In 61 ce, in one of the most dramatic episodes of the Roman invasion of Britain, the Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus launched an amphibious assault on the island of Mona (later called Anglesey), separated from the mainland of North Wales by the waters of the Menai Strait. Mona was one of the last British holdouts against Roman rule, where (at least according to the Roman historian Tacitus) the druids had whipped up the British into a warlike frenzy to resist conquest. As the flat-bottomed boats carrying the Roman legionaries approached the shore, the Roman army was met with the full might of druidic magic, witnessing ‘black-robed women with disheveled hair like Furies’ and ‘Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses (preces diras)’.Footnote 1 The soldiers held their nerve, defeated the druids, and cut down their sacred groves. Yet Britain’s reputation as an island famous for its practitioners of the occult arts was just beginning.
Britain’s singular magical reputation lingers on even today, not least as the setting for the most popular fictional portrayal of magic in history, the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. For others, Britain is the home of the druids, of Stonehenge and other mysterious megaliths, or the setting for tales of Merlin, Arthur and the Isle of Avalon. People from around the world visit Britain seeking magic and enchantment both fictional and real. It is a feature of occult traditions that they are frequently (and often quite deliberately) shrouded in obscurity and woven into the fabric of legends of their own making, rendering any historical analysis of such traditions challenging. This chapter identifies the key strands of occult tradition that became politically significant in British history, in each case exploring when and how each aspect of occult practice reached Britain.
Druids and Curse Tablets: The Occult Arts in Ancient Britain
Britain’s many enigmatic prehistoric monuments are mysterious, beautiful and thought-provoking, but any ‘magic’ they have is a later cultural accretion. The solidity of stone belies the often flimsy basis on which antiquarians, archaeologists and amateurs alike have attempted to ascribe belief systems to prehistoric Britons. It is only from the first century bce onwards that we have historical evidence of the Britons, but the evidence comes only from one side: a Roman perspective on barbarians. In Roman eyes, because the Britons practised human sacrifice their beliefs could not be dignified by the name of religion (religio); they were, rather, superstition (superstitio), which in a Roman context usually meant morally perverted religion (in contrast to the modern sense of ‘superstition’ as irrational credulity). In reality, the Romans applied the term to any religious practice that was sufficiently unlike their own. This included some forms of magic, although official Roman religion included many practices, such as divination from entrails (haruspicy) and the flight of birds (augury) that later ages would class as occult arts.
There are good reasons to be sceptical of the Roman stereotype of the Britons as superstitious and addicted to magic. The attempt by male and female druids to curse the Roman army at Anglesey is told exclusively from a Roman perspective. The Romans had only a limited understanding of British religion, and Tacitus may also have been using dramatic licence, so we cannot be certain that the druids were really attempting to curse the Romans on this occasion. It is surely suspicious that the black-robed women (who are presumably meant to be female druids) are very similar to Roman stereotypes of witches, such as Horace’s Canidia.Footnote 2 Just as many centuries later the English settlers in the New World would dismiss the religion of Native Americans as nothing more than witchcraft, so the Romans may have been determined to stereotype the religious beliefs of the Britons according to their own understanding of forbidden spiritual practices. In the rhetoric that accompanied their conquest of Britain, the Romans anticipated later politicisations of magic in the service of colonialism.
Pliny the Elder was convinced the British druids were the world’s foremost magicians, surpassing even the Persian magi from whom the Romans (via the Greeks) derived their word magia: ‘Even these days Britain indulges in magic, filled with awe, and doing so with such remarkable rituals (caerimoniis) that you would think Persia learned magic from them!’Footnote 3 For both Greeks and Romans the Persians were a byword for barbarism and unacceptable religion (superstitio), and it is clear that the magia Pliny thought the druids were practising was the abominable rite of human sacrifice rather than anything that we or later ages might consider to be ‘magic’. The Romans generally distinguished between religion and forbidden magic not by function but by form; divination, for example, was perfectly acceptable and pious, provided it was done in the correct way. The British druids’ divination by the entrails of human beings was evil magia because it was quite literally ‘divination from the dead’ (necromancy). Roman divination from a sheep’s liver, by contrast, was true religion. Indeed, if the Roman historians are to be believed, the druids and their practice of human sacrifice were the aspect of native British culture the Romans most actively suppressed after the Claudian invasion of 43 ce.
Perhaps the earliest hint of political sorcery in British history is to be found in Tacitus’ account (in Annals 12.40) of events in the 50s ce in what is now the north of England, when the pro-Roman Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes ensnared (intercepit) the relatives of her ex-husband Venutius ‘by cunning arts’ (callidis … artibus).Footnote 4 Powerful women were frequently stereotyped in Roman literature as willing to use magic, and that may be what Tacitus intended to convey by the phrase ‘cunning arts’.Footnote 5 Alternatively, Tacitus may simply have been saying that Cartimandua adopted a clever political strategy. We find a clearer allusion to British use of magic in warfare with Cassius Dio’s claim that the rebel queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, used divination to guide her decisions, releasing a hare from a fold in her cloak before a battle and interpreting the direction in which it ran.Footnote 6 This sounds like a terrestrial version of the Roman practice of augury (interpreting the flight of birds). There is no reason to suppose, however, that Cassius Dio would have regarded this practice as illicit.
Much later legends attributed magical powers to fictional ancient British kings. Geoffrey of Monmouth reported that Bladud, the ninth king of Britain, tried to fly in the air by magic, but ended up falling on the temple of Apollo in the city of New Troy (London), where he was killed.Footnote 7 Yet if the real nature and uses of magic in Iron Age Britain are largely obscure, we are fortunate to have a great deal of evidence of one kind of magical practice from Roman Britain. These are the lead defixiones or ‘curse tablets’, usually thrown into bodies of water. The most famous collection of such tablets comes from the Roman city of Aquae Sulis (Bath), where people regularly called on the deity to punish individuals guilty of offending them in some way. Although ostensibly religious, curse tablets may be interpreted as crossing the boundary into magic on account of their sinister intent, covert nature and trivial content, which suggests a highly instrumental attitude to divine power more characteristic of magic than traditional ideas of religion.Footnote 8 Whether curse tablets were frowned upon by some Romans for religious or other reasons we cannot know, but surviving curse tablets approach the gods in administrative language, petitioning for justice as from a human magistrate or patron.Footnote 9 However, no evidence survives that this form of magic ever held political significance, and those curse tablets we have reflect private grudges. If occult arts became entangled with politics in Roman Britain, no evidence survives that this was the case.
