Studying Magic in the Middle Ages

One of the frustrations of being a fantasy writer is confronting the accusation that one can simply make it all up. The best authors, IMHO, use a combination of reality and imagination to bring a new world to life. To me, part of the fun in fiction is to blend invention and reality into an engaging and realistic experience for the reader.

My adventures in writing Elisha Barber began with research. Researching medieval medicine, and surgery in particular; researching 14th century England; and researching medieval magic. That’s the one that gets me the strangest looks, especially in bookstores. I’m not looking for books about Wicca or magical thinking, I’d have to explain, I’m looking for books on the history and study of magic.

Writing historical fantasy has its own attractions and difficulties, and this, it turns out, was one of them. As I became invested in the historical setting, I wanted to learn more about how my characters would have thought and reacted. What did they expect of magic? What role did it play for them, individually and in society?

One of the biggest surprises was the relationship of magic and the Catholic church. Many people believe the church always condemned magical practice and persecuted those accused of it. As I often discovered when I drilled deeper into history, the situation was more complicated than that. Many clerics, including popes, worked with sanctioned magical practitioners and consulted astrologers on a regular basis—the understanding of God’s creation and his plan through the stars fell in and out of favor over the centuries.

The Holy Office of the Inquisition was founded to investigate claims of miracles, including the related questions of heresy and eventually witchcraft. In many cases early on, no torture or execution was necessary, just an admission that the accused had misunderstood church doctrine and a promise to do better. In 1258, Pope Alexander denied the request of some inquisitors to investigate sorcery unless there was also clear evidence of heresy.

Later in the Middle Ages, when concerns about heresy verged upon civil war based in religious disagreement (Cathars in France, Protestants vs. Catholics)–this investigatory function expanded and allowed for abuse, bequeathing us the image of the all-powerful church trying to crush all manner of folk beliefs and unholy influences.

In fact, the greatest persecutions—like the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony–often had less to do with a fear of magic or even with religious disputes than with political pressures about land ownership. For much of our history, land meant wealth, and the church, as custodian not only of the souls of men, but also as a landlord, and as an intermediary for other leaders, could not help but be involved.

A couple of interesting sources for studying the relationship between magic and the church are The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe by Valerie Flint and Antoinette Marie Pratt’s Attitude of the Catholic Church Toward Witchcraft and the Allied Practices of Sorcery and Magic, in which the author herself frets about the early and medieval church’s lack of condemnation toward magic as a whole, though she ultimately concludes that such practice should be avoided. Actual transcriptions of church and other writings pertaining to witchcraft are also available in compendia like Kors and Peters’ documentary history Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700.

But religion isn’t the only source of information. The magical practitioners of the Middle Ages left us a wealth of detail about rituals, beliefs and practices, often in the form of treatises bound together with unrelated texts into the codexes which served as personal libraries at the time.

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies, I discovered Societas Magica—an academic organization for the study of magic during the Middle Ages—and its associated newsletter and publication series Magic in History, include translations of actual texts, discussions and comparisons by scholars working in the field. Every year, new texts come to light, offering further insight into how magic was approached by contemporaries, and a chance for the accidental scholar like myself to be inspired.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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23 Responses to Studying Magic in the Middle Ages

  1. Ambra says:

    Hi! I finished reading your book two days ago and it was great! :)…about medicine, did you also read Avicenna and Averroe or did you concentrate on Galen only? And about magic, did you read about all the alchemists (for ex. Constantinus, Flamel, Norton, Paracelsus) or did you prefer witchcraft as the majority of people intended it? Elisha will not know them, but the surgeon probably will? (since it seems he has read about everything there was…)
    Hope to have soon news on the second book! :)

    • Thanks so much!

      I dipped into Avicenna, but will need to take a closer look for the next book. I did not pursue the alchemists, though I kept finding interesting references–I suspect that’s a whole other series.

      If you’re interested in another fantasy approach to historical magic, I highly recommend Carol Berg’s Collegia Magica series, starting with the Spirit Lens, which uses ritual magic. She and I have clearly read some of the same research books, but I went down the road of witchcraft, looking more at the folk beliefs, whereas she got into the more formal, educated practice.

      And I did recently have a nice chat with my editors about the cover for book 2. . .

      • Ambra says:

        That’s great! The cover of the first one is perfect :)
        I bought “The Spirit Lens” some time ago (since I loved her “Rai-Kirah” series) and haven’t gotten around reading it yet…I think I’ll read it next.
        Have you read “The Physician” by Noah Gordon? It’s about a young man in eleventh century London who can “feel” death and after his mother’s passing becomes first a barber’s apprentice and then manages to reach Persia and become Avicenna’s assistant. Your book brought it to my mind :)

      • It’s on my (rather over full) to-read shelf, but your enthusiasm may bump it higher up! Thanks for the recommendation.

        If you want to keep track of my series (and get a bonus free short story) you can also sign up on my email list, the Disciples of the Dark Apostle, http://thedarkapostle.com/contact/

        On Sat, Jul 13, 2013 at 3:48 AM, E. C. Ambrose

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    “In fact, the greatest persecutions—like the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony” — well, you should be clear that this is hardly “The Middle Ages”… ;)

    • The “like” in this sentence is meant to be a comparison (as in, persecutions similar to the those of Salem, etc). I named Salem because that’s one folks are likely to be familiar with, but thanks for helping me to disambiguate.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    I would also be aware that “Attitude of the Catholic Church Toward Witchcraft and the Allied Practices of Sorcery and Magic” is hardly a work of serious history…. However, the work of Valerie Flint are — I’m also confused why the hell fantasy needs to be “historical”?

    • “Attitude” is a different kind of scholarship, a survey, if you will, rather than a history text, in which she looks at documents within the Church that indicate the changing attitudes over a period of years.

      And I hope I didn’t imply that fantasy *needs* to be historical (although I do think that the richest of fantasy is often informed by a deep sense of history, even when the author uses that understanding to create a secondary world). My approach tends to be much closer to the historical than that of many fantasy writers, and, of course, there are writers even closer than I.

      I think the further that fantasy gets from a grounding in reality, the more likely it is to lack internal coherence. I once had a big-name editor tell me that he could tell right away if the author of a manuscript on his desk had only read other fantasy novels. These manuscripts often have the feel of an elaborate stage set–they are very lovely to look upon, but you get the sense that there’s nothing really supporting what you see.

      In any event, thanks for stopping by.

    • Ambra says:

      Hi! Well, I’d say fantasy may need to be “historical” the same way that it “needs” to be “urban”, “contemporary” or “epic”…it’s just another branch of the genre, and if it can be contemporary, why not historical? And if the “historical” part is well researched, it may even be instructive ;)

    • Ambra says:

      I’d say fantasy novels can be quite instructive, be they historical or other subgenres…”historical” fantasy can be as instructive as historical fiction, if one is able to separate the fantasy part from the historical one.
      And try reading “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett, which is a “fantasy novel” and call it “not instructive”…fantasy is not all about creating other worlds

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Yes, but it is hardly the mandate or the purpose of the author in most cases to be instructive — it is all a component of building a world that people want to read and can nicely hold their narrative in an effective manner…

      • Ambra says:

        Try to consider historical fantasy as historical fiction with fantasy elements then…and there are great contemporary fantasy books in which, obviously, worldbuilding is not a main concern of the author…Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, for example

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Historical fiction is not to “instruct”….. Again, it is to take a particular time period that holds fascinating appeal and put together a fun story…. It can instruct but as a side effect of its purpose to be a good story.

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        If someone reads your “novel” to learn about medieval magic — then all I can say is “Good God”…. ;)

        Look, as a professional medieval historian I known damn well where undergrads “learn” about the past. And, they think that novels are a source of historical analysis instead of history tidbits and cute points (like a latin phrase referring to succubi) without context drawn for the purposes of writing a good novel. It is quite amazing. Hence the thrust of my questions… And concerns….

      • Ambra says:

        I never said its purpose was to “instruct”, I said it may be instructive, as in awakening curiosity, in someone who is usually not interested in the matter…I know very well that historical fantasy can be misleading, believe me, I once read a fantasy book set in Ancient Rome and they put in it a pool full of piranhas in which a patrician threw his slaves (at least if there had been moray eels it could have been believable…), and the latin in fantasy books is often atrocious. But that doesn’t mean that historical fiction should be shunned, just not taken to the letter…
        PS: sorry if my phrases sometimes sound strange, but this is not my native language :)

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        No problem.

        “I said it may be instructive, as in awakening curiosity, in someone who is usually not interested in the matter…” — see, your description OF the term you are using is sort of different than what I assumed you were arguing. Yes, I think that random fragments that are historical in a novel can be inspiring BUT if the author thinks that they are “instructing” instead of “writing a story” then there are serious issues.

        I’m not shunning anything. It has to do with the intent of the author. If they really think they are educating the populace about ancient Rome, well, then, wow… Because they pull the smallest little bits of the past without all the necessary framework of context and interpretation to construct their worlds/views of the world!

      • Ambra says:

        Yeah, that book set in Rome irritated me quite a lot…
        Ah, all right then, of course I agree that the purpose of any kind of fiction is to entertain, interest and sometimes send a message to the reader, not “instruct”…when I want to learn history I certainly don’t read a fiction book! ;)
        PS: can “instructive” mean what I intended or should I have used another word?

  4. Ambra says:

    Oh, I saw that you wrote “your novel” in your last reply. I’m not the author, the author is E. C. Ambrose, I’m just a reader

  5. Interesting conversation, and thanks for keeping it polite. I remember being at an age where I thought that reading a novel was a good way to learn about history. In terms of awakening curiosity, it can be a good start, especially if the work presents a different view of the period, and makes the reader think, “is that how it was?” and go learn more.

    I think one reason that people turn to novels with a historical basis is that it’s easier to get invested in a topic if there’s a story involved–it’s similar to the reason that many great speakers include anecdotes. The story personalizes the topic–but it’s not intended to stand in for other kinds of information.

    Interestingly, if you read Hit Lit, a recent book analyzing a bunch of best-selling novels, author James W. Hall identifies education as one of the keys to a popular novel. People seem to like the sense that they’re learning something along with their entertainment–even if we cringe at the idea that they’re learning only the bits the author chose to present.

  6. Mehr Lee says:

    Love this entry! Looking forward to reading the book! I’ve been researching Ancient Celtic magic, and religious practices for my own novel, and find myself being directed to Wicca. I know that the Celts generally passed their wisdom on orally, and most accounts we do have are from the Romans. Curious if you came across any good references covering the Celts?

    • Thanks for reading!
      I am searching my memory on this question. . . I wasn’t looking for info on Celts, specifically, but I know I came across some good bits. I think there have been some individual articles in the Magic in History series, but that might be hard to track down. A couple of my research books were lost in a terrible USPS incident with a box that was ruined a couple of years ago (still makes me sad to think of them). I’ll post here again if I find my notes on this.

      As you point out, written references are mostly from the Romans, who had a certain point of view :-) I wonder if looking to the archaeological studies might yield interesting results for you–just make sure you’re looking at the most recent studies. I am reminded of a recent article about a grave cairn that included skulls and bones of local animals tucked into the stones. The archaeologists were intrigued, and began to speculate about them as ritual offerings. Until they were sitting at lunch and witnessed a cat carrying a dead animal to the mound and sticking it in, apparently to save it for later.

      Good luck–and do let me know what you discover!

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