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Magic in English Thirteenth-Century Miracle Collections

The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern PeriodMagic in English Thirteenth-Century Miracle Collections

By Valerie I. J. Flint

The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, edited by an N. Bremmer, Jan R. Veenstra, Brannon Wheeler (Leuven: Peeters, 2002)

Introduction: This contribution focuses on miracle collections as a source for medieval magic for three reasons. The first is the very closeness of magic and miracles, for both seek to procure results which transcend nature, and to do this through the medium of a human practitioner. It is true that some persons still regard the very term ‘magic’ as inherently condemnatory, and so incapable of being subsumed within that right exercise of supernatural power they attribute to the Christian miracle-worker. It is true also, and interestingly, that this contrast was alive and well in the very period with which we are here concerned. In the Liber Mernorandorun of the monks of Pontigny for example, a collection made in memory of archbishop Edmund Rich of Canterbury (1234-1240) after his canonisation in 1246, we are provided both with evidence of the similarities, yet differences, to be found between magic and miracles, and a spirited defence against critics of the place of miracles in the complex. Magicians and demons are not the sole sources of supernatural activity on earth, say the compilers of the Liber. On the contrary, miracles were performed by St. Edmund in distinction fiom the art of magic, for the strengthening of faith in the power of God and His saints, the support of Christian worship, the defiance of infidelity and the demonstration of the abiding energy of a well-lived life. These superficial similarities yet far deeper differences between miracles and magic could, at certain periods and in certain places, be deliberately emphasised therefore by the advocates of miracles as an effective counter to forbidden magic – as I hope we shall see.

A second reason for choosing miracle collections as a source lies in the need felt by their compilers, and especially by the compilers of those put together for canonisation processes, to convey a sense of authenticity and reliability. One is struck, for instance, by the pains taken in certain canonisation dossiers to describe the customs of the country fiom which they come; this the better to inform the papal consistory of the singular and beneficial nature of the interventions of the would-be saint. This need to provide information of compelling accuracy makes such collections historical records of the first importance in other respects too, and too little exploited; yet it renders them particularly helpful in matters of magic. Amongst the interventions into English customs we can find, there are, I think, echoes of the distinctly unbeneficial offices of certain contemporary magicians. A third, and final, reason for turning to such sources lies in the evidence they give of the activities of the Christian counter-magus.

Click here to read this article from the University of Groningen

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