Books: Placing Magic at the Centre of Medieval Culture; Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer. Published by Cambridge University Press. Pounds 8.95

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), December 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

Books: Placing Magic at the Centre of Medieval Culture; Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer. Published by Cambridge University Press. Pounds 8.95


Byline: DAPHNE ABERNETHY

How was magic practised in medieval times? How did it relate to the diverse beliefs and practices that characterised this fascinating period?

Richard Kieckhefer surveys the growth and development of magic in the middle ages and produces an interesting account of magic which he describes as "a kind of crossroads where different pathways in medieval culture converge".

He examines its relation to religion, science, philosophy, art, literature and politics before introducing us to the types of magic that were used, the kinds of people who practised them and the reasoning behind their beliefs.

His approach is fairly tightly focused on the sources; he starts by looking at two from 15th century Germany, an estate management handbook in the vernacular that contains scattered magical elements and a Latin handbook for conjuring demons.

Kieckhefer devotes two chapters to the sources for medieval magic. The first surveys magic in Greek and Roman philosophy, science, fiction and in early Christian writings (and in late antiquity as Christianity became an established religion).

Turning to Germanic and Celtic influences, Kieckhefer doesn't downplay the difficulties of using later Christian sources, but he looks at a range of sources: early Christian penitentials, runic inscriptions, Icelandic sagas and poetry, and Irish literature.

In addition, he shows how magic served as a point of contact between the popular and elite classes, how the reality of magical beliefs is reflected in the fiction of medieval literature, and how the persecution of magic and witchcraft led to changes in the law.

Recognising that "much of the magic in medieval Europe was distributed widely, and that it was not limited to any specific group", Kieckhefer surveys what he calls "the common tradition of medieval magic".

Magic had strong connections with healing, at all levels (from midwives to physicians), and the preparation of medicines often involved taboos, sympathetic magic, and attention to heavenly bodies.

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Books: Placing Magic at the Centre of Medieval Culture; Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer. Published by Cambridge University Press. Pounds 8.95
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