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Magic in Early Modern Europe

A/N: Essay from Lent term, academic year 2008/09. I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus. 

How Integral Was 'Magic' To The Belief System Of Early Modern Europe?

‘Magic’, defined by Scribner as ‘human attempts to appropriate divine power and apply it instrumentally’, has long been seen as a concept which separates the ‘superstitious’ past from the ‘scientific’ present. The early modern period has traditionally been viewed as a time of change, when the magical beliefs of the middle ages gave way, with the help of the scientific enlightenment, to modern scepticism. However Webster points out that this chronological approach, whilst logical, is in fact an over simplification. ‘Magic’ was a cornerstone of the beliefs of many early modern people. For many it was a very real part of everyday existence. It even coloured the beliefs of those who outright denied this practical application of magic. The Protestants in particular were forced to outline, time and again, their position on magic in order to prevent ordinary people from ignorantly committing sin by attempting it. Whether they used it, or tried to debunk it as nonsense, nobody in the early modern period was untouched by ‘magic’. In this way it was integral to the belief system of early modern Europe.

Magic was not a problem unique to the early modern period. As Flint points out, the traditional view that magic and religion were one and the same in the medieval period is erroneous. In fact, the medieval Church was very much aware of the huge range of magical beliefs amongst its congregations. These beliefs were, officially, believed to be at best heterodox, at worst outright heresy. The difficulty for the medieval Church was that a lack of educated clergy meant an institutionalised confusion over what constituted ‘magic’ emerged. The folk beliefs of the laity were echoed amongst the clergy; an English bishop confessed to being unsure as to whether being buried in a bishop’s …coat… would enable the deceased to bypass purgatory or not. This was in spite of a harsh line being taken against it at the centre. Pope John XXII decreed in 1326, for example, that those who ‘make or have made images… or other things for magic purposes’ should be excommunicated. As a result of this confusion magic remained an integral part of the belief system for the majority of medieval people.

In the early modern period this confusion started to give way to a more obvious anti-magic stance from the Church. The new Protestant Churches in particular seized upon the ‘magic’ and superstitious practices of the Catholic Church. For Protestants the Catholic sacramentals were the same as popular charms and magic; blessed objects and magical prayers were superstitious. And, as superstition implied a lack of faith, they were implicitly an appeal to the Devil. To early modern theologians this was a clear case of idolatrous worship of demons. Magic, and witchcraft, were thus a threat because they were sinful; as Brenz argued, witches should be punished because they lead ‘godless and un-Christian’ lives and ‘give themselves entirely to the devil’, rather than because of any other consideration. In response the Catholic Church too sought to clarify its position on superstition and magic. Yet magical beliefs persisted. Roper describes how the Calvinist minister, Christoph Zimmerman, spent his entire life trying to purge his rural parish of superstitious beliefs. After suffering a mental breakdown he was met with his worst nightmare: in spite of all his efforts his parishioners were engaging in magical prayer from the church pulpits to try and guarantee his speedy recovery. By the end of the sixteenth-century official church stances on magic was clearer than ever, yet magic remained an integral part of many people’s beliefs.

If ‘low’ culture continued to be consumed by magical beliefs, it might be expected that educated, elite views would take a more sceptical view. First appearances would certainly suggest so. What could only be understood by the masses in terms of ‘magic’, was understood by the better educated as the result of natural science. This is not to say that science was creating a rational and logical approach to the world. Rather the ever-increasing scope of natural science proved, for many, only the huge range of ‘mira’ (wonders as opposed to miracles) the devil and his demons could achieve. As Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg wrote in 1508, ‘what nature cannot do by its own powers, neither can the devil do’. Johann Weyer went further in 1563, claiming that although the devil was everywhere in nature, he could not be summoned to perform wonders for humans. Increasingly magic, from an elite perspective, was not a threat because it caused physical damage. It was a threat because it was the preserve of the uneducated. Alignment with the devil, no matter how tenuous, was a threat to social order and a social hierarchy ratified by Christian belief. Magic was thus integral to the belief systems of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, albeit for different reasons.

The infamous witchcraft hunts of the early modern period show how ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture understandings of magic merged. As elite fears about ‘diabolic’ witchcraft filtered down to the masses huge numbers of people came before the courts accused of witchcraft. Estimates suggest that there were between 100,000 and 200,000 witchcraft trials in the early modern period, around half of which ended in execution. Yet far from educating the lower orders and removing the threat of magic, such trials, in many instances, simply provided a framework for the fears of the masses. It encouraged people to blame bewitchment for everything from illness to poor harvests. Such developments, along with the new ‘encyclopaedias’ of magical practices produced by the likes of Scot, also led to more uniform understandings of magic. For example in 1575 the Venetian Inquisition encountered the Benandanti of Friuli. These were men who, as a result of their having been born still ‘clothed’ in their amniotic membranes, were believed to be divinely chosen to fight witches in the dream realm. The Inquisition was uncertain how to deal with these beliefs and tried to frame it so that the Benandanti were actually guilty of witchcraft themselves. By 1649 the Inquisition, and the impact of print and local witchcraft trials, had succeeded in confusing these original beliefs. Michael Soppe admitted, unlike his predecessors, to attending the Sabbath and being in league with the devil. Magic was integral to early modern beliefs, but in many ways it was almost a state sponsored understanding of magic that was encouraged.

This attempt to replace traditional folk magic with the new, ‘diabolical’, version of magic can be clearly seen in the loss of the distinction between ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic. Whereas the lower orders who used magic had seen a clear divide between this good and bad magic, the authorities lumped it all together as it all, inevitably, invoked the devil. O’Neil blames this on the new high standards of education within the church, ‘starved for the hard theological issues in which they had been schooled’, she argues, they were forced to focus on detecting ‘what were essentially predoctrinal popular errors.’ Whilst this may have been true in some cases it ignores the direct links between magical practices and sin such people believed to exist. Re-education of the masses was thus of vital importance. In 1595 sixty year old healer, Antonio Coreggi, told the Inquisition: ‘I did not think such things were bad, nor that they were sins. If I had thought they were bad, I would have confessed and stopped doing them.’ This was the aim of the elite; to bring uniformity into understandings of magic. Where they succeeded magic still remained an integral part of the belief system; it might be a sin, but sin too was still a defining feature of early modern belief.

How integral magic was to early modern belief systems did not just differ between high and low culture. There was clear change over time; for example the far more coherent official view of magic that emerged within the Catholic Church. The Inquisitions which investigated witchcraft and other heresies were thus tightly controlled by both theological and legal considerations. This also hints at doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics. For the Catholics magic was only a sin if it was intentional; the Spanish jurist Simancas claimed that ‘a heretic is not one who lives badly, but who believes badly.’ By contrast the Protestant view was that ignorance did not excuse the sin. Similarly there was a wide geographic difference. Magic existed everywhere, but its form might vary. In England for example 92 per cent of those put on trial for witchcraft were women, in Russia women made up only 37 per cent of those accused. Understandings of the threat posed by magic were clearly different. The view the state leaders took also played a role in defining how magic was understood in a region. Where authority was diffused, as in England, ‘witchcrazes’ were less likely than in areas like Catholic Germany where Prince-bishops held absolute power. Julius Echter of Mesplebrunn, ruler of Wuerzburg, was responsible for over 6000 deaths; more than a fifth of the German total. The exact role of and form magic took was not a fixed constant.

In conclusion magic was highly integral to the belief system of early modern Europe. Religion, Protestantism, in particular defined itself as protectors against magic. The elite put much effort into attempting to stamp out the moral and social threat it posed to communities. For the lower orders magic, in spite of the best efforts of state and church, remained primarily a practical consideration. Something to turn to in times of illness and crisis, or at least a scapegoat for such problems. As the concept of magic became more uniformly and clearly defined it became something communities could rally around. Whilst there were differences between how magic shaped the beliefs of high and low culture, and how it shaped beliefs across the time period and geographical region, it was a cornerstone of early modern belief.

Supernatural Powers Bibliography 

  • Kors, A.C., and Peters, E., eds, Witchcraft in Europe, (1992), chs. 19, 21-4, 27-31, 37-39, 43-44. 
  • Scribner, B; Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany, (1987), ch. 1. 
  • Scribner, B; ‘The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the “Disenchantment of the World”’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 3, (1993), 475-494. 
  • Flint, V; The Rise of Magic in Medieval Europe, (1991), Conclusion. 
  • O’Neil, M; ‘Magical Healing, Love Magic and the Inquisition in Late Sixteenth-Century Modena’, in Haliczer, S., ed., Inquisition and Society in Early Modern Europe, (1987). 
  • Ruggiero, R; Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance, (1993), ch. 3. 
  • Sanches Ortega, M.H; ‘Sorcery and Eroticism in Love Magic’, in Perry, M.E., and Cruz, A.J., eds., Cultural Encounters: The Impact of the Inquisition in Spain and the New World, (1991). 
  • Webster, C; From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science, (1982), pp. 75-104. III.Witchcraft 
  • Ankerloo, B., and Henningsen, G., eds., Early Modern Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, (1990), Intro, chs. 2, 3, 5, 6. 
  • Briggs, R; Witches and Neighbours, (1996), Conclusion. 
  • Clark, S; Thinking with Demons: the idea of witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, (1997), chs. 11-12. 
  • Levack, Brian; ‘The Great Witch-Hunt’, in Brady, T., et al., eds., Handbook of European History, (1995). 
  • Roper, L; Oedipus and the Devil, (1994), chs. 9-10. -Roper, L; Witchcraze, (2005), Intro, ‘The Baroque Landscape’. 
  • Scribner, B; Popular Culture and Popular Movements, (1987), ch. 12.


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