The loaded term ‘dark ages’ has long since been jettisoned by historians for the period after the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in around 410, but it remains true that Britain entered a period of historical obscurity for two centuries that still forces historians to rely largely on archaeology and myth. One of the best-known figures to emerge from the semi-mythical twilight of post-Roman Britain is Merlin, whose name would become a byword for magic and the occult arts, but the process by which Merlin came to be portrayed as King Arthur’s court wizard is far from straightforward. In his earliest known incarnation, Myrddin (Merlin) was the chief bard of the sixth-century Cumbrian king Gwenddoleu. Myrddin was driven mad after witnessing Gwenddoleu’s defeat by another British king in battle. A thirteenth-century chronicle identified this battle as that fought at Arfderydd (Arthuret, now close to the Anglo-Scottish border) in 573.Footnote 10 Myrddin fled to a forest somewhere in the ‘Old North’ (now the Lowlands of Scotland), becoming known as Myrddin Wyllt (‘Wild Merlin’), sometimes called Merlin Sylvester or ‘Merlin of the Woods’. Arfderydd was probably a historical battle, although the oldest Welsh sources mentioning Myrddin date from the early twelfth century; nevertheless, ‘a slim historical nucleus’ may exist for the figure of Myrddin/Merlin.Footnote 11
Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was wise enough to sprinkle his imaginative fiction with just enough pre-existing tradition to make it convincing, cleverly manufactured the familiar figure of Merlin in the twelfth century.Footnote 12 In his Vita Merlini (‘Life of Merlin’), Geoffrey combined the ancient British theme of the ‘wild man of the woods’ with British Christian traditions of the ascetic woodland hermit.Footnote 13 Geoffrey took a story from the eighth-century Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’) by Nennius, in which a boy named Ambrosius is selected by the court magicians of the British King Vortigern as a sacrifice whose blood will ensure the stability of Vortigern’s fortress in the mountains of Wales. Ambrosius was selected because he had no human father, having been conceived by an incubus. However, Ambrosius turned out to have prophetic powers and saw through the rock to see two fighting dragons beneath the castle, which represented the Britons and Saxons contending for the island of Britain.Footnote 14
Geoffrey’s masterstroke was to identify the boy Ambrosius as Merlin (‘Merlin Ambrosius’) on the grounds that Carmarthen was Caer Merddin (‘Merlin’s fort’).Footnote 15 However, the narrative migration of the figure of Merlin from the British kingdoms of Strathclyde to what is now Wales may have taken place before Geoffrey, as early as the 1060s.Footnote 16 Geoffrey’s Merlin is instructed by the legendary poet and seer Taliesin, who was in turn a pupil of Gildas (a genuine historical figure), who was instructed by the ‘most wise magician’ Illtud.Footnote 17 Bards were considered a class of druid in ancient Britain, and a strong association between poetry and supernatural power seems to have survived the Christianisation of the Britons. Furthermore, voluntary separation from human contact, especially in wild places, imbues an individual with occult power in many cultures.
Geoffrey prefers to describe Merlin as a vates (‘prophet/seer’) than as a magus,Footnote 18 and even in the late Middle Ages Merlin was famous chiefly for the many prophecies attributed to him,Footnote 19 with the themes of Merlin as prophet and magician co-existing in the medieval romances.Footnote 20 Even in the sixteenth century, Merlin was known primarily as the author of prophecies.Footnote 21 ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ circulated far beyond Britain; Merlin was just as important in Breton as in Welsh legend, and his reputation spread from Brittany into France, Spain and Italy.Footnote 22 However, in the twelfth century, Geoffrey already extended Merlin’s powers beyond those of a sage and seer, ascribing miraculous feats of engineering to him and, crucially, portraying Merlin as a figure simultaneously close to political power yet not beholden to it. Geoffrey’s Merlin is the builder of Stonehenge (albeit not by magic), and although Merlin’s true father is an incubus (the source of his prophetic knowledge), Geoffrey never calls Merlin a magus.Footnote 23 Merlin’s use of spoken enchantments to make the stones of Stonehenge weightless first appears in Layamon’s Brut,Footnote 24 and it was not until the early fourteenth century that the chronicler Robert Mannyng stated unequivocally that Merlin used ‘coniurisons’ (conjurations) to erect Stonehenge.Footnote 25
By this period the idea that anyone possessed of deep learning or ‘artifice’ was a magician had become commonplace,Footnote 26 primarily as a consequence of the mingled ‘scientific’ and occult learning pouring out of the Islamic world and into western Europe from the eleventh century onwards. Geoffrey’s confection of the character of Merlin coincided with an elite hunger for the new knowledge reaching England from the Continent, with the result that Merlin’s identity as a magician was received positively rather than negatively.Footnote 27 This was partly because, by the 1130s, the church had not yet developed a coherent response to magic – Merlin slipped into history just in time, as it were.Footnote 28 Furthermore, Merlin differed from contemporary magicians because, having been fathered by an incubus demon, the source of his power was his own semi-supernatural nature. Merlin was able to achieve the goal of necromancers – access to the vast knowledge possessed by demons – without any need to commit the blasphemous act of summoning demons.Footnote 29 In this respect Merlin contrasted with another confected character in Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain, King Bladud, who summoned demons and practised necromancy in order to fly – with fatal consequences.Footnote 30
By the middle of the fifth century ce, pagan Germanic peoples from northern Germany and Denmark had begun to settle southern, eastern and central Britain, absorbing the native population into their culture in a gradual process of cultural transformation, and bringing with them the Old English language. There is no archaeological or genetic evidence to support the old idea that the invaders killed or drove out native Britons.Footnote 31 It is likely that magic was an important aspect of life for these early medieval English pagans. One scholar has argued that the name of one people group, the Hwicce (whose kingdom covered today’s Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire) corresponded to the Old English word wicce, the root of ‘witch’. According to this speculative argument, the Hwicce gained their name from the triple goddess worshipped by the Romano-British Dobunni in the same region, whom the Hwicce attempted to accommodate within the framework of Germanic paganism. In the process, the Hwicce reinterpreted the Romano-British goddesses as the Germanic goddesses governing the fate (wyrd) of human beings, who were later called the Norns or ‘wyrd sisters’ in Norse mythology.Footnote 32
This is an interpretation that rests on the large assumption that the post-Roman inhabitants encountered by the Hwicce still retained some memory of their pre-Christian religion. Although there are hints of continuity in belief – such as the adoption into Old English of the Celtic word púca (later ‘puck’) as a name for fairies – there is not enough evidence to be sure that supernatural beliefs contributed to the assimilation of Romano-Britons into early English society. Yet at least one place-name hints at magical practitioners wielding political power in early England: Teversal in Nottinghamshire probably derives from Old English tēafreres heald, ‘the sorcerer’s stronghold’Footnote 33 – although the exact significance of this name is something we can only guess at.
More reliable evidence for the place of magic in early English society can be found in condemnations of magic thought necessary by Christian bishops in the eighth and ninth centuries, following the conversion of the English to Christianity in the sixth and seventh centuries. The evidence that runes were used as a form of magic and divination in early medieval England is unconvincing,Footnote 34 but many charms (some containing obviously pagan allusions) survive in Old English medical texts. Prohibitions of practices that might be classed either as magic or as pagan survivals occur in eighth-century law codes, tailing off in the ninth century. However, the Viking invasions at the end of the ninth century, which established a pagan kingdom at York, intensified Christian anxieties about magic and ‘superstition’ in northern England, and magic was again condemned in tenth- and eleventh-century penitentials (lists of sins forbidden by the church).Footnote 35
It is difficult to be certain that the law codes of early medieval English kings that outlawed sorcery were prompted by real-world practices in the England of the time rather than generic opposition to sorcery as a practice condemned by the Christian faith. However, the evidence of penitentials hints at cultural practices distinctive to England.Footnote 36 Yet in spite of its condemnation by kings, there is little evidence that occult practices ever acquired much political significance in pre-Conquest Christian England. Brontology (the art of predicting the future based on when thunder is heard) was practised as a form of divination to predict the deaths of kings, but never seems to have been condemned for this reason or even considered magical.Footnote 37 The pre-Conquest attitude to magic is unsurprising in light of the church’s approach to magic in early medieval Europe. The tenth-century canon known as Episcopi (‘of the bishop’), influential across Europe, urged priests to eject workers of magic from their parishes but described belief in magic as a delusion inspired by the devil. It took several centuries for the belief that magicians were genuinely able to work wonders in league with the devil to become theologically accepted.Footnote 38
The influential Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (d. 636), which were well-known in pre-Conquest England, identified magic as a breach of God’s law but did not define magic or explain how it was supposed to work. Isidore’s omission created ambiguity about whether magic was a merely human deception that was wrong because it misled the faithful and mocked God, or an actual use of forbidden preternatural power that was wrong because it involved trafficking with demons.Footnote 39 For several centuries the austere attitude of the Church Fathers to all forms of magic as regrettable relics of paganism, to be regarded as fraud and punished with ecclesiastical penances, prevailed in Christian Britain. In 1102, the Synod of Westminster prohibited a long list of ‘works of the devil’, including sorcery and divination; and a penitential produced between 1161 and 1186 of Bartholomew Iscanus, bishop of Exeter, warned against the making of charms to cure cattle.Footnote 40
The penitentials’ denunciation of numerous practices as ‘unchristian’ did not always mean that these practices were pagan, and when paganism was mentioned this was often little more than a polemical strategy. Interpreting all or most instances of magic as lingering survivals of paganism into the Christian world is problematic, because it overlooks the considerable potential for new magical practices to develop within the framework of Christianity. The majority of occult beliefs and practices in medieval Britain cannot be shown to have a pagan origin, except in the sense that they sometimes derived ultimately from the writings of pagan Classical authors such as Pliny the Elder. Yet pagan practices did sometimes survive as magical practices, shorn of their religious significance. Animal sacrifice, for example, survived in the form of the slaughter of cattle for good luck in the Scottish Highlands, as well as perhaps in the deposition of animal corpses or body parts in the foundations and walls of buildings (a practice that endured well into the nineteenth and possibly even into the twentieth century).Footnote 41
Even if there were ‘pagan survivals’ among occult practices, these cannot be used as evidence for the survival of paganism unless there is evidence that people believed in the pagan religions from which the practices were originally derived. By and large, ordinary Christians showed little hesitation in integrating pagan practices into their everyday lives as magic.Footnote 42 Occult practices that developed in the context of one religion are often transposed into the context of another without implying any religious exchange. For example, no one assumes that medieval ritual magicians in Britain who included garbled Arabic conjurations in their books of magic must have been Muslims; in the same way, there are no grounds to assume that pre-Conquest English people who used relics of pagan magic in the Christian era were ‘pagan’ in any meaningful sense.
