieval music and its relationship to magic lies in something of a musicological aversion to the topic. In the twenty-eight volumes of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, there is not...


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