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Christian Ritual Magic in the Middle Ages

Magical table and symbols in the Magical Treatise of Solomon.Christian Ritual Magic in the Middle Ages

By Claire Fanger

History Compass, Vol. 11:8 (2013)

Abstract: This article gives a brief introduction to the area of medieval ritual magic, outlining the main kinds of texts likely to be understood as belonging to the category – image magic, necromancy, and theurgy or angel magic. Before moving to an overview of the current state of scholarship, it makes note of some watershed works that helped to open up the area of intellectual magic for study. A number of interesting new discoveries, both textual and historical, have been made since the 1990s, and these discoveries have in turn instigated a push toward further exploration and editing of medieval texts and manuscripts of ritual magic, which is turning out to be a more interesting and diverse category than might once have been assumed.

Introduction: In the later middle ages, starting from around the mid-twelfth century, and getting ever more numerous through the next two centuries, an array of magic texts came into circulation. Some travelled into Latin with the influx of Arabic scientific texts, while others were endogenous to the Latin tradition. Some of these texts openly refer to themselves as magical; some do not (yet still came under suspicion of being so for various reasons), and some are of mixed heritage and transmission. There are three basic, broadly overlapping categories of ritual magic, all of which have, in the last two decades, garnered an increasing degree of scholarly interest. While these categories should not be seen as fixed or absolute, it is easiest to discuss these texts under the broad headings of image magic, necromancy, and angel magic or theurgy.

Theurgic texts tend to be oriented to the pursuit of knowledge, usually of a visionary nature, whether local (e.g. recovery of stolen goods) or global (e.g., the liberal arts and philosophy); they do not bind spirits but rather focus on purification of the soul, invoking divine and angelic assistance towards their knowledge goals. Necromancy, or magic that works by conjuring and binding demons, is scarcely less concerned with ritual purity, and might have a variety of uses beyond gaining knowledge, including the creation of illusions, revenge, and compulsion of favors and love. Image magic overlaps in its aims with both the other categories, but is distinguished by its reliance on astrology and stellar correspondences in the creation of talismans or images which trap and focus the power of heavenly bodies. The earliest image magic texts are a product of the transmission of Arabic learning into the Latin West, and while such texts clearly operated in part from the natural powers of stars, they also at times invoked spirits in ways that gave them aspects similar to both necromancy and theurgy. While it might seem a simple matter to distinguish between demons and angels, in practice it was not, for it was a well-known fact that a demon could appear in the guise of an angel of light. Indeed, when the powers in these texts are described as manifesting as entities (whether in ritual instructions, or in concluding statements of an “I myself have seen” kind), they sometimes seem to have more in common with fairies, djinn, ghosts, or purgatorial souls, than either angels or demons; ambiguity is their hallmark, and a certain hybridity is the rule.

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