In an earlier era, when the religious prejudices of Victorian Protestant Christianity functioned as an unconscious background norm for many historians, the idea that pious Christians could engage in occult practices without compromising their faith seemed absurd. Yet positive evaluations of the hidden arts were always available to medieval Christians. The Old Testament appeared to authorise a form of divination by sacred lots (1 Samuel 14:41), while ‘Magi’ who are clearly identified as astrologers appear as important protagonists in the nativity narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, the Magi are the first Gentiles to receive knowledge of the Messiah, a fact that inspired apocryphal stories about similar intimations being received by the Roman sibyl.Footnote 43 Perhaps most significantly of all, the New Testament advocated the use of the name of Jesus as a word of power to achieve supernatural results, especially in exorcism.Footnote 44 Exorcism would go on to be the most visible form of authorised ‘Christian magic’.
From late antiquity, a tradition existed that the wisdom Solomon received from God (2 Chronicles 1:7–12) included knowledge about the conjuration of demons.Footnote 45 This tradition spawned a wealth of apocryphal literature claiming to embody the magical wisdom of Solomon. Similarly, Moses was ‘learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (Acts 7:22), as the magical contest between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh’s magicians demonstrated (Exodus 7:8–12).Footnote 46 Medieval mystery plays regularly portrayed Moses as a magician.Footnote 47 However, in the late Middle Ages occult skill was also ascribed to other biblical figures. The fifteenth-century Italian alchemist, Petrus Bonus, claimed that the Old Testament prophets had been alchemists. St John the Evangelist also had an occult reputation, and John de Rupescissa believed that the extreme longevity of the biblical patriarchs could be explained by their skill in alchemy.Footnote 48 Likewise, the author of the fourteenth-century Middle English poem The Pearl described the Prophet Daniel as a master of ‘dark knowledge’.Footnote 49
The occult arts were as much a part of the fabric of Christianity as they were practices condemned and suppressed by the church. After all, most occult traditions were part of the Classical inheritance of ancient Greece and Rome, and a medieval ‘reflexive deference to antiquity’ and ancient literature, which contained many accounts of magic, kept alive the possibility that magic might really work.Footnote 50 For example, medieval readers usually assumed that the transformation of the character Lucius into a donkey by witches in Apuleius’ second-century novel The Golden Ass had really taken place.Footnote 51 Furthermore, medieval Aristotelian philosophy (Scholasticism) could be deployed to support as well as oppose magic, since it presented the properties of matter as essentially mysterious and non-reductive.Footnote 52 Astrological image magic derived from the writings of the Islamic philosopher Al-Kindi developed into an entire genre of Scholastic discussion.Footnote 53 While it would be an exaggeration to characterise medieval attitudes to the occult arts as uniformly positive, justifications for positive evaluations of magical practices could easily be drawn from ancient literature, philosophy and even the Bible. However, occult knowledge took many different forms, all of which were appraised slightly differently within the framework of medieval and early modern Christianity.
Just as later medieval writers projected their own ideas about occult traditions onto figures from the post-Roman British past, so they did so for pre-Conquest England. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth imagined that King Edwin of Northumbria (d. 633) had been advised by an entirely fictitious Spanish augur called Pellitus, who predicted the future by the flight of birds.Footnote 54 Similarly, by the late Middle Ages, Bede was regularly portrayed as a prophet with knowledge of the future.Footnote 55 Although the historical Bede was interested in the stars for the purpose of telling the time during the night (for the monastic offices), he rejected the use of the stars for prognostication.Footnote 56 Most famously of all, Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury and later archbishop of Canterbury (909–88), was widely credited with skill in alchemy and magic throughout the Middle Ages. The tale of Dunstan grasping the devil’s nose with a blacksmith’s tongs, first recounted in Osbern’s Life of St Dunstan (c. 1089),Footnote 57 became one of the most popular legends of any English saint. Although Osbern said nothing about Dunstan’s skill in necromancy, the idea of mastery over the devil inevitably became associated with magical knowledge. Finally, King Edward the Confessor (c. 1003–66) was later reputed to have been the first English monarch to possess the power to heal skin diseases by touching the afflicted in a quasi-magical rite that would be repeated by English monarchs down to Queen Anne.Footnote 58 The royal touch would prove to be an enduring quasi-magical enactment of ‘the “marvelous” element in the monarchical idea’.Footnote 59
Such legends tell us more about perceptions of the early medieval past in the late Middle Ages than they do about the reality of magic in early medieval England. Appeals to an ancient tradition of magic in Britain usually involved the projection of contemporary ideas onto both legendary and historical figures such as Merlin, Bede and Dunstan. Although the genuine origins of most occult beliefs and practices in medieval England can be traced to the influence of the Islamic world on western Europe, occult practitioners often saw themselves as part of an indigenous tradition and appealed to their own vision of an ancient British or English past.Footnote 60
The Varieties of Magic
In a classic study of ancient Greek religion, Rudolf Herzog concluded that it was impossible to distinguish magic from religion, remarking that ‘Magic is always other people’s faith’.Footnote 61 In the context of a study of classical Greece, the view of magic as ‘foreign’ religion makes particular sense. The root of the Greek words magos (‘magician’) and mageia (‘magic’) is the Persian word for a priest, and as early as the fourth century bce, competing statesmen in ancient Greece accused one another of being a goēs (sorcerer) or magos (magician) as a generalised slur designed to evoke foreignness and charlatanism.Footnote 62 However, the perception of magic as foreign in ancient Greece and Rome was itself a distinctive phenomenon of those cultures. In reality, something like magic exists in virtually every human culture, whether indigenous or borrowed from elsewhere.
The seventeenth-century French scholar Gabriel Naudé (1600–53), whose History of Magick was published in English translation in London in 1657, believed that magic could be defined quite straightforwardly as the drawing of magical circles and conjuring of demons. Some historians continue to adopt Naudé’s approach to the history of magic, arguing for the existence of a narrowly definable tradition based on specific texts.Footnote 63 However, Naudé’s definition and others like it presume that magic is always a learned tradition, when the reality is that magic has always existed in both learned and unlearned forms. The development of the disciplines of anthropology and sociology have made us aware that concepts are fluid (magic especially so) and that people’s beliefs do not always sit comfortably beside their actions and ritual behaviour.
