Up for a lengthy read?

In case you have been wondering how my University life has been going here is a rare insight into the work I have been doing!
The following is a 3-man group effort, myself included, in explaining “medieval popular culture” and its’ relationship to aspects of life during the period. It was intended as a trial run in large-scale essay writing.
Should warn you, this is roughly 4000 words long! Happy reading!

What Was The Correlation Between Popular Belief and Secular Authority During the Medieval Era?

When one thinks of popular belief in the medieval world they might be forgiven for instantly thinking of stories such as George & The Dragon and Robin Hood. However, these stories are just that – stories and folklore. In reality there is a radical difference between folklore and popular belief for the latter indicates that a matter was widely believed to be a prominent part of everyday life, that it affected day-to-day activities for medieval society. One might also be forgiven for pigeonholing religion as the sole element of popular belief but again this is far from the reality, on the contrary popular belief consisted of elements which ran counter to the theocratic dominance of Christianity. This essay shall aim to address three fundamental aspects of popular belief – witchcraft, medicine, and necromancy – and by an extension their relations to the authorities of the time, both religious and secular.

The first section of the essay will focus on witchcraft in relation to heresy, particularly towards the late Middle Ages. This is due to the general acceptance by historians that witchcraft was not in fact a defining characteristic throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, Russell has argued that ‘European witchcraft emerged only towards the end of the Middle Ages’.[1] Kors and Peters have also said that ‘before the thirteenth century, witchcraft…did not attract the attention of either the greatest minds or the civil authorities in Early Europe’.[2] It is important however to define ‘witchcraft’ since this has also been an area of debate among historians and, when looking at this, it is unclear whether those in the Middle Ages could decide either. Many leading historians on this topic have however come to agree that, particularly towards the end of the period, derogative descriptions of witches were adopted. Common examples of this are pointed out by Russell, such infantilism, orgies, as well as flight.[3] Although Russell believes such occurrence of such activities was ‘almost universally accepted’, he also points out that ‘what people believe to be true influences their actions more than what is objectively true’.[4] Indeed, he saw the charges put upon these ‘witches’ as ‘at best distorted and exaggerated’.[5]

This therefore brings one to question the existence of witchcraft itself. Russell has provided four major interpretations on European witchcraft. The first is ‘’the old liberal view that witchcraft never existed at all but was a monstrous invention by the ecclesiastical authorities’.[6] The second is the Murrayite tradition, whereby Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was an ancient fertility religion.[7] Russell has however shown that modern historical scholarship has rejected this thesis, primarily because Christianity was dominant from the twelfth century, not Paganism. A third interpretation, the most influential at the time Russell’s work was written, was that there was a widespread general superstition rather than on the impostures of an evil church.[8] The final analysis is that ‘witchcraft is a composite of concepts gradually assembled over the centuries’, of which heresy was key.[9] It would seem from Russell’s other works that he follows this interpretation since he states that ‘the development of witchcraft is closely bound to that of heresy’.[10]

In other works, Russell has also pointed out that Lea and Hansen believe scholastics and inquisitors invented witchcraft.[11] Lehmann and Myers have also pointed out the the argument of others that ‘witchcraft…(existed) only in the minds of people’.[12] Pearl however has highlighted some confusion. Whilst he states that ‘all over Europe, witchcraft was regarded as a serious crime’, he contradicts this by saying that ‘in many jurisdictions, not very many people were tried or punished with lesser penalties than death or released with no punishment at all’.[13] Had this been the case then perhaps witchcraft was indeed difficult to define in the Middle Ages.

