Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages

Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages

By Catherine Rider

Societas Magica Newsletter, Vol.13 (2004)

Introduction: It happened once in Paris that a certain sorceress impeded a man who had left her so that he could not have intercourse with another woman whom he had married. So she made an incantation over a closed lock and threw that lock into a well, and the key into another well, and the man was made impotent. But afterwards, when the sorceress was forced to acknowledge the truth, the lock was retrieved from the one well and the key from the other, and as soon as the lock was opened, the man became able to have intercourse with his wife.

This story, told in c.1216, illustrates the link between magic and impotence as it was most commonly presented in the Middle Ages. Today we might suspect that the man’s impotence had a psychological cause, but for medieval observers, this was a typical case of harmful magic, maleficium. Many societies have made similar links between impotence and magic, but the subject received a great deal of discussion in Europe from the twelfth century onwards because of the way in which medieval university teaching worked. Each generation of students commented on the same textbooks, and because impotence caused by maleficium appeared in the textbooks of three academic disciplines, canon law, theology and medicine, it appeared regularly in the commentaries that followed. There are also a number of references to the subject in other sources, such as magical texts, priests’ manuals, and even a few trial records.

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