Although the possibility of producing a satisfactory definition of magic is much debated by anthropologists, this is arguably less important to the historian than identifying what people in the past considered to be magic. According to one definition, magic in the Middle Ages was either ‘undesirable rituals’ or ‘phenomena that did not fit … established theories of cause and effect’.Footnote 64 However, it is problematic to confine the historical study of magic solely to those beliefs and practices considered to be magic by people in the past. Whether a particular practice was deemed to be magic varied from person to person and from moment to moment. Magic was sometimes considered something unqualifiedly evil; at other times people argued that it was morally neutral or even good, depending on how magic was being defined. Positive and negative cultural evaluations co-existed in tension with one another, alongside a tradition of arguing that various occult practices were not magical at all.
The term ‘magic’ often had markedly different connotations for those ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ magical practice. Outsiders, for example, were often willing to label as ‘magic’ practices that no one other than their fellow learned demonologists regarded as magical. For example, some theologians denounced games of chance as a form of divination and therefore forbidden magic – a position that would probably have baffled most gamblers then and now.Footnote 65 Insiders to magical practice, on the other hand, were often reluctant to call what they did magic, although this reluctance dissipated somewhat after 1500 in the wake of attempts to rehabilitate the word ‘magic’ by Renaissance philosophers. Yet it would be impossible to restrict the history of magic to ‘sources that display the “insider” perspectives, performances, and theorizations of people who claimed to be practising “magicians”’,Footnote 66 because self-identifying magicians have never been a representative sample of those who actually practise magic.
One notable obstacle to defining magic is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to draw a hard and fast distinction between magic and religion in the medieval and early modern periods. This is because most attempted definitions of magic can be shown to be applicable to religion as well, while many religious practices are (or strongly resemble) magical ones. Whether a practice is defined as ‘mystical religion’ or ‘magic’ depends to a large extent on whether a historian of magic or a historian of religion is studying it.Footnote 67 The traditional distinction between religion as submitting to a deity and magic as attempting to control and manipulate spiritual powers seems to rest on the expectation that traditional Protestant Christianity is the normative form of ‘religion’. However, as one historian of magic has observed, there is not much to be gained from going to the opposite extreme and eliding the conceptual distinction between religion and magic.Footnote 68 This simply makes it impossible to study magic as a separate category at all, and involves an ahistorical denial of the fact that people in the past were capable of telling the difference between religion and magic. Although the practice of magic has often been framed in religious terms, and magicians would style themselves as holy sages, it is also clearly separable from religion since followers of different religions frequently borrowed and made use of one another’s magical practices without demur. Another historian has observed that occult beliefs share much in common with organised religion – apart from the fact they lack organisation.Footnote 69 It is perhaps in this way that occult practices can best be distinguished from conventional religion – they were never underpinned by institutional structures.
For one of the more confident scholarly defenders of a distinction between religion and magic, magic is ‘any formalised practices by human beings designed to achieve particular ends by the manipulation and direction of supernatural power or of spiritual power concealed within the natural world’.Footnote 70 Occultism in general might be defined as theoretical speculation on the hidden causes of unexplained phenomena; magic implies some practical application of supernatural technology, although it may still contain a strong speculative element.Footnote 71 A more cautious pair of scholars observe that ‘In its many forms, magic explicitly foregrounds questions concerning the nature of the self and its boundaries, the capacities of the will, and the relation of the self to external powers’.Footnote 72 This more tentative definition suggests that magic shares many features with religion, but that its emphases and self-presentation are different; the swagger of the sorcerer contrasts with the piety of the priest.
On one level, natural magic is universal to almost all human cultures, and can be defined as the belief that natural objects such as stones, herbs and the bodies of animals contain occult properties that, under the right conditions, can be released, harnessed and even manipulated by the magician. However, although practices present in Britain since the earliest times implied belief in natural magic – such as herbalism, the use of semi-precious stones as talismans and traditional medicine – the appearance of explicit ‘academic attempts to understand and classify the properties of natural objects and bodies not easily explained by known laws of physics and logic’ can be traced to the thirteenth century.Footnote 73 Phenomena that theorists of natural magic sought to explain included the magnet, the power of the basilisk to kill just be looking at someone, and other examples of ‘action at a distance’.Footnote 74 The underlying assumption of most forms of natural magic is belief in a ‘vitalist’ universe in which all matter is in some sense ‘alive’. Within a Christian context, natural magic is also underpinned by the belief that Adam and Eve possessed perfect knowledge of the properties of nature before the Fall. That knowledge became ‘occult’ (hidden) after the Fall as a result of human sinfulness, but (in theory) the natural magician might recover ‘prelapsarian’ knowledge (knowledge possessed by Adam and Eve before their expulsion from Eden).
Although the Church Fathers were generally suspicious of natural magic as a pagan legacy, from the thirteenth century onwards there was a ‘partial rehabilitation’ of natural magic by theologians, some of whom argued that it was morally permissible to seek out the secrets of nature, provided that great caution was exercised in avoiding aid from supernatural beings other than God. This change was made possible by the demise of a perceived link between magic and paganism, as paganism receded from view even as a cultural memory. The shift was also made possible by the extreme demonisation of other forms of magic, especially ritual magic involving conjuration. The demonisation of certain kinds of magic put clear blue water between impermissible and permissible forms of magic, allowing certain practices to be portrayed as ‘natural’ and free from demonic influence.Footnote 75
By the late Middle Ages the use of herbs and stones for their magical properties (herbalism and lithomancy) was widely tolerated by the church, even to the extent that canon lawyers permitted the carrying of stones and herbs as protection against demonic attack.Footnote 76 Furthermore, there were clear connections between natural magic and other occult arts that had gained a measure of respectability, including astrology and alchemy. Natural magicians often attributed the efficacy of their use of herbs and stones to astrological correspondences that existed between natural objects and their governing planetary influences. The connection between terrestrial natural magic and the stars was the foundation of astrological medicine. Alchemy, insofar it involved the manipulation of natural materials in order to release their occult properties, was also a form of natural magic.
Knowledge of the properties of natural things had sinister as well as positive applications. Veneficium, the art of poisoning, was a synonym for harmful magic (and, more controversially, witchcraft) throughout the Middle Ages because the ability of plants and chemicals to kill was believed to be an occult power until well into the seventeenth century.Footnote 77 Furthermore, natural magic could be used to harm a person since a ‘sympathetic’ magical relationship continued to exist between a person and items belonging to him or her, or parts of his or her body. A person’s clothing, hair or nail-clippings could be abused in order to harm or even kill, and the resemblance between an effigy and a person might draw down on that person the same malign astral influences that were directed against the effigy.Footnote 78 Although these were techniques strongly associated with witchcraft, they were also practised by learned magicians.
From the 1460s onwards, natural magic began to change, as the traditional medieval wisdom began to be supplemented by Greek and Hebrew texts newly discovered in the Christian West. Most famously, the Florentine Neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino, began translating into Latin the Greek Hermetic Corpus, and was inspired by his encounter with the learned magic of antiquity to advocate a purified form of magic, free from the corruptions of medieval necromancy, that would mirror the purified texts of Classical literature being produced by other Renaissance humanists. Ficino and other figures of the Italian Renaissance who followed him began to make a sharp distinction between the legitimate ‘theurgy’ (wonder-working by natural magic) of the true magus and the illegitimate sorcery of demonic magicians.Footnote 79 However, the Renaissance magicians’ conception of natural magic went far beyond the medieval notion of taking advantage of the intrinsic virtues of natural things. They argued that human beings’ original created dignity, forfeited by the Fall, was recoverable by magical means, and that boundless knowledge could be obtained by the magus attuned to the vital principles of a living universe.Footnote 80
The magical project of Renaissance thinkers was based on the rediscovery of ancient texts believed to be much older than they really were, most notably the Hermetic Corpus, which actually originated in late Hellenistic Egypt but was long thought to be older than the Pentateuch. However, the Egyptian pagan origin of the Hermetic Corpus and some of the magic featured in it – notably a rite to draw down the influences of stars to animate statues – were highly controversial. The issue of the legitimacy of Hermetic magic divided philosophers, with some more conservative figures like Ficino distancing themselves from controversial elements. Others, most notably Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth century, embraced Hermetic magic to the point of regarding it as a superior religion to replace Christianity. The early influence of Renaissance magic in England was limited, although material drawn from Italian natural magicians such as Arnold of Villanova had begun to appear in English books of magic by the mid-sixteenth century.Footnote 81 The first significant self-proclaimed Renaissance magus in England was John Dee, and the arrival of the Italian magus, Giordano Bruno, in the country in 1583 further fanned elite interest in the new, purified magic.
