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  • Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages
  • Edward Bever
Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages. By Stephen A. Mitchell (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 384 pp. $49.95

More than most topics, witchcraft and magic involve issues that cut across disciplines, and Mitchell has produced a solid, impressively interdisciplinary contribution to our understanding of them. Filling a gap between studies of the Viking age and studies of the early modern witch hunts, Mitchell begins with a survey of learned theories that moves seamlessly from developments in medieval thinking through recent scholarly approaches, showing a strong command of the general European literature, as well as works focused on the Nordic world. He then gives an overview of witchcraft and magic in the Viking period before proceeding, in a series of chapters, to explore these themes in the post-Viking era in relation to daily life, literary traditions, mythologies, the law and judicial practice, and gender issues. He ends with a short epilogue [End Page 467] recapping the main points covered in the work and briefly considering the importance of medieval developments for the subsequent witch-hunting era. The 206 pages of text are followed by almost 150 pages of notes and bibliography, a physical indication of the depth and breadth of scholarship that undergirds them.

Beyond the learned works stretching from the Middle Ages to today, Mitchell utilizes an impressive array of sources—sagas, poems, and legends; law codes and trial records; religious treatises and sermons; runes; and church art. His use of the literary record is careful and nuanced, steering a middle course between treating the works as transparent windows on the past (both the past relative to us and the past relative to his subjects, in the case of the many late medieval narratives set in the Viking age), and dismissing them as simply artistic contrivances. He approaches religious and legal materials with equal judiciousness, making good use of them as manifestations of elite concerns as well as invaluable (if particularly tricky) sources for popular beliefs and practices. Finally, he develops sophisticated analyses of runes and church art to explore the physical dimensions of medieval beliefs and practices.

The breadth of interpretive approaches that Mitchell employs is as impressive as that of his source materials—philology, semiotics, literary studies, folklore, anthropology, religious studies, art history, archeology, gender studies, and legal history. He also draws from numerous specialized crossdisciplinary approaches like orality studies, performance theory, and cognitive archeology. Overall, his command of this diverse array of fields and disciplines is well informed and his employment of them well considered.

Most impressive is how Mitchell coordinates these various interpretive modes. For example, he combines legal and religious history, literary analysis, philology, performance theory, and archeology to argue that the connection between charms and runes evinces a performative dimension of magic that textually oriented analyses have traditionally slighted. Similarly, he employs religious studies, art history, folklore, and semiotics to analyze the meaning of, and narrative flow between, scenes painted in vestibules of parish churches, showing how the "liminality" of this situation was not vaguely metaphorical but fully realized: Parishioners were confronted by scenes of earthly sins, unfolding from temptation through damnation, as they moved between the sacred space of the chapel and the profane world outside.

As with any regional study, many of the book's conclusions are primarily of interest to area specialists, confirming or supplying regional variants to, rather than challenging the current understanding of, general European trends. However, Mitchell develops a number of more notable insights that have implications for our broader understanding of European witchcraft. First among them is his demonstration that it involved behaviors and practices—things people actually did, and rituals they actually performed—as well as beliefs and stories. Second is his insistence that magic was a pervasive part of medieval life, in Scandinavia [End Page 468] as elsewhere, although its role in elite culture declined over time. Third is his assertion that the crucial distinction between magic and religion for medieval people was not the theoretical question of supplication versus command of spiritual entities but of the nature and extent of these entities' power. Finally, there was a...


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pp. 467-469
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