14.10.24, Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England

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Laura Mitchell

The Medieval Review 14.10.24

Rider, Catherine. Magic and Religion in Medieval England . London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Pp. 219. ISBN: 9781780230351 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Laura Mitchell
University of Toronto

Catherine Rider's follow-up work to her ground-breaking Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (2006) continues the high level of research and masterful understanding of the primary sources that characterized her earlier work. In her introduction Rider touches on the eternal conundrum for the scholar of magic: what is magic and how can we define it? Rider points out that defining magic has been just as difficult for modern scholars as it was for medieval writers and this is the central problem that she tackles in this book. Using pastoral manuals and sermon literature as her guide, Rider examines clerical perceptions of magical practices and belief in England between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. This period has often been overlooked in the study of medieval magic in favour of the book-ends of the Middle Ages. The timeline that Rider covers saw the introduction of magical texts from Greek and Arabic sources and an intensely important reform movement within the church. Together, these phenomena had a profound influence on the relationship between magic and religion in practice and in the popular imagination. Magic and Religion in Medieval England thus provides a long needed analysis of the magic's place in society through the latter half of the Middle Ages.

Rider begins her study with two chapters that look at magical forms of healing and divination: the forms of magic that preachers and writers of pastoral manuals spent the most time and attention on. These types of magic were the mostly closely related to orthodox practices and it was for precisely that reason that churchmen expended so much energy addressing them. Rider lays out a complex and conflicting network of pastoral literature that reflects how individual writers reacted to their own experience and to popular belief and modified texts to suit themselves. The lines between magic, nature, and religion could vary widely depending on an individual's viewpoint. For example, belief in charms for healing was widespread even among churchmen. Rider argues that the initial disparity in churchmen's writings on divination, healing, and charms came about partly because these practices were useful and difficult to refute. Moreover, although writers of sermons and pastoral manuals would attempt to draw hard lines between magical charms and religion, where that line was drawn varied depending on the individual context of the writer and the particular practices.

Because Magic and Religion covers magical belief, chapter 3 veers away from practices to otherworldly beings: demons, fairies, and flying women. Throughout the medieval period there persisted a large variety of beliefs about beings that created a veritable minefield for pastoral writers: who were these beings? Could the souls of the dead really come back to interact with the living? Unlike other forms of magic such as divination and charms, pastoral manuals took a much stricter approach to encounters with otherworldly beings. Much ink was spilled explaining why elves, imps, or bonae res (female spirits who gave good fortune and agricultural fertility in exchange for offerings of food and drink) were demons and not to be trusted, while at the same time admitting that some encounters (particularly with ghosts from Purgatory) could be acceptable given the right context. Importantly, Rider points out that these encounters were often seen as a female activity, with female spirits like the bonae res, and women were assumed to be the ones who held the strongest beliefs about these beings. Tied in with the general anxiety concerning women's authority in spiritual matters in the later medieval period, this may help explain the harsh stance taken by theologians against encounters with otherworldly beings.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, accusations of harmful magic between quarreling neighbours appear repeatedly in the court records and was the normal precursor to most witch trials. However, as Rider discusses in her fourth chapter, in the medieval court records accusations of harmful magic appear with far less frequency. Unlike the beliefs in divination or healing magic, there was no possibility that causing harm through occult means was anything but magical. Consequently, pastoral and sermon writers had to consider other questions: was harmful magic a serious threat? Did it even work? If so, what could be done about it? It is these three questions that Rider focuses on in this chapter. She argues that while many people at all levels of society believed that harmful magic could be a threat, it was not omnipresent in people's minds. There was seems to have been enough methods of protection against harmful magic and enough skepticism from Church authorities that accusations of harmful magic did not make it as far as the courts with the same frequency as the post-Reformation period.

Chapter 5 veers away from more widespread magical practices and beliefs to the scholarly, clerical world of ritual magic. Here the stereotypical practitioner was the same kind of person who was writing the pastoral manuals, not the average parishioner. Ordinary people did not have access to this kind of magic, although the image of the clerical magician seems to have been widespread. Thus, the focus for writers of pastoral manuals and sermon literature was not to dissuade people from practicing ritual magic, but to use entertaining stories of ritual magic gone awry to teach other moral lessons.

In the last two chapters Rider focuses on more specifically how the medieval English Church tried to suppress magical beliefs and practices. Here Rider turns to confession manuals in addition to the pastoral manuals and sermon literature that are her main sources in the rest of the book. For the most part, churchmen in England focused their efforts on simply telling the laity not to do magic. Church writers tried to present magic as a superstition practiced by foolish old women that led only to problems. For the majority of the period between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries the greatest action taken by the church against magic was to bring it up in confession and apply the requisite penalties to those who confessed. Extensive penance or the threat of excommunication could be a powerful threat to stop people from practicing magic. Accusations of magic occasionally appear in the court records, often alongside a long list of other accusations. Even here, the punishments handed out do not suggest that magic was seen as a very serious threat in England. Rider argues that magic was not linked to heresy and witchcraft to the same degree in England as it was in other parts of Europe by the fifteenth century and that, paired with the preoccupation of the clergy with other more pressing concerns, led to a rather lenient response to magic by the Church.

Throughout Magic and Religion Rider takes care to point out the diversity of belief, not just between clergy and laity, but among the very clergy advising the laity on what was magic and what was not. While in the thirteenth century, for example, pastoral writers took new theoretical ideas about the natural world and applied them to popular beliefs in an attempt to determine more precisely and uniformly what was natural and what was magic, Rider's examples from the fourteenth century and later reveal the persistence of unorthodox beliefs. Despite the best efforts of senior churchmen to come to a rough consensus and set "a single church attitude to magic" (174), individual contexts and perspectives often muddied the waters.

This book serves as an excellent introduction to the topic of magic in medieval English society; this makes it ideal for classroom use or a general audience. Basic topics are explained for readers and most of the historiographic discourse that will particularly interest scholars of the period is relegated to the endnotes to maintain the book's broad appeal. However, this should not put off academic readers. Rider's focus on pastoral manuals, sermon literature, early Church writings, and confession manuals provides the reader an important understanding of contemporary perceptions of magic in all its forms. Magic and Religion should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in magic or religion in England.

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Laura Mitchell

University of Toronto