Renaissance enthusiasm for the recovery of ancient texts extended to Jewish as well as Egyptian wisdom, resulting in the creation of a Christian version of the Jewish Kabbalah by Johann Reuchlin in 1514. Just as they believed the Hermetic Corpus to be extremely ancient, so Renaissance scholars assumed that medieval Jewish Kabbalistic works were written by (or even older than) Moses.Footnote 82 Although the Reformation cut off many of the more speculative enterprises of British Renaissance thought, interest in the Kabbalah survived the Reformation owing to the Protestant emphasis on the importance of the word of God, although some Catholics also retained an interest.Footnote 83 The Christianised Kabbalah fed into the early development of Freemasonry in sixteenth-century Scotland, and Kabbalistic prophecy influenced seventeenth-century Puritans who campaigned for the readmission of the Jews to England in order to hasten the apocalypse (a subject further explored in Chapter 5). Kabbalism teetered on the edge of what might be considered natural magic, insofar as it appealed to the idea of occult qualities hidden within God’s creation, but also focussed on language and speech – elements of magic usually associated with the ritual magical tradition.
Ritual magic, sometimes called ceremonial magic, necromancy, or demonic magic, was widely considered by its critics the most dangerous form of magic throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period, because it involved summoning supernatural entities to perform the will of the magician. The original meaning of necromancy was, literally, ‘divination by the dead’, evoking the grisly practice of reanimating corpses in order to foretell the future, as described by Classical authors such as Horace and Lucan.Footnote 84 One of the earliest mentions of this kind of magic in England dates from 1222, when the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall noted that a Jew was accused of necromancy by wrapping a boy in a dead man’s skin so that the dead man could speak through the boy as an oracle.Footnote 85 It is no accident that the necromancer in Ralph’s story was a Jew. Ritual magic involving the evocation of demons was associated in legend with King Solomon, and many therefore assumed that the Jews (especially Jews living under Muslim rule in Spain) were masters of this art.Footnote 86
However, summoning and communicating with the spirits of the dead was only a small part of medieval necromancy. A sign that ‘necromancy’ was beginning to change its original meaning was the appearance of the word ‘nigromancy’, literally ‘divination by the black art’, which may have been a scribal mistranscription of ‘necromancy’ but more accurately described the actual range of practices involved in ritual magic. Although the invocation of spiritual beings other than God to cure disease and avert disaster had been commonplace since late antiquity, the notion of summoning spirits in order to gain something more positive from them took longer to develop, only crystallising in the twelfth century.Footnote 87 However, ritual magicians not only imitated Solomon by summoning spirits; they also relied on ‘names of power’ derived from the Hebrew Kabbalah to summon them. Although the original meaning of the Kabbalah as a mystical philosophy based on the Hebrew alphabet was lost in its adoption by magicians, it was an essential element in the ritual magical tradition.Footnote 88 The Clavicula Solomonis (‘Key of Solomon’), a work with apparent Greek origins, had appeared in western Europe by the end of the thirteenth century, while the Liber Razielis (‘Book of Raziel’) was a heavily edited translation of a Hebrew manual of angel conjuring. The Almandal was a translated Arabic text but may have come from a Sanskrit original.Footnote 89 Yet these origins were almost completely unknown to the medieval practitioners who used such texts.
Ritual magic can be subdivided into theurgy (the attempt to work wonders, usually by contemplating divine names), angelic magic and necromancy, which differed from angelic magic only because necromancers conjured both angels and demons, gave less emphasis to spiritual preparation, and generally had less exalted goals than angel conjurers.Footnote 90 What most ritual magic had in common was its desire to summon, bind and then dismiss spiritual beings – whether these were understood as the spirits of the dead, demons, angels or even fairies.Footnote 91 The ultimate origins of ritual magic lay in Jewish legends about King Solomon, and while the banishment of the Jews from England in 1290 may have brought an end to Jewish magic in Britain, it certainly did not end interest in it. In subsequent centuries magical knowledge was often presented as Jewish wisdom, and magical diagrams continued to be adorned with more or less accurately copied Hebrew letters.Footnote 92 However, texts of ritual magic were not accompanied by elaborate theoretical justifications of their operations, as texts of astrological image magic so often were.Footnote 93 Ritual magic often claimed the validation of experience and was therefore frequently characterised by its instability.Footnote 94
Because ritual magic relied so heavily on adapted portions of the church’s liturgy, throughout the Middle Ages it was largely the preserve of a ‘clerical underworld’ of individuals literate in Latin: university students, schoolmasters, minor clerics, monks, friars and priests.Footnote 95 However, although many practised this kind of magic with self-centred motives as a shortcut to money, power or sex, others genuinely regarded magic as a path of spiritual illumination and saw themselves as the successors of King Solomon, vindicating the supreme dignity of humanity redeemed by Christ by daring to command spirits.Footnote 96 Yet for most theologians, there was no question that ritual magic was morally and religiously unacceptable – not because ritual magicians bound or exorcised spirits, but because they had the temerity to summon them in the first place. One of the earliest and most extensive efforts to demarcate acceptable from unacceptable magic in England was made by John of Salisbury (c. 1120–80), who argued that it was acceptable to grind up dry human bones and consume them as a natural remedy, but never to make medicinal use of human blood. This was because blood was thought to contain and embody the life force, and its use smacked of necromancy.Footnote 97 Salisbury’s Policraticus, written in around 1159, may have been aimed at the court of Henry II; if so, the author was concerned about courtiers’ fascination with divination, although his arguments were directed against the effectiveness of astrology and other practices, and he did not attempt to demonise astrology.Footnote 98
Ritual magic had considerable potential for exploitation in the political arena, and many accusations of political sorcery claimed that individuals had conjured demons to discover politically crucial information (usually the time of the monarch’s death), to gain the favour of rulers, and even to kill them. Surviving books of ritual magic show that magicians conjured spirits associated with particular planets including Mars, which ‘cause and stir up war, murder, destruction and mortality of people and all earthly things’.Footnote 99 Books of magic also contained detailed instructions on harming one’s enemies,Footnote 100 and even conjurations ‘to make battling armed knights appear’.Footnote 101 Rituals for constructing magical rings to gain the affections of judges and rulers are common in such texts.Footnote 102
However, firm evidence for people in Britain actually attempting ritual magic for political ends is elusive, and in the majority of cases other practices became conflated with ritual magic. In one famous case, Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester, engaged astrologers to cast the horoscope of Henry VI in 1441, but the astrologers were accused of demonic sorcery and, in subsequent popular culture, Eleanor was invariably portrayed as a patron of necromancers.Footnote 103 Accusations of ritual magic must always be treated with caution, as they were often used as a slur against practitioners of other occult arts. The evidence of books of ritual magic is that magicians were more interested in making a living through finding stolen goods, thieves and buried treasure than in influencing politics.Footnote 104
Alchemy in the medieval and early modern periods was rarely considered to be a branch of magic, but it was certainly an occult art in the sense that its practitioners appealed to hidden forces of nature and did their best to conceal secrets beneath elaborate symbolic language. Alchemy was not merely a primitive precursor to the science of chemistry, a reductive interpretation now rejected by historians of science for the obvious reason that very little of what alchemists were interested in had anything to do with modern chemistry.Footnote 105 Alchemists made a handful of chemical ‘discoveries’ by accident, but they did not recognise at the time that there was any distinction between these ‘genuine’ discoveries and the ongoing quest for the Philosophers’ Stone.