Heresy has been generally accepted by leading historians on this topic as one of the key factors in the rise of witchcraft towards the end of the Middle Ages. Indeed, Maitland has argued that ‘it is probable that but for the persecution of heretics there would have been no persecution of sorcerers’.[14] Moreover, to further secure this point, Peters has in fact said that there is ‘No modern scholar who would be prepared to deny the powerful influence that not only the prosecution of heretics, but the concept of heresy in general, exerted upon the judicial life of late medieval and early modern Europe’.[15] Heresy is essentially opinion that is at variance with the orthodox doctrine at the time, and could therefore be seen as a rebellion of sorts. The Middle Ages has been seen by many historians as a period of great social unrest, bringing about many different movements. Witchcraft, as a part of this therefore, has been described as ‘an episode in the long struggle between authority and order on the one side and prophecy and rebellion on the other’.[16] This was idea was only furthered by the fact that the conversion of Western Europe to Christianity was ‘well underway by the eight century’.[17] Heresies therefore, such as the Luciferans, who appeared in Germany from 1227 and worshipped the Devil, show the position of those that did not conform to the social norm. Peters has made this clearer by saying that heretics such as these were merged into ‘the image of the absolute heretic, which in turn became the image of every enemy of Christian society’[18]. Of course, this applies very much for witchcraft also, and so Russell has concluded that ‘these heresies were clearly influential in the formation of the witch cult’.[19]

As it has been seen, Russell has led many of the key ideas aforementioned and makes his views on heresy quite clear. It is no exception either when he writes that ‘the development of medieval witchcraft is closely bound to that of heresy, the struggle for the expression of religious feeling beyond the limits tolerated by the Church’.[20] Indeed, he goes on to say that ‘Because any challenge to the authority of the Church was, in medieval terms, a challenge to the order of society and to the majesty of God himself, society naturally responded to heresy and witchcraft with repressive measures’.[21] This provides a strong argument that the Church was the most prominent leader of oppression against witchcraft.

Reaction to heretics and, in turn, witchcraft, also relied very much on the power of those that set out to persecute them, the primary group being the papal Inquisitors. Since witchcraft was seen as a religious matter, secular courts were limited in what they could do and ecclesiastical courts were dominant. With the support of the papacy therefore, Russell has shown how the Inquisition was able to firmly place witchcraft under heresy in the late Middle Ages. Indeed, a number of Popes in the fifteenth century condemned witchcraft, such as Pope Innocent, who ‘established the definition of witchcraft as heresy’.[22] This would support the argument that definitions of witchcraft were distorted in order to protect Christianity.

The use of magic as a healing power is a widely debated topic by many historians. It is apparent that the most contentious and widely debated historiographical topic within magical medicine is the relationship between the use of magic in healing, and the Catholic Church and religion. For example Karen Louis Jolly, in her essay on magic and popular practice in medieval society, provides a separated distinction between the two practices of magical healing, and the idea of miracle as associated with religion. Jolly even goes so far as to argue that religious miracle is the ‘antitheses’ of magic.[23] It is evident that some magical practices were not accepted by the church and seen as demonic or occult. What is made clear in her essay is that the application of what modern society would see as magical practice, would not necessarily have been seen in the same way during the medieval period. Wortley expanded upon this idea claiming that ‘healings of any kind other than by the canonical cures of the medical establishment were regarded as nothing other than quackery and hocus-pocus’.[24]

Separating the two ideas of magic and religion however serves to create two distinct practices, when often their interrelation and co-existence were key elements of medieval medicine. Therefore the view expressed above is largely discredited by a number of historians that suggest a more blurred relationship between popular healing and the Catholic Church. In Keith Thomas’ ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’ a clear link is made between the magical healing and the Catholic Church, in which he writes, ‘the pronunciation of Catholic prayers in Latin long remained a common ingredient in the magical treatment of illness’.[25] He also uses the example of the recital of Catholic prayer in Latin as incantations during magical healing.[26] This is the most convincing example of how the lines between magical medicine and religious healing were blurred, and one that is corroborated by Bozoky.[27] Evidence of a connection between the two practices comes in Lauren Kassell’s ‘Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London’ as it provides an account of Simon Forman, an Elizabethan physician who reputedly used divine power to heal. Kassel argues that as an astrologer-physician Forman did use the seemingly more natural methods and practices of medicine, but also he ‘summoned spirits, harnessed astral powers, and heard the voices of angels’, his role was ‘to heal disease, and to proclaim the sanctity of his work’.[28] Thus this provides a clear example of how magical medicinal practice can be linked directly to the divine. This argument is challenged by historians who claim a more distinctive separation between religious and magical forms of healing.

The value to society of popular practice within medicine and healing is continuous theme throughout the historiography of magic. There is a fairly standard view among historians that the view of professional medicine was not necessarily a popular one. Faye Getz maintains that visiting a trained physician was not even considered ‘desirable’ even by those who could afford to.[29] Michael D. Bailey expanded upon this line of argument in his study of magic that during the mid, and even into the late, middle ages the number of professionally trained physicians remained low. Additionally the knowledge and skill of such trained doctors were often limited; consequently he argues that the majority of medical services were undertaken by ‘barber-surgeons, midwives and village healers’ who he claimed ‘blurred the line between medicine and magic’.[30]

No historian has taken a stronger and more scathing viewpoint on the subject of medieval medicine than Charles Singer perhaps one of the most influential historians of medieval medicine. Singer attacked the unscientific methods of medieval physicians, dismissing their medicine as magic, charms and prayers. His claim was that all medicinal practices of the medieval period were in some way linked to magic.[31] Modern historiography on medieval medicine reflects a more nuanced approach. Getz, while not rejecting the work of Singer, presents an alternative approach, acknowledging the existence of professional and scientific medicine alongside a more traditional method of healing associated with folklore and magic.[32] While it is true that modern historiography tends not to take such a strong stance, his view is line with the idea that medieval scientific medicine was at such a standard that necessitated the use of popular practice and magic.

Whilst the definitions of what ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Medicine’ are debated there is precious little discussion surrounding what ‘Necromancy’ was in Medieval popular belief. There is wide consensus amongst historians that necromancy was the practice of evoking demonic spirits through ritual or tomes to raise the dead and perform explicitly demonic magic, unlike witchcraft and medicine both there were no grey areas as far as persecution of necromancers was concerned.[33]

Whereas accusations of witchcraft were predominantly handled by local authorities necromancy provides the backdrop for the most notorious trial in medieval history: the trial of the Knights’ Templar in 1307 France. It is a complex and controversial event that has sparked masses of historical debate ranging from the validity of the charges, to the motivations of the accusers, to the extent of church and state collaboration.[34]
Translated documents from the time have led historians such as Ralls to believe that there were ten charges laid against the Templars “ranging from idolatry to institutionalised sodomy”.[35] Whilst there is little debate surrounding the charges and their relation to the practice of necromancy historians have clashed over the validity of said charges and have questioned the motivations of both King Phillip IV and Pope Clement V, the two central figures in the prosecution. Campbell scathingly condemns the actions of the French king, whom he believes held a grudge against the religious order because he was both indebted to them and that their power and influence was in danger of surpassing his own.[36] Campbell also highlights the popular belief amongst historians that Clement V “owed his rise in power to Phillip IV” and that this could well have been instrumental in the actions of the Papacy during the trial.[37] Historians have not focused their scrutiny on Phillip IV alone however as Barber believes that Clement V was initially appalled at the accusations lodged against a religious order very much under his watch but eventually collaborated with the French king to use the Templars as scapegoats to protect the reputation of the church.[38]

Despite the vast majority of historians taking stances against the actions of both church and state during this time there are still those who contest that the fate of the order was brought about by their own actions during the Crusades and their failure to conduct an effective campaign on behalf of European monarchies.[39] However, voices such as these are in the minority and their arguments are frequently quashed by historians such as Pernoud claiming that they are ignoring substantial facts, some still emerging to this day from translated documents, in defending Phillip IV.[40] The agreement amongst most historians with regards to this trial was that it was an exceptional case of secular authority using false charges of heresy with the help of the church against a group whom, in light of their growing influence, both parties wanted to strip bear of land, wealth, and popularity.[41]

