Saturday, October 10, 2015

Richard Kieckhefer's "Magic in the Middle Ages": Book Review

This book meets the needs of advanced students who need a introduction to this topic. Richard Kieckhefer specializes in medieval belief systems, so he is suited for this difficult subject to summarize in 200 pages. He examines magic as a "crossroads" where high and low, clerical and folk, popular and learned cultures intersect. He stresses a difference, however, between natural and demonic models.

He reminds us on pg. 16 that our data is tainted. Those attacking magic tended to record their critiques. Those practicing it tended to hide their lore from the persecutors and the client alike. And for the illiterate, their attitudes are difficult to recover, given the power of the elite over this knowledge, used both to suppress and to spread practices often outside the ambit of the Church. Yet here, too, overlap occurs, for clergy sought to learn secrets, and rituals involving magic took elements from the dominant as well as the indigenous suppositions still surviving from paganism and classics. Islam disseminated its own concepts, and so did alchemy, nascent science, and astrology. The author gives a cogent account of the last category; he captures the appeal of love charms well on pp. 81-3. (I cite the 1990 ed.)

"Historians can set up all the conceptual walls they want, but they should not be surprised when medieval people flit through them, like ghosts." (18) Magic was not the province of women, monks, or physicians. Kieckhefer follows distribution as a "common" type over much of medieval Europe.

Yet as he concludes, he turns to the witch hunts of late medieval and early modern times, and he notes how women were made vulnerable to attack. They lacked the power men had to resist, when the clerical and legal institutions were arrayed against them, and when suspicion by neighbors heightened the precarious condition of a local healer, a midwife, an herb-gatherer, or a quarrelsome village scold.

These everyday events were exaggerated into terrors perpetrated as a conspiracy of devil worshipers was imagined, and when those putting trust (and this itself is hard to measure) in spells or potions, charms or amulets, fearful of exposure, gave over the weaker among them to save their own skins. Reading Kieckhefer, as a counter to the more sensationalized depictions of this era, or the more romantic fictions, a balance for the reader will arrive, and one may want then to explore this deeper. (6-13-15 to Amazon US.)

No comments: