Magic in the Middle Ages
Try to imagine being prescribed to wear a dead man’s tooth for a toothache.
The Middle Ages was a time when superstition and magic prevailed over the common and wealthy classes. People in this time period believed in magic. Preferring to use relics or the stars for medicine rather than taking medicine. This essay will be covering the belief in magic, the use of relics and charms, and necromancy.
What is magic? Defined from a dictionary, magic is the power of influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.
There were many different methods and techniques of using magic that humans living in the Middle Ages would use. There was no way to of defining one type of magician.
Ranging from priests to physicians, almost everyone dabbled in the magic of some kind. According to Howes, a majority of people would use magic for medical uses.
For example, physicians would instruct patients to place the herb vervain in the patient’s hand.
The reasoning being that the presence of vervain would cause the patient to speak truthfully, providing an accurate prognosis (1).
Magic: Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe notes that if the medical practice uses symbolic remedies then the practice could be classified as magical. An example of a symbolic remedy is provided by the late Anglo- Saxon text Lacnunga, the text recommends that if a pregnant woman was afraid of a miscarriage then the woman should obtain milk from a cow that is one color, pour the milk into running water, and retrieve the water to drink it.
The women should return from the stream by a different route used when approached, enter into a different house then the one she had left from, and throughout the procedure remain silent and be careful to not turn around (1). Magic was divided into three primary categories: illusions, bewitchments, and divination (Magic: Magic in the Medieval and Renaissance Europe 1). People used different forms of divination such as divination by fire, air, water, earth, and necromancy (consultation of spirits), (Magic: Magic in the Medieval and Renaissance Europe 1).
Howes states that there were different methods of magic used for medicine, sympathetic magic is one of them. Sympathetic magic would use imitation to produce effective results. For example, if a patient was suffering from liver problems they would be prescribed a liver of a vulture (5). In fact, the body parts of animals and birds were often used in medicine. According to Gough, people were prescribed to wear a dead man’s tooth around the neck if they had a toothache. Medieval people would use magic to try and control the world around them, thinking that the supernatural world and the physical world overlapped (3). Throughout history, people have proven to often use magic on other people, with good or bad intentions. Magicians would use different techniques when performing magic including manipulation of images to afflict another person physically or emotionally, using potions for the same reasons, recitation of charms for healing or curses for harm, placing curative or apotropaic substances on a client’s body, placing harmful substances in a victim’s bed or under the threshold, gazing into reflective surfaces to divine the future or to learn about hidden affairs and bidding them to provide aid (Magic: Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 1).
Doctors would often prescribe patients to use relics for sicknesses and protection. According to Howes, sealskin would be used to repel lightning and gardeners would have virgin plant their olive trees without any anxiety. Virgin’s would be used to plant olive trees because planting the tree was a scientific way to promote growth (1). Howes’ states, narrative charms are a more advanced version of sympathetic magic that were used as a more medical application. Narrative charms were based on the belief that telling a specific story would help channel positive healing energy to the patient. For example, wool soaked in olive oil from the Mount of Olives could staunch blood when coupled with a spoken story about Longinus, a man who was famously healed of his blindness by the blood of Christ (5). According to Howes, the Christian church of the Medieval ages considered some of the medical magical methods as superstition however the methods were not directly correlated with demonic magic until the dawning of the witch hunts.
The upper class and others would use astrology and different forms of magic for courtly traditional entertainment, for example at festivals or political gatherings. According to Zarb, performative magic used for medieval entertainment had the purpose of using the idea of illusion and deception of the mind. At festivals acting troupe, acrobats, and other performers would have used sleight of hand, optical illusion, secret writing, and made objects move mysteriously (1). Zarb states that magic was feared thus utilized into courts and secret meetings at court were common, providing a political advantage. Gemstones were popular to use as a form of protection among the noble. The gemstone being an object of nature thus a creation of God, gems were thought to possess occult powers like that of herbs (Zarb 1). Religion would often become mixed with magical elements.
Astrology is the belief that stars can influence human affairs. Zarb states that astrology was seen as a brand new scientific magical discovery and was considered safer and more natural for the more religious or superstitious people. Courtiers were attracted to the possibility of being able to influence political events by knowing the future. This legal magic was embraced by monarchs to help them in the military and political affairs (1). Magic: Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe states astrological medicines were used to transfer astral influences to humans. For example, Saffron and honey were thought to possess good solar virtue (1). It was not uncommon for people to use different branches of magic together. An example from Geralt’s text states, “with the use of astrology necromantic experiments can be more precise, using determines hours. Day’s and moons – in accordance with the spirits that are governing at that time or the astrological conditions (1).”
The information we know today about medieval magic was obtained from the few books that were left behind. According to Magic: Magic in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, works describing how to use necromancy to conjure demons were victims of fires, however, some survived. The books on necromancy center on the use of verbal words to command the demons to present themselves and carry out the will of the necromancer. The necromancer made a reference to sacred names and sacred events as sources of magical power over the demons (1). Magicians who partook in necromancy often performed sacrifices and sympathetic rituals which would include odd acts such as offering the blood of the spirit of hens, hoopoes or bats, milk or honey sprinkles in the air, or ashes, and salt or flour placed in jugs (Giralt 1). It was believed that devils would watch a woman for a sign, then do the women’s bidding. For example, if a witch would speak certain words while placing her broomstick in water then a devil might cause a storm or flood (1). Inquisitors believed that women really could make magic happen by entering into pacts with the devil, these pacts were called Sabbaths. Sabbaths are nocturnal meetings with other witches where women would renounce their Christian faith, devour babies, participate in orgies, and commit other unspeakable acts (Howes 1). Demonic magic was not always viewed as harmful. Witches would also perform healing spells. However, because of the correlation with demons, demonic magic was often condemned as evil.
Kieckhefer classified ritual magic used by the necromancer’s into three main categories, the first one being illusory experiments. Illusory experiments would create hallucinations such as resurrection from the dead or demons in the form of flying horses. Psychological experiments inflicted physical pain on other people to cause love, hatred, or madness in people to make the person act in a certain way. Lastly, predictive experiments could reveal the past, future, solve a murder, and so on (1). Virgins were often used in magic necromancy rituals. For example, predictive experiments usually require a young male virgin, who can see spirits in reflective surfaces (Giralt 1).
The frequent uses of magical relics and gems by people in the Medieval age prove that people who lived during the Middle ages believed in magic.
In conclusion I have shared with you different methods of magic used for medical purposes, relics that were used in medical practices, magic in the court life and how astrology influenced courtiers, and lastly about the art necromancy.
Medieval people lived in an era full of superstition and the use of magic in everyday lives. The influences of the Middle Ages’ practice of magic can be seen still today in storybooks and movies.