The origins of alchemy can be traced to the Islamic world, whose learning began to seep into England in the twelfth century via scholars who travelled to study in European cities formerly under Muslim rule. These included Adelard of Bath (c. 1080 to c. 1152) and Robert of Ketton (d. c. 1160), the first Latin translator of the Qur’an.Footnote 106 The first English scholar to write on alchemy was Daniel Morley (d. c. 1210), who produced a treatise on the four elements and the fifth element, the alchemical ‘quintessence’.Footnote 107 By the fourteenth century, however, a myth had begun to develop that alchemy originated in Britain. This can be traced back, in part, to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s projection of rumours about a school of occult arts at Toledo onto King Arthur’s alleged court at Caerleon.Footnote 108 However, it may also have been connected with Edward III’s interest in alchemy. In his dialogue De lapide philosophorum et de auro potabile (‘Of the Philosophers’ Stone and of potable gold’) the fifteenth-century Italian alchemist, Fabri de Dya Fabri, praised Edward III for patronising Ramon Llull, Arnold of Villanova and John Dastin. This claim may have given rise to the legend that Edward imprisoned Ramon Llull in the Tower of London until he managed to transmute gold. In reality, Llull was never in England and was not an alchemist.Footnote 109
Late medieval legends ascribing knowledge of alchemy to St Dunstan (909–88), abbot of Glastonbury between 940–60, may have been linked to an earlier legend about Joseph of Arimathea, who was supposed to have brought to Britain two silver vessels containing the sweat and blood of Jesus Christ. These were deposited in the earliest church at Glastonbury. The red blood and white sweat became symbols of red sulphur and white mercury, the two substances united in the alchemical work to create the Philosophers’ Stone.Footnote 110 Furthermore, medieval alchemists applied an alchemical interpretation to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the young Merlin fighting red and white dragons under a tower built by King Vortigern. In addition to the traditional interpretation (the dragons represented the British and Saxon peoples), the alchemists claimed that the dragons represented red sulphur and white mercury; the resolution of their conflict was the completion of the alchemical work. Thus, ‘England’s national identity was bound up with the alchemical myth that the nation was born out of a resolution of a conflict between sulphur and mercury in the sixth century’, and the alchemical secret of the nation’s birth became linked with Glastonbury as the site where Joseph of Arimathea deposited the vessels containing Christ’s sweat and blood and the supposed burial place of King Arthur.Footnote 111 It is even possible that when Edward III ordered a search for the body of Joseph of Arimathea in 1345 he was in search of these vessels and the power they contained.Footnote 112 Certainly, alchemists such as George Ripley and Thomas Norton did not hesitate to apply alchemical interpretations to contemporary political events.Footnote 113
Although the goal of alchemy is popularly understood to have been the transmutation of base metals into gold by means of the Philosophers’ Stone or ‘powder of projection’, alchemy also had an important medical dimension. Alchemists were as much interested in the potential health benefits that might be conferred by an ‘elixir of life’ as they were in the wealth generated by unlimited gold. Likewise, monarchs were often as much interested in the medical applications of alchemy to their own persons as in its benefits to the treasury. There are also strong grounds to consider alchemy a spiritual and mystical pursuit as much as a practical one, since many alchemists believed that the success of the ‘great work’ depended (at least in part) on the moral and spiritual worthiness of the operator, aided by prayer, fasting and celibacy – something that alchemy and magic had in common.Footnote 114
Alchemy’s emphasis on the redemption of material nature constituted an optimistic alternative to the western church’s traditional ‘Augustinian’ pessimism about human nature.Footnote 115 In the Middle Ages – and for a long time thereafter – alchemy was usually regarded as a respectable pursuit that was ‘occult’ only in the literal sense of ‘secret’.Footnote 116 Owing to the potential financial gain to be made from a successful transmutation of a base material into gold, alchemy could not be public knowledge and consisted of secrets passed from teacher to disciple, often expressed in allegorical and symbolic form. Although alchemy was not taught in the universities, its underlying theory was largely grounded in the mainstream Scholastic-Aristotelian worldview the universities promoted,Footnote 117 and the study of Aristotelian philosophy often led to the practice of alchemy as ‘a natural continuation’.Footnote 118By the seventeenth century, Elias Ashmole regarded Britain as the foremost treasury of alchemical knowledge, to the extent that the flag of England itself (a red cross on a white field) came to acquire an alchemical interpretation as the union of red sulphur and white mercury.Footnote 119 Medieval English interest in alchemy was indeed intense, and nearly 3,500 manuscripts of Latin translations of Arabic alchemical works and English alchemical works survive from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.Footnote 120 One much copied alchemical text was the Liber Merlin, which supposedly contained the wisdom revealed to Merlin when he was a disciple of the Arab alchemist Rhases (Mohammed ibn Zakariya al-Razi),Footnote 121 thereby linking Islamic alchemy to Arthurian Britain. Indeed, in the late Middle Ages Merlin was transformed into a symbol of alchemy itself. As one historian explains:
[Merlin’s] unnatural conception [by an incubus] linked him with the artificially created homunculus. He was seen as an unpredictable and powerful agent in the birth of Britain, fulfilling the function of the volatile mercury in the gestation of the philosopher’s stone. Like mercury Merlin was an elusive shape shifter, an amoral reconciler of opposites including good and evil, and he, like mercury, was eventually imprisoned in matter either in glass or a rock, symbolic of the trapped energy of the primal substance.Footnote 122
In addition to their mystical quest for transmutation, the alchemists were also preoccupied with the creation of potable (drinkable) gold, which they believed might serve as a universal medicine. Consequently, medieval monastic hospitals were often a focus of alchemical experimentation.Footnote 123 Gold, the noblest of metals, astrologically associated with the sun, was supposed to grant immunity from disease. Yet there was also a shadier side of alchemy, which periodically brought alchemists into disrepute. This was the counterfeiting of coinage, at which alchemists were especially adept since they had mastered genuine chemical techniques of simulating the appearance of silver and gold.Footnote 124 English laws against counterfeiting targeted alchemists, but monarchs also had a perennial fascination with alchemy and regularly recruited them to perform feats of transmutation. Similarly, in broader English culture, ‘Alchemists were mocked, and yet people still made use of their services’.Footnote 125
From the late Middle Ages, alchemical language and symbolism seeped into the English language to the extent that some alchemical terms became part of the cultural vernacular. Alchemical language often lent itself to political use, although it would be misguided to see every use of a word or phrase derived from alchemy as evidence for a literal engagement between politics and alchemy in medieval and early modern England. Nevertheless, when authors on political subjects made extended and conscious use of alchemical language this was more than just a cultural idiom. For believers in alchemy, the ‘great work’ was integrated into the totality of a hierarchically ordered universe; the great work reflected the macrocosm, and the macrocosm (including the political health of the nation) reflected the great work. Alchemy was of political significance, and politics was of alchemical significance.
In theory, the medieval church was opposed to any form of divination as a transgression against the law of God, as was the Protestant church after the Reformation, but in practice these theological objections were often set aside when it came to interpreting the stars.Footnote 126 The church seldom – if ever – questioned the principle that the stars could influence earthly events, but theologians did question whether it was possible for astrologers to know these influences accurately, and whether such knowledge of God’s purposes was permitted. Theologians equivocated on the subject of astrology, opening a gap in which natural philosophers eager to speculate on the influence of the stars could flourish.Footnote 127 In one sense, astrology was anything but an occult art because the evidence on which astrologers drew their conclusions was manifestly visible to anyone looking at the night sky. However, the skills and training required to work as an astrologer meant that the profession retained considerable mystique, and the integration of astrological elements into both natural and ritual magic meant that astrologers were always liable to be suspected of involvement in magic, even when they had nothing to do with it.
