Magic in the Early Middle Ages



Magic was remarkably prevalent through society in the early Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages wore on the Church began to exert its considerable power to suppress it. Even the meanings of many words associated with the supernatural changed. Although the Church suppressed some magic, other forms were allowed and accepted into Christianity, and were even encouraged.1 Before the Church began its purging of magical practices, kings, emperors, and commoners practiced it regularly.2
Magic had many names and meanings. The Church condemned some magic and denoted it as magia. Magia consisted of sortilegi (lot casting to foretell the future),3 incantaio (incantations to place power into objects), and astrologia (foretelling the future from the stars), just to name a few. Some of the forms accepted by the Church were miracula (miracles). Miracles were supernatural acts by powers given from God.4 Even the meaning of demon changed in this period, from meaning just any spirit, to an evil malicious spirit.5 In this paper, magic will be what was considered as supernatural events and magia as what the Church condemned.
Magic was derived from ancient pagan religions, folk traditions, and Greco-Roman sources.6 The pagan customs that survived among the Christian lower classes were enchantment, magical knots, talismans, the use of herbs, stones, and poisons, spells, incantations, etc.7 When an animal or person became sick with an unknown ailment it was thought to have come from the arrow of an elf or other magical being. A person similar to a shaman was called in to help the person.8 The shaman would chant and use herbs to help the person. If the person did not get any better then the local Christian priest or saint was called into attempt a cure. There are many stories of the shaman failing and a priest succeeding.9 Magic was not only utilized by the commoners, however.
Even some of the most important and influential people of the time believed in and practiced magic. King Lothar regularly entertained enchanters and augurers at his court, until Saint Vaast of Arras attended a party. Saint Vaast made the sign of the cross over some enchanted ale and it spilt itself onto the floor. The King was so embarrassed by the incident that he banned the enchanters from his court. When Louis the Pious was Emporer
‘There was witchcraft everywhere. Policy was based not on sound judgement, but on auspices, and forward planning on auguries…Lot casters, seers, interpreters of omens, mimers, dream mediums, consulters of entrails, and a whole crowd of other initiates in the malefic arts were driven out of the palace.’
Soon after this incident Louis’ second wife was accused of witchcraft by her stepsons.10
Even the prophet and founder of Islam, Muhammed, had dealings with magic and demons. A powerful enchantment by knots had been placed on him once by Lucaides, a Jew, who hoped to rob him of his virility. Muhammed overcame this curse with Allah’s help through a dream. Later, a spirit claiming to be the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Since demons are known to lie he asked his wife for help. She told him that if they both undressed and the spirit disappeared then he would know if the spirit was modest or not. Since the spirit did disappear, he knew he had been visited by the angel Gabriel.11 The beliefs in magic and its powers were in the midst of all social, political, and religious ranks.
Non-Christianized areas also believed in many forms of magic unaccepted by the Church in early medieval times. The Salic Franks had a law stating “‘a witch, having eaten from human flesh and being convicted of this crime, shall pay eight thousand denarii, i.e., two hundred gold pennies.’” Later Clovis I adopted a similar law which inflicts 72 pennies and a hay gold coin for “enchantment by magic knots.” The punishments were more severe for falsely accusing a person of performing magic.12
Finally, in the 7th century the Church leaders believed they had allowed magia to continue long enough. St. Leonard compiled the first collection of ecclesiastical disciplinary measures. One such measure “…provides imprisonment for what the Church must have judged to be a dreadful crime – the sacrifice to demons.” It is interesting to note the punishment for someone in a