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  • Magic and Religion in Medieval England by Catherine Rider
  • Katherine Hindley
Key Words

Catherine Rider, magic, Medieval England, healing prayers, pastoral manuals, canon law, sermons

Catherine Rider. Magic and Religion in Medieval England. London: Reaktion Books; distributed by the University of Chicago Press. 2012. Pp. 219.

During the Middle Ages, magic and religion shared many characteristics, with magical practices often borrowing from religious ritual. Some frequently condemned rituals, such as divination, claimed biblical precedents. Others, such as healing charms, incorporated prayers and invoked Christ or the saints. For medieval churchmen, this raised the difficult problem of how to communicate to the laity the fine line between “pious but unofficial religious activities and unacceptable magic” (8). In Magic and Religion in Medieval England, Catherine Rider explores the attitudes of educated clergy toward beliefs and practices that could be seen as magical, emphasizing how complex the relationship between religion and magic was, and how difficult it could be for the clergy to decide how a particular practice should be viewed. Using evidence drawn from pastoral manuals and exempla—texts used to educate both parish priests and the laity—she reveals not only how ideas about the dangers [End Page 111] of magic were communicated, but also which forms of magic were priori-tized when priests interacted with their parishioners.

Rider’s work concentrates on the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. During this period new magical texts began to appear in Christian Europe, both as translations from Arabic and Greek and in the form of new compositions. At the same time, church reforms encouraged the clergy to improve the religious understanding of the laity. Pastoral manuals, which aimed to help priests in this task, have not previously been used to understand magic after 1100. These manuals often draw heavily on earlier works, and Rider acknowledges the difficulties presented by working with such conservative texts. However, her careful attention to textual influence and to what later medieval authors have included and omitted allows her to draw valuable conclusions from her material.

Two main conclusions develop from the book. First, Rider argues persuasively that in medieval England, magic was not typically a major concern for either the clergy or laity. She highlights a range of attitudes toward magic, but emphasizes that very little of her source material hints at the anxiety and persecution typical of the later witch trials. Second, Rider demonstrates that while the boundary between magic and the fields of religion, science, and nature was often blurred, a rough consensus did exist about where that boundary lay. One particularly important discovery is that the decision about which practices should be condemned as magic could depend not on the practice itself, but on the practitioner. Priests were advised to take a person’s attitude, motives, character, and status into account, allowing them a surprising amount of individual flexibility when judging potentially magical acts. Rider’s arguments on these points are a valuable reminder that the definition of magic could vary according to social factors such as class, education, or gender.

The book is largely organized thematically. The first two chapters deal with how magic overlapped with other categories of knowledge and belief, discussing first the boundary between magic, science, and nature and then that between magic and religion. The next three explore particular beliefs about and uses of magic, starting with beliefs about supernatural beings, moving on to harmful magic and protection against it, and finally considering ritual magic and the summoning of demons. Two further chapters discuss the arguments that clergy used to convey their views of magic to the laity, and the attempts to suppress the use of magic through punishment and legal action. This structure occasionally seems to encourage the itemization rather than the analysis of relevant practices, but has the advantage of making each chapter stand alone for easy navigation and excerpting. Individual chapters from [End Page 112] the book could profitably be assigned to undergraduate classes to prompt discussions about church responses to magic.

The intended readership for the book as a whole, however, is unclear. On one hand, it seems to have been designed for undergraduate nonspecialists: Rider’s writing is clear and simple, and she gives...