From healing spells to conjuring demons: the medieval obsession with magic

Our medieval ancestors used incantations to ward off illness, uttered prayers to summon guardian angels, and cast sinister spells on their enemies. And, writes Catherine Rider, there was little a disapproving clergy could do to stop them

The dark side: A man summons demons in a 14th-century English encyclopaedia.

In 1280 the monks of Selby Abbey in Yorkshire made a complaint to the archbishop of York. They claimed that their abbot, Thomas, did not participate in the abbey’s communal life or observe the Rule of St Benedict that governed the monks’ daily routine. He had slept with two women. He had given away part of the monastery’s property to his relatives. Finally, they said, after Thomas’s brother had drowned in the river Ouse, he had employed an “enchanter and magician” named Elias Fauvelle to find the body, and paid him a “great sum” of money. The archbishop deposed Thomas and sent him to do penance at Durham Cathedral priory. But before this could happen, Thomas fled, taking some of the abbey’s horses and possessions with him.

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This complaint is unusual: medieval abbots probably did not make a habit of employing magicians. But if the monks’ accusations were true, Thomas’s escapades highlight just how widespread the belief in magic was in medieval society. They also suggest that it could be taken seriously by the educated as well as the illiterate, by clergymen as well as laypeople.

Medieval clergy who preached against magic sometimes liked to claim that it was only uneducated people who believed in it. Thus Stephen of Bourbon, a friar from east-central France, complained that magic “seduces uncountable souls belonging to stupid people – of whom there are an infinite number”. He followed this with a series of examples, most of which featured women and peasants, two social groups that educated medieval clergy often associated with ignorance and superstition. However, Abbot Thomas does not fit that mould. He occupied a privileged position in the church and must have had some education. He was nonetheless convinced by Elias Fauvelle’s abilities.

Thomas’s story also shows why people turned to magic. He did so in a moment of crisis, to solve a serious problem. And, in doing so, he wasn’t alone. Contemporary records suggest that anxieties over life’s many problems – health, the future and love – drove numerous people to seek solace in spells and charms. Magic offered our medieval ancestors a means of control, when few other options were available. They might resort to magic in a bid to cure diseases or find lost possessions. Others were even more ambitious, employing magic to predict the future, protect themselves from evil spirits, inflict harm on enemies, or even to make someone fall in (or out) of love.

Anxieties over life’s problems – health, the future and love – drove many to seek solace in spells and charms

But what exactly was magic? How did our medieval ancestors define it? Most of our evidence comes from clergymen, who overwhelmingly set out to criticise magic and talk people out of practising it. And the consensus they reached was that something was magic if it did not work according to natural cause and effect. As the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas put it: “In things done for the purpose of producing some bodily effect, we must consider whether they seem able to produce that effect naturally: for if so it will not be unlawful to do so, since it is lawful to employ natural causes in order to produce their proper effects.” However, if something could not work naturally – the argument went – then in order to work, it must involve demons: evil spirits whose purpose was to deceive humanity.

An eye for evil: the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas was one of the chief architects of of the clergy's censorious policy towards magic. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
An eye for evil: the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas was one of the chief architects of of the clergy’s censorious policy towards magic. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

According to this logic, evil spirits infected even the most seemingly innocent of practices – including those designed to promote healing. Aquinas singled out amulets worn on the body, and incantations that were spoken over the sick, as examples of illicit magic at work rather than the practice of legitimate medicine.

Healing charms weren’t the only form of magic in the clergy’s firing line. Men of the church voiced their disapproval of all kinds of spells, including those designed to identify thieves and locate stolen goods. Writing to his clergy in 1240, Walter de Cantilupe, bishop of Worcester, described members of his flock “resorting to incantations, as is common when something is stolen, or using a sword or a basin [presumably in an attempt to ‘see’ images on their shiny surfaces, as clairvoyants do with crystal balls]”.

Faith in magic

Yet Thomas Aquinas and Walter de Cantilupe had a problem, and that was that they were out of step with the public mood. Most people simply didn’t think that magic was wrong – whatever the church said – a fact that the friar John Bromyard acknowledged in a manual that he wrote for his fellow preachers in the 14th century. Describing lay people’s attitude to magic, he wrote: “They say: ‘What the magician predicted, happened. I have found truth in his words, for I have found the thing I lost, or I have recovered my health, or the health of my children or animals. Why then is it a sin to believe in this or to do it?”’

Another issue facing censorious clergymen was that, for many ordinary people, magic and religion were inextricably linked – most didn’t see magic as incompatible with their Christian faith. John Bromyard complained bitterly how, when deploying certain healing charms, his contemporaries often used “holy words about God and St Mary and the other saints, and many prayers”. The fact that versions of these charms were still being used centuries later suggests that most people were far less concerned about the overlap between the magical and the divine than was Bromyard.