In around 1000 the English monk Leofnoth copied a work on horoscopes, the Mathesis (a title that could mean either ‘astral science’ or ‘divination’) of Julius Firmicus.Footnote 128 By 1125, when William of Malmesbury composed his Gesta regum anglorum (‘Deeds of the English kings’), scholars in England recognised a distinction between illicit knowledge of the future obtained through demons and permissible prediction obtained through astrological calculation.Footnote 129 On the other hand, William also noted that Gerard of Hereford, archbishop of York (d. 1108), gained a reputation as a student of the black arts by reading Firmicus, to the extent that the canons of York Minster refused to bury him in consecrated ground.Footnote 130 This was a trend that would be repeated throughout the Middle Ages. Astrology was not a black art, but students of astrology were particularly vulnerable to the accusation of sorcery, especially at times of crisis.
The earliest surviving firm evidence of the practice of astrology in England is the compilation of astronomical tables in Worcestershire and Herefordshire in the mid-twelfth century.Footnote 131 The converted Spanish Jew, Peter Alfonsi (1062–1110), visited England in the last decade of the eleventh century, instructing the prior of Great Malvern, Walcher, in the composition of astronomical tables.Footnote 132 The earliest surviving English horoscope, of poor quality, may have been cast by either Adelard of Bath (c. 1080 to c. 1150) or Robert of Chester, and was drawn up between 1150 and 1151 in an effort to predict the outcome of the civil war for King Stephen.Footnote 133 One possible interpretation of the horoscope is that the astrologer was posing the question of whether Henry of Anjou would invade England, or perhaps what Henry would do if he invaded;Footnote 134 in the centre of one astrological diagram are the words ‘On the question of the Norman army – the answer is that it will not come’.Footnote 135
Astrological knowledge in the early medieval Western world was restricted to knowing the signs of the zodiac and which one the sun was in; which planet was close to that sign; and the phases of the moon. This allowed the determination of lucky and unlucky days, but little more.Footnote 136 However, at some point in the first two decades of the twelfth century, the English scholar Adelard of Bath went travelling in the Islamic world and learnt Arabic, translating many Arabic astrological works into Latin including the Liber prestigiorum (‘Book of magical illusions’) of the pagan Sabaean astrologer, Thabit ibn Qurra. Thabit’s book described the manufacture of astrological amulets in order to draw down the power of the stars for the working of natural magic.Footnote 137 Adelard’s interest in astral magic as an outworking of astrological practice anticipated later developments and formed an important link between natural magic and astrology.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s decision to include astrology as one of the skills possessed by Merlin is likely to have been motivated by a belief that the educated and powerful audience of his Life of Merlin would be interested in astrology’s political possibilities. Certainly, the supernatural power that Geoffrey’s Merlin inherently possesses as the son of an incubus means that he has no need for astrological skill in order to interpret the heavens.Footnote 138 However, Geoffrey’s Merlin also has no need of instruments such as an astrolabe or astrological tables in order to accomplish his interpretation, thus setting him apart from genuine astrologers of the period.Footnote 139 Neither Matthew Paris nor Gervase of Tilbury, in spite of their interest in and technical knowledge of astrology, commented on the employment of astrologers by rulers,Footnote 140 perhaps because the church remained uncertain of the illegitimacy of astrology, and drawing attention to royal astrologers risked embarrassing the monarch.Footnote 141
Astral magic, a branch of natural magic that claimed to take advantage of the ‘celestial rays’ that allowed the stars to influence events on earth, was an outgrowth of astrology (although by no means all astrologers practised, believed in, or endorsed astral magic). The celestial ray theory originated with the Islamic philosopher, Al-Kindi (801–73),Footnote 142 and extended to the idea that an inanimate object might even be animated by astrological influences if constructed with sufficient skill. Speculation about the power of astrological images as a class of naturalia was an established genre of Scholastic discussion by the beginning of the fourteenth century.Footnote 143 William of Malmesbury recounted how Gerbert of Aurillac (who reigned as Pope Sylvester II 999–1003) used astral magic to turn a bronze head into a talking oracle,Footnote 144 a story that later became associated with Roger Bacon and became a staple tale of wizards for many centuries. Astral magic quickly became entangled with ritual magic, since ritual magicians often sought to enhance the effectiveness of their operations by adding an astrological element, and this was one reason why astrologers were always vulnerable to accusations of sorcery. However, the two traditions of astral and ritual magic remained separate in the manuscript tradition until after 1500.Footnote 145
The first truly skilled English astrologer was Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln (d. 1253).Footnote 146 In the reign of Edward III (1327–77), astrologers primarily attempted to make general predictions of war, famine and bad weather, owing to the church’s hostility to questionary horoscopes that posed specific questions about events or persons. However, by the reign of Henry IV the English nobility, under the influence of the French court, had begun to demand the services of astrologers for more detailed predictions. Since courtiers were invariably interested in the king’s future health and likely time of death, accusations of treason against astrologers were almost inevitable.Footnote 147 By the end of the fifteenth century, the advent of printing meant that astrologers multiplied well beyond the universities and the royal court; at the same time, the practice of astrology by the intellectual and noble elite declined, perhaps as a result of the grisly fates suffered by astrologers implicated in treason.Footnote 148
At one end of the spectrum, astrology might be an abstract mathematical pursuit yielding the sort of insights that made the development of the modern science of astronomy possible. At the other end it might exist purely to support magical practices. As one historian put it, ‘Astrology can exist as a stable constituent of the intellectual world of scholarship, or it can synthesise within the cauldron of the court into a potent and noxious compound’.Footnote 149 Calculating a monarch’s nativity was often seen as an activity only a step removed from conjuring demons to kill the monarch,Footnote 150 and in 1580 a law was passed specifically to outlaw this practice.Footnote 151 Astrology and politics were a dangerous mix, but horoscopes were a vital tool of propaganda for monarchs as well as a threat to their security. Monarchs insisted on astrologers calculating favourable days for their coronations and casting questionary horoscopes to determine the outcome of wars and other political decisions. Its central importance at court and in royal affairs meant that astrology was among the most politically significant of all occult arts.
The recognition of one form of divination from the natural world (astrology) as permissible opened up the possibility that others, such as augury (predicting the future from the flight of birds) might also be lawful. The use of brontology (divination by thunder) in pre-Conquest England was an example of divination from a fixed feature of the natural world. Similarly, in the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth portrayed Merlin’s divination from the flight of birds (augury) as legitimate knowledge gained from a readily observable feature of the natural world.Footnote 152 Divination of this kind was generally considered lawful, because it was assumed that God disposed everything for a reason and hid his intentions within natural events. However, from the fourteenth century onwards a more active form of divination became popular. This was geomancy, a form of soil divination originating in the Islamic world.
Geomancy was a form of lot-casting for decision-making, based on the interpretation of dots made by ink from a stylus or marks made by a stick in the ground held while the eyes were closed. The dots represented a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, so the geomancer would make four lines of dots, with each dot standing for a star, each line for one of the four elements, and each figure for the four corners of the world. The geomancer then deployed a numerological formula to link the dots to create a geomantic sign or ‘house’. Geomancy depended heavily on astrology (as well as drawing some of its imagery from alchemy), but allowed judicial divination at any time – astrologers, by contrast, had to wait for a clear night to observe the stars.Footnote 153
The question that churchmen invariably posed regarding divination was whether there was any possibility that it might involve the explicit or implicit invocation of supernatural powers other than God. In theory, if divination involved nothing more than ‘reading’ signs left in nature by God, it was a permissible practice. However, theologians were also conscious that demons had some knowledge of the future owing to their superior intelligence and greater knowledge of the causes of things, and therefore there was always a temptation for those who became addicted to divination to make contact with demons. From a political point of view, the danger of divination was that it would begin to influence events, especially if monarchs came to rely on it to guide their decision-making.
Prophecy, on one level, had little in common with either divination or magic. It was a practice rooted in the Bible, whose prophets claimed to receive direct illumination from God. In a British context, however, prophecy was intimately associated from the twelfth century onwards with Merlin the magician and the prophecies invented for him by Geoffrey of Monmouth. British prophecy was therefore largely a textual tradition focussed on interpreting supposedly ancient prophecies rather than generating many new ones. Henry I patronised the production of both Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain and Prophecies of Merlin, which were politically highly charged works from the beginning.Footnote 154 No fewer than 285 medieval manuscripts survive containing the prophecies of Merlin, an enormous number for any medieval text, making it one of the most prolifically reproduced of all medieval works.Footnote 155 Few people seem to have been troubled by the magical origin of these prophecies, given that Merlin’s prophetic powers were ascribed to his conception by a demon, although William of Newburgh (a keen critic of Geoffrey of Monmouth) observed that demons did not have unlimited knowledge of the future.Footnote 156 Most medieval theologians held that demons had some predictive powers owing to their superhuman intelligence and understanding of causes hidden to humans, but only God could reveal the far future.
Nevertheless, Merlin was rarely seen as a divinely inspired prophet, and no claims of piety were made on behalf of ‘Mother Shipton’ and ‘Old Nixon’, the other standard alleged authors of prophecies that circulated in early modern England. The popularity of Merlin’s prophecies meant that interpreting them became an essential part of the work of medieval English historians.Footnote 157 Furthermore, the use of animal imagery in the Prophecies of Merlin represented a uniquely British prophetic tradition that would acquire still greater meaning with the advent of heraldry, since it allowed individuals to be identified by their badges as well as the characteristics they shared with the various animals mentioned in the prophecies.Footnote 158 Throughout the Middle Ages, prophecies involving animals based on badges were a highly popular genre, to such an extent that Henry VIII even passed a law against them in 1542 (discussed in Chapter 3). Of all occult traditions that became entangled with politics, prophecy was surely the most popular of them all and the most accessible to ordinary people.
In the last century, witchcraft has received a great deal more attention from historians than magic, an asymmetry the historical study of magic has only begun to correct since the 1980s.Footnote 159 Witchcraft is, of course, a form of magic, since it involves some sort of application of supernatural power. However, classing witchcraft as a variety of magic is not without problems, since witchcraft was often defined not by the nature of the activity done by the witch but by the witch’s malign intention, or even by the social status or gender of the witch. The historical study of witchcraft and the historical study of magic have diverged, to some extent, with anthropologists and social historians tending to concentrate on witchcraft, while magic is seen as the preserve of intellectual historians (and sometimes historians of science).Footnote 160
The frustration of defining witchcraft is such that one historian has resorted to the circular formula, ‘A witch is someone who practises witchcraft, and … witchcraft is what witches do’.Footnote 161 One possible definition of a witch is a practitioner of harmful magic,Footnote 162 but this approach is not altogether satisfactory. What counts as ‘harmful’ is clearly open to interpretation. Furthermore, it is clear that many individuals who performed harmful acts of magic in British history – especially elite, learned males – were not considered witches.Footnote 163 The tendency of an earlier generation of historians to subsume all accusations of magic under the category of ‘witchcraft’ was clearly misguided when witchcraft is a subset of magic. This mistaken perspective often resulted from reading the early modern preoccupation with witchcraft back onto the Middle Ages, where (in Britain at least) witchcraft was a minor issue and learned traditions of magic were far more significant.Footnote 164
Part of the problem is that ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ were terms whose meaning changed over time. In medieval England ‘witch’ was often a synonym for any practitioner of magic. The earliest English–Latin dictionary translated wycch as magus (‘magician’) or sortilegus/sortilega (‘sorcerer’).Footnote 165 By the second half of the sixteenth century, however, the English word ‘witch’ had come to refer to a malicious person capable of causing supernatural harm (the malefic witch). Between the early fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries the Latin word maleficium (literally ‘evil-doing’) underwent a transformation in meaning throughout Europe. Although the word always had supernatural connotations, malefici went from being sorcerers who harmed people by magic to being a sect of apostates who made a pact with and worshipped the devil.Footnote 166
The theological transformation of malefic into diabolic witchcraft occurred partly as a result of a conflation of the ‘common tradition’ of popular magic with the learned magic of clerical demon-conjurers. The church condemned the demon-conjurers, so it also needed to explain the operation of popular magic in terms of demons. This intellectual process laid the foundations for the concept of witchcraft as prosecuted by inquisitors in several European countries.Footnote 167 The idea of diabolic witchcraft never really caught on in England. But by the 1640s, even though malefic/diabolic witchcraft and learned ritual magic were punished under the same statute, legal experts clearly distinguished between magicians and witches on the basis that magicians attempted to compel the devil while witches allied themselves with him.Footnote 168
The dominant idea of witchcraft in England and Scotland was the malefic witch, and the idea of witches as a demon-worshipping cult never took hold in England, although there are occasional references to such ideas. In Scotland, from the late sixteenth century onwards, witches were regularly considered to be both a secret society and a threat to the life of the monarch and the stability of the commonwealth, and Scottish witchcraft prosecutions often had an overtly political element. In England, by contrast, no tradition of ‘political witchcraft’ developed; witches continued to be regarded as solitary nuisances to society, and scarcely any prosecutions of witches can be linked to political accusations.
Witchcraft in England was not political in the direct sense that ritual magic, astrology and alchemy were, insofar as the activities of witches were not perceived as a threat to the government. However, English witchcraft was a political issue in the more general sense that the proliferation of witchcraft was taken as a sign of political decay. Witchcraft was evidence of ‘diabolical incursions into the body politic’ and the prosecution of witches was a form of collective exorcism of the nation. It is unsurprising that witchcraft trials sometimes accompanied attempts at political reform (such as the creation of an English republic in the 1640s) because renewal was accompanied by ‘a bout of moral cleansing’ in which witches and other blots on the godly commonwealth were removed.Footnote 169 In contrast to Scotland, where witchcraft was a magical threat to the nation, the relationship between witchcraft and politics in England was complex. The extent and tenor of witchcraft accusations at any given time was certainly determined by political considerations; for example, after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, judges began to refrain from convictions in witchcraft cases because witchcraft accusations had come to be associated with Puritanism. However, the evidence for people being accused of witchcraft for overtly political reasons is slim; it would be more accurate to say that acquittals for witchcraft were often politically motivated from 1660 onwards.
The occult traditions described in this chapter cannot always be treated as entirely distinct from one another; for example, ritual and natural magicians often made use of astrology, alchemists were heavily reliant on traditions of natural magic, and accusations of ritual magic sometimes bled into suspicions of witchcraft. However, all of these strands of practical occultism enjoyed some political significance from the twelfth century onwards. This was sometimes because people actually chose to practise the occult arts for political ends; more often, however, the occult arts lent a vocabulary and symbolism that proved useful in the arena of politics. The mystical power with which natural magic promised to imbue earthly symbols was key to the projection of the image of majesty, while alchemy was consistently tempting to rulers as a means of filling the treasury by occult means. Astrology and prophecy promised a means of predicting the future for rulers and – for rebels and traitors – a means of predicting the date of a ruler’s demise and spreading anti-royal propaganda. Ritual magic offered the opportunity to enlist the help of disembodied spirits to achieve political aims, from accessing the monarch’s counsels to harming and killing the monarch – as well as a convenient smear against opponents.
It is often impossible to establish with certainty whether anyone really did try to influence events by the occult arts, and what stands out in the surviving sources is the power of rumour, suspicion and fear when it came to occult traditions. Not all of the traditions described in this chapter were of equal significance, politically speaking, and some occult arts assumed a political function almost by their very nature; astrology, for example, has been entwined with politics and monarchy from the very beginning of the historical record. Alchemy was of more sporadic importance, while ritual magic largely played a negative role as a damaging accusation at court. Other occult traditions, such as Kabbalism, influenced politics in Britain only briefly. However, in every age evidence can be found that the occult arts became entangled with the dark arts of politics.