With such high profile trials such as this taking place the grass roots levels of medieval society fear of necromancy was widespread, which is considered ironic by scholars because in order for one to become fluent in the occult art they would have had to have been literate in Latin – which much of the peasantry was not.[42] Indeed, the overwhelming majority of necromancy accusations beyond the Templar trials were directed at members of the clergy themselves. Many historians have touched upon and debated about the fascinating revelation that the clergy, relentless in its pursuit of witchcraft and necromancy, actually constituted the largest pool of its practitioners.[43] Historians of this particular area such as Thomas and Deane have attempted to discern just why it was that members of the church were the prominent practitioners of such a condemned art, and even if it was necromancy at all. The foundation for this particular debate is that the clergy were in the literate minority of medieval society and therefore had access to learning outside of the church itself, this in turn led to the frequent cases of self-education being mistaken for necromancy. If a community were to discover that their local cleric could read a Latin book of incantations or rituals because they were literate this was enough to lodge an accusation.[44] The trials of clerical necromancers were often left to the devices of the church rather than local secular authorities and almost always resulted in death penalties.

The decline of necromancy trials in medieval Europe is believed amongst historians to have come about with the advent of the printing press in the sixteenth century, for it made the accessibility of the written word widespread and it therefore became practically impossible for the church to persecute those with learning beyond religious doctrine.[45] With the rise of learning came the gradual decline of fear of necromancy but the other popular branches of Paganistic practices such as witchcraft would endure for centuries to come.

As can be seen from the debates highlighted historians have discussed the nature of popular belief in medieval Europe and have attempted to discern what the nature of its relationship with both secular and religious authorities. Historians have found it difficult to define witchcraft to a representable standard of the nation during the Middle Ages, particularly since there is such a strong argument that the Church was using this uncertainty to its own benefit in condemning heresy as a whole. Indeed, what was thought to be known about witchcraft was always changing in line with the growth of heresy. It is in no doubt however when comparing historical works that the two were inherently tied. The support of the papacy in condemning witchcraft shows just how much of a threat heresies such as witchcraft were seen to be towards the orthodox religion. Popular and ‘occult’ medicine has been deemed a necessity in medieval society due to the inadequacy of professional and scientific medicine, the line between ‘magic’ and ‘divine’ healing is still very blurry to this day and historians continue to delve its depths. However it was arguably the most serious crime of necromancy which brought the boundaries between state and religion closest together with the persecution of the Knights’ Templar proving to be the pivotal moment where this connection became apparent. Historians have generally come to the conclusion that not only was popular belief a crucial facet of medieval culture but it was also a means of displaying the fledgling symbiosis between belief and authority. The various parts of popular belief had their respective periods of infamy and controversy before fading away with the dawn of the renaissance and the learning it brought.

Ashe, L., Fiction and History in England: 1066-1200, (Cambridge, 2007)
Barber, M., The Trial of the Templars, (Cambridge, 2012)
Bailey, MD., Magic and Superstition in Europe (Plymouth, 2007)
Biller, P., Heresy and Literacy 1000-1530, (Cambridge, 1996)
Bate, K., Knights’ Templar, (Manchester, 2002)
Bozoky, E., ‘Mythic Mediations and Healing Incantations’ in S. Campbell, B. Hall and D. Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London, 1992)
Campbell, G.A., The Knights’ Templars, (New York, 1979)
Camp, J., Magic, Myth and Medicine (London, 1973)
Deane, J. K., A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition, (Maryland, 2011)
Decker, R., Witchcraft and the Papacy, (Charlottesville, 2008)
Kieckhefer, R., Magic in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge, 2000)
Getz, F., Medicine in the English Middle Ages (Princeton, 1998)
Getz, F., ‘To Prolong Life and Promote Health: Baconian Alchemy and Pharmacy in English Learned Tradition’ in S. Campbell, B. Hall and D. Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London, 1992)
Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750. The Conversion of Western Europe, (Philadelphia, 1986)
Jolly, K., Peters, E., Raudvere, C., (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, (London, 2002)
Jolly, K.L., ‘Magic, Miracle and Popular Practise in the Early Medieval West: Anglo-Saxon England’ in J.
Kors, A.C., Peters, E., (eds.) Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700, (Philadelphia, 1972)
Kee, H.C., ‘Magic and the Messiah’, in J. Neusner, E. Frerichs and P. Flesher (eds), Religion, Science and Magic (New York, 1998)
Kassel, L., Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan England: Simon Forman, Astrologer, Alchemist and Physician (New York, 2005)
Lehmann A.C., Myers, J.E., Magic, Witchcraft and Religion, An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, (Houston, 1985)
Mann, J., Murder, Magic and Medicine (New York, 1992)
Neusner, E. Frerichs and P. Flesher (eds), Religion, Science and Magic (New York, 1998)
Pernoud, R., The Templars: Knights of Christ, (San Francisco, 1997)
Pearl, J.L., The Crime of Crimes, Demonology and Politics in France 1560-1620, (Waterloo, 1999)
Peters, E., The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, (Hassocks, 1978)
Ralls, K., Knights’ Templar Encyclopedia, (New Jersey, 2007)
Russell, J.B., A History of Witchcraft, (London, 1980)
Russell, J.B., Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, p. 3, (Ithaca, 1972)
Thomas, K., Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London, 2003)
Thomas, K., Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971)
Webb, J., The Occult Underground, (Chicago, 1974)
Wortley, J., ‘Three Not-So-Miraculous Miracles’ in S. Campbell, B. Hall and D. Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London, 1992)