A wide cross-section of the population appears to have used the types of spells and charms described by Walter de Cantilupe and John Bromyard. Others, however, dabbled in more exclusive forms of magic, such as summoning angels or demons in order to answer questions and do the magician’s bidding. The rituals involved were complicated: the magician was often told to bathe, wear clean clothes, and avoid sexual intercourse immediately before the ritual. There are lengthy prayers and strings of names to recite on particular days, over a long period; and the magician was asked to draw diagrams and strange characters, including often a magic circle where they could stand to protect them from the demons.

These rituals were too long and complex to memorise, so the practitioners had to learn them from books – most of which were written in Latin. For this reason, it seems that this brand of magic was chiefly restricted to the educated: priests, students and physicians. These were the type of people who thought of themselves as an elite who could be trusted with powerful knowledge: “You should not reveal your secrets to a woman, a child, an idiot or a drunk,” warned one text.

For all its elitism, preachers took just as dim a view of spirit-summoning as they did of other forms of magic. Sermons groan with cautionary tales of magicians stepping out of their protective circle and being killed by the spirits they had just invoked. Yet such stories seem to have had little impact: some educated men were determined to establish direct contact with the spirit world – and were willing to take great risks to get it.

Renouncing their sins

Given the clergy’s hostility to magic, you might expect late medieval manuscripts to be filled with grim tales of the state-approved persecution of those that practised it. But that wasn’t the case, at least before the middle of the 15th century. Trials were comparatively rare, and penalties light – with those found guilty being asked to abjure their sins publicly, fast, or make offerings such as candles at mass.

In fact, it seems that, in most cases, senior clergy would only take action if magic was bound up with other offences. The long list of accusations levelled against Abbot Thomas of Selby Abbey suggests that he had alienated his monks for many reasons, of which using magic was just one; it was the sheer number of misdemeanours that made his case difficult to ignore.

The Wars of the Roses saw a spike in charges of sorcery, as both sides sought to undermine the enemy by any means possible

In this, Thomas was far from unique. In 1482, Joanna Beverley came before the bishop’s court in London, accused of love magic. “She asked two other sorceresses she knew to work so that Robert Stantone and another gentleman from Gray’s Inn would love her and no other,” the court was told. “The men committed adultery with her and, it is said, fought each other over her, and one almost killed the other. And her husband did not dare to stay with her because of these two men.” The details of the case (if true) reveal just how disruptive love magic was considered to be. However, if Beverley hadn’t also been accused of adultery, prostitution and pimping, she may never have been taken to court in the first place.

There was one scenario, however, in which the authorities’ lenient attitude towards magic was replaced by something more grim altogether – and that was when it became entangled with politics. The Wars of the Roses era saw a spike in accusations of sorcery and witchcraft, as both sides sought to undermine the enemy by any means possible. It is hard to know whether these accusations were genuine, or baseless smear campaigns. Probably, it was a bit of both. Either way, the consequences for those accused could be serious, even fatal.

Double standards: Monks congregate around a sick colleague in the c15th century. The clergy condemned magic, but that didn't stop some men of the cloth employing it themselves. (Photo by Bridgeman)
Double standards: Monks congregate around a sick colleague in the c15th century. The clergy condemned magic, but that didn’t stop some men of the cloth employing it themselves. (Photo by Bridgeman)

In 1441, Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the uncle and heir of King Henry VI, was accused of using magic to try to kill Henry. Also implicated were Roger Bolingbroke, her personal clerk; John Home, Eleanor’s chaplain; Thomas Southwell, a physician and priest; and a woman named Margery Jourdemayne, who had a longstanding reputation as a magical practitioner. Interestingly, Eleanor did not deny using magic, but she said she had resorted to it to help her conceive a child, not to harm the king – a plausible claim since she and Humphrey had no children after several years of marriage. She was nonetheless imprisoned for life. Yet that was a better fate than the one endured by three of her co-accused: Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Thomas Southwell died in the Tower of London, and Margery Jourdemayne was burned for heresy. Only John Home, who seems to have been less closely involved, was pardoned.

These were particularly brutal punishments; they were also a sign of things to come. By the time Eleanor Cobham was thrown in prison, official attitudes to magic had begun to change in both church and state. The late Middle Ages saw the first witch trials, and by the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of people across Europe (often, but not always, women) found themselves accused of being in league with the devil and executed for witchcraft. The period when the church tolerated magic – however disapprovingly – had come to a grisly end.

Catherine Rider is associate professor in medieval history at the University of Exeter

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This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine