Magic is everywhere: from the captivating Harry Potter series to papyri from Ancient Egypt. Often dismissed as a ‘fake’ science or make-belief hogwash, magic matters because our imagination also matters. Despite modern and often negatives attitudes towards magic, one can easily associate premodern history with magic. Although there were no flying witches during the medieval times, many of the motifs we associate with witchcraft and sorcery were developed during this time period.
In this post, you will learn what magic is (and the issues in defining it). You’ll also consider themes of religion and fantasy, as well as grasp the importance of medieval manuscripts and the Scientific Revolution. We’ll blend fiction and fact together, creating a perfect potion of historical inquiry into the association between the Middle Ages and magic.
What Is Magic?
There are certainly issues in defining ‘magic’- many historians and anthropologists argue different interpretations. For the sake of brevity, magic refers to ‘the power of influencing events through supernatural, spiritual or mysterious forces.’ Of course, there is an overlap with ‘scientific processes.’ What one considers to be a scientific event, another may consider it a religious experience.
Therefore, in this article, magic refers to actions not explained via scientific knowledge in this. This is not a perfect clarification, as scientists are prone to disagreement.
Magical Manuscripts From The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages produced many beautiful manuscripts, from healing charms to demonic magic. Yet, magic existed in diverse forms. From necromancy to Arthurian legend, medieval individuals engaged with magic in a variety of ways. Whether its the fiction they enjoyed or how they solved a problem, you can expect numerous methods of ‘magical thinking.’
The truth is, magic as we see it today wasn’t how it was perceived in the Middle Ages. The lines between science, religion and magic were often blurry. Concerns of a secular world, or a complete seperation of science and religion did not quite exist. It’s easy to dismiss magical practice as flimsy or fake science. But the line between science and magic isn’t so clear. When one considers medieval alchemy, you see traces of modern chemistry. Likewise, in today’s world, we still have superstitions and concepts of ‘bad luck.’
Imagine magic as a flexible category. It’s not a seperate practice for peculiar individuals, it is an expression of universal archetypes, desires and psychologies. We may not consider ourselves magicians, but we still have the same psychology and impulses of those that did in the Middle Ages.
If you’d like to learn more about magical medieval manuscripts, I highly recommend the works by Dr. Sophie Page (UCL). She’s published multiple books with the British Library, and they are wonderfully visual and immersive.
Religion And Magic
Whether you are a medieval scholar or just an everyday person, chances are- you associate the Middle Ages with religion. This is no surprise: some of the greatest religious buildings were built during this time. Whether it’s the Hagia Sophia or Chartes Cathedral, religion is absolutely vital to understanding the Middle Ages. Also, many influential theologians and philosophers came from this period, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Bede. But religion is a great way to understand why magic is so enchanting.
Of course, we must remember the numerous condemnations of magic from religious bodies, including the Catholic Church. While attitudes towards magic and the ‘unknown’ are far more complex than a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s fair to point out the somewhat antagonistic attitudes towards magic.
Confusions With Early Modernity
For those pedantic about historical chronology (like me), there is a need to point out the difference between medieval and early modern history. This is especially true when one considers witchcraft and the trials against sorcery. Whilst not pure to early modern history, it’s important to highlight the impact certain movements had on witch trials. Such movements include the invention of the printing press and the Reformation. With the printing press, the spread of ideas occured faster, and more people had access to ‘information’ or in some cases, propaganda. The Reformation also saw more condemnations of ‘magic’ (from Protestants and Catholics). As the Scientific Revolution kicked into gear, we see a move away from speculation into realism.
The early modern period is important, because we see the linkage between the medieval and the modern. But there is also a detachment: many ‘modern’ individuals struggle to find relevance in the Middle Ages. This can also explain why medieval history is, for many, a form of escapism.
Note: Interesting developments re: magic did occur during early modern history. In England, you had the writings of Francis Bacon. During the Renaissance in Italy, concepts of ‘natural’ magic took hold. This is important. Magic was losing its mystical, spiritual ideas. It became more scientific, more in line with the natural order of the world. Also, Shakespeare’s play Macbeth manifested many ideas associated with magic and witchcraft today.
The Middle Ages Today: Fantasy And History
The fantasy genre is huge, with many series reaching blockbuster heights. But there is one recurring motif: medievalism. This term refers to the reception and practice of medieval history. For example, Lord of the Rings is a medievalist text: Tolkien is clearly inspired by Old English and medieval Scandinavian history. Likewise, many artists and writers from the Victorian era are also medievalists. A good example are the Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Not all fantasy draws on medieval history, but without the Middle Ages, there would be no fantasy. Many of our contemporary associations with the Middle Ages (of knights, banquets, cheer, etc) come from the fantasy genre, whether its video games, live action roleplay or novels. Naturally, you can’t have fantasy without some element of magic or the unknown.
The end result are fantasy works with both history and magic. A great example is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Set during the 19th century, it deals with the decline (and rebirth) of magic. Clarke uses effective footnotes to worldbuild and create a ‘magical’ lore for England.
In many ways, this is what fantasy fiction does. It creates ‘lores’ and adds depth and a new dimension to our reality.
Therefore, we can establish medieval history as a special period, one with magic. We should view medievalism, and the Middle Ages, as ways humans express feelings of nostalgia and beauty. Whereas the modern world can feel cold and mechanical, there’s an escapist quality about the Middle Ages. As if it contained endless possibilities and countless stories.
What are your thoughts? Comment below.