Magic Was Medicine To Many Medieval Minds

When you think about magic, you might think of magic wands, wizard robes, or...okay, just admit it: most of us think of Harry Potter. But during the Middle Ages, "magic" wasn't always a fantastic display of superhuman feats; in fact, William of Auvergne, a 13th-century French priest and bishop, once admitted that some works of "natural magic" should be viewed as a branch of science.

Many unusual charms and medical tips featured in medieval books sound suspiciously like witchcraft (to cure a toothache, hang a tooth from a dead man's skull around your neck?). But after taking a closer look at these spells and superstitions, medieval history starts to look a lot different from the wizardry we often think of. So what was medieval magic really like?

This Magic Moment

The familiar figure of the 'witch' as an old hag with warts on her nose and curses at her fingertips didn't actually appear until the 15th century, after the 1487 publication of Heinrich Kramer's "Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches)" made widespread a connection between women and satanic magic. Prior to that, magic had been established within a Christian framework and fit into people's belief systems in a natural, rational manner.

Some medieval spells or charms seem harmless. Need a love potion? "Take Valerian an herbe, and put in a glass of Bier or wine and give the same to whom thou wilt love thee extremely." Others, such as spells intended to allow the user to speak with spirits, may explain why mass production of these particular manuscripts were never allowed. Whether natural or supernatural, Jill Gage of the Newberry Library in Chicago believes the spells aren't too far off from what many people believe today.

"It's not that different from superstition, right? Why do you throw salt over your shoulder if you spill salt? Why knock on wood?" Gage pointed out on the Curiosity podcast. "A lot of it is based on superstition. It sounds kind of goofy now, but I think that there's a lot to be said about what it actually asks you to do."

Gage has helped unearth new insights into how magic was perceived and used during the Middle Ages while working on one of the Newberry Library's projects, "Religious Change, 1450-1700". Certain featured manuscripts – "The Book of Magical Charms," "The Commonplace Book," and "Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft" – help explain the context of magic during that time.

"What we're doing in the exhibition is pulling out all of these different books that show how print is making religious change different, or how religion is driving changes in the printing industry itself," Christopher Fletcher, Program Assistant in the Renaissance Center at the Newberry, told us on our podcast. "The books we're talking about in the Transcribing Faith resource are manuscripts, and these really show us what's going on on the ground."

"How did the people living in the 15th, 16th, 17th century experience these changes? Manuscripts are great for that, because manuscripts are not printed. They're not mass produced, so someone had to sit down and write out every single word that we have in these manuscripts," Fletcher added. "So they're a great record of how individuals – and in the case of 'The Book of Magical Charms,' at least 3 individuals – experienced these religious changes. What did they think was important? Why did they bother to write it down? What else did they record in there? So it really gives us a nice picture of an individual person's view of religion and how they experienced these changes."

Magic Or Medicine?

Clues to the nature of "The Book of Magical Charms" come from the way the Newberry Library acquired the book itself: "[It was] a gift we received in the 80s from a man who collected a lot of science and a lot of medical material from the early modern period – so, first book of plastic surgery, how do you treat women's health issues...there are a lot of books like that, and this is one of the manuscripts that he gave as well," Gage said. "So he obviously saw it more in the realm of science and not religion."

Fletcher added that many of the spells from the period have a less nefarious nature than stereotypical witchcraft when you understand the context in which they were written. "It really shows people trying to control the world around them. It's not just simply knowing spells because it's cool and weird or gives you some sort of street cred with a certain type of person; it's more that they're interested in how the world works."

"For them, the fact of the matter was that the supernatural world and the physical world were not separate; they overlapped all the time," Fletcher continued. "So if you have a toothache, which sucks, and you want to get rid of it, the idea that you could do something as simple (we presume) as taking a dead man's tooth and wearing it around your neck and solving that problem was very appealing to these people. They were looking for ways to solve these problems and felt that the supernatural was a perfectly viable way to do that."

Gage agrees. "There is a lot of overlap between what they thought was actual science and medicine and then magic, these kind of magical spells or charms. And that's what makes this manuscript so particularly interesting – it's not an outlier of society, because this person also has passages from Martin Luther and lots of religious books, and also [what we call] hard science - and lots of things. So it's that magic isn't something that sits outside of daily life, it's that magic is integrated in daily life, and it's not totally divergent from religion or anything else for this particular person."

"You're a Wizard, (Your Name Here)."

While the manuscripts have been helpful in understanding the relationship between medieval magic, medicine, and religion, there's one problem: they're hard to read. "A single person in the early modern period could have different handwritings for different types of material. So you might write Latin text in one handwriting, and then French text in another handwriting. You might write formal letters to somebody in formal secretary hand, and then use an Italic hand for something else," Gage explained. And even the strongest Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software available has difficulty transcribing such a range of handwriting styles.

Fortunately, you can help! The Newberry Library is crowdsourcing the transcription and translation of the manuscripts for their "Religious Change" exhibition, and you can visit the online "Transcribing Faith" portal to help transcribe and translate the texts without having to visit the library. These rare manuscripts may contain writings that are unavailable anywhere else, so check it out – and who knows? You could discover a long-lost spell to hex your enemies!

To learn more about the context of magic in the Middle Ages, listen to our conversation with the Newberry Library on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the podcast using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunesStitcher, and Gretta.

Written by Cody Gough August 15, 2017

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