[1] Jeffrey B. Russell, A History of Witchcraft, (1980), p. 11

[2] Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700, (1972), p. 26

[3] Jeffrey B. Russell, A History of Witchcraft, (1980), p. 37

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid., (1980), p. 39

[6] Jeffrey B. Russell, A History of Witchcraft, (1980), p. 40

[7] Ibid., p. 41

[8] Ibid., p. 42

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jeffrey B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, p. 3, (1972)

[11] Ibid., p. 133

[12] Arthur C. Lehmann and James E. Myers, Magic, Witchcraft and Religion, An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, p. 149, (1985)

[13] Jonathan L. Pearl, The Crime of Crimes, Demonology and Politics in France 1560-1620, (1999), pp. 1, 3

[14] Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, (1978), p. 155

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeffrey B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, (1972), p. 2

[17] J.N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750. The Conversion of Western Europe, (1969), p. 2

[18] Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, (1978), p. 155

[19] Jeffrey B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, (1972), p. 142

[20] Ibid., p. 3

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 230

[23] K.L Jolly, ‘Magic, Miracle, and Popular Practise in the Early Medieval West’ in Religion, Science and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict (New York, 1992) p.167

[24] J. Wortley, ‘Three Not-So-Miraculous Miracles’ in Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London, 1992) pp.159-160

[25] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971) p.211

[26] Ibid. p.210

[27] E. Bozoky, ‘Mythic Mediations and Healing Incantations’ in Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London, 1992) p.84

[28] L. Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London, Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist and Physician (New York, 2005) p.212

[29] F. Getz, Medicine in the English Middle Ages (Princeton, 1998) p.81

[30] M.D Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe (Plymouth, 2007) pp.80-81

[31] J.H.G Grattan and Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (London, 1952) p.4

[32] F. Getz, ‘To Prolong Life and Promote Health: Baconian Alchemy and Pharmacy in the English Learned Tradition’ in Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London, 1992) pp.141-144

[33] R. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, (2000), p.152

[34] K. Bate, Knights’ Templar, Manchester, (2002), Preface

[35] K. Ralls, Knights’ Templar Encyclopedia, New Jersey, (2007), p.245

[36] G. Campbell, The Knights’ Templars, New York, (1979), p.239

[37] G. Campbell, The Knights’ Templars, p.243

[38] M. Barber, The Trial of the Templars, Cambridge, (2012), p.89

[39] K. Bate, Knights’ Templar, p.77

[40] R. Pernoud, The Templars: Knights of Christ, San Francisco, (1997), p.138  

[41] J. K. Deane, A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition, Maryland, (2011), p.119

[42] M. D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, Maryland, (2006), p.103

[43] J. K. Deane, A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition, p.197

[44] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, London, (2003), p.175

[45] P. Biller, Heresy and Literacy 1000-1530, Cambridge, (1996) ,p.257


If you managed to read through all of that then you truly have the patience of a saint and get proper kudos from me!
Next time: Top Movies of 2012!


One comment

  1. Definitely a more referenced and argued account Dale

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