The Magician, the Witch, and the Law

The Magician, the Witch, and the Law

The Magician, the Witch, and the Law

The Magician, the Witch, and the Law

Synopsis

In the early Middle Ages, magic was considered a practical science, requiring study and skill. But as European society became more articulate and self-conscious, the old tradition of magic as a science became associated with heresy and sorcery. Thereafter the Middle Ages knew no safe, learned magic that was not subject to accusation of diabolism in one form or another, and the magician, like the later witch, could be punished for both spiritual and temporal offenses. Through Peters's analysis of the legal, ecclesiastical, and literary responses to this problem, magic and witchcraft are located more accurately in the cultural context of the time, providing important insight into medieval history.

Excerpt

Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a sixteenth-century humanist, critic of witch-trials, and eager student of natural magic, once remarked that magic, a sublimis, sacraque disciplina, honored by the greatest thinkers of antiquity, had been unjustly condemned by the early Fathers of the Church. Until his own age, this condemnation had resulted in a very deficient sort of magic, not only in the corrupt and uncomprehending practices of necromancers and witches, but in the deliramenta and superstitiones of no less formidable medieval thinkers than Roger Bacon and Arnald of Villanova. Agrippa's conception of a learned and high magic, "not witchcraft, not superstition, not demonolatry, but wise, priestly and prophetic," is the matter of another book than this, although it is necessary to point out that it was not as far removed from the thought, and the period, of Roger Bacon and Arnald of Villanova as Agrippa professed to think. The claims made by Agrippa and others in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for a pristine natural magic did not go unchallenged, however, and more than one practitioner of high magic found himself charged with necromancy and superstitio, the very traits Agrippa and others had restricted to the lesser castes of the magic profession.

Agrippa's magic had to free itself of such charges because until it was announced by Pico and Ficino in the fifteenth century, no court or confessor recognized any form of magic but that which had been condemned by the Church Fathers and repeatedly denounced in all sources until the fifteenth century. As a historian of magic Agrippa was generally right.

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