In the modern world, religion and science are often seen as contradictory, but that wasn’t always the case. The shifting cultural landscape in the Middle Ages led to changes in how people thought about magic, superstition, and religion, which created an alliance whose ramifications we still feel in the west, today – an alliance that changed the way people thought about the world they lived in, and their attitudes about what they and their neighbors believed.
As I touched on when I wrote about Jung, people tend to see their own societies as advanced, while labeling others – and our ancestors – as “primitive.” To me, there’s not much difference between a tribesman in native garb and a kid in an Abercrombie and Fitch sweater: all I see are two examples of tribal dress, separated by time. Human history isn’t an unbroken line, leading towards enlightenment. It’s a jagged one, that jumps forward and back; sure, we gain more knowledge, but our nature stays the same. Civilizations rise and fall, each believing that their way of life is objectively superior to their contemporaries and forebears. Regardless of the wheres and whens, magic (and magical, symbolic thinking) lives on in our everyday lives. Whether you see magic as a way to explain the inexplicable, or as a cultural phenomenon that holds people together (or controls them), seeing the world as an inherently magical place is part of who we are. How our culture – and religion – view the kind of day-to-day, hands-on magic still practiced today is in no small part a legacy inherited from the Dark Ages.
In the first millennium, the slow collapse of the Roman Empire created a stew of cultures, merging and butting against each other as the glue that had held them together weakened. Magical beliefs – telling the future in animal entrails, amulets and potions imbued with mystical powers, fortune telling (divini), weather control (tempestarii), and those who claimed to speak to the dead could be found in every village. The word “magic” comes from the greek word mageia, a term used to refer to Persian priests: Zoroastrians – the magoi. In the Europe of Late Antiquity, magic and superstition were seen as forces that drew power away from official Roman religious practices, and as such stood as a very real threat to the Christian Church.
It’s easy to imagine someone living in a medieval village long before the Renaissance, looking to a local fortune teller or magician in hopes of gaining some kind of control over a chaotic, oppressive society. People still hold many beliefs based less on science or facts than on a need to control or find reassurance in a complex, sometimes bewildering world. Everything from pseudoscience to mentalists and psychics serve to give people a feeling of control over the complex, or the invisible. In the early part of the Middle Ages, these beliefs were seen as at best misguided, at worst evil and demonic – a spiritual threat, ready to lead believers down a dark, unholy path. Christian authorities waged an ongoing war against the threat that magic represented from the pulpit, through legislation, and in philosophical texts. Those who practiced magic, including those (mostly women) who used herbs, potions, and charms for healing were singled out, as were those who patronized them. One of the the church’s strongest weapons in its war against heretical beliefs, however, was science: universities, that spoke out against superstition and magic. While institutions of learning discredited magic and its practitioners through rational thought, the church encouraged the populous to turn not to magic, but to God.
This divide in how we think about magic versus faith still exists, today. While magical beliefs are still rampant – people still claim to speak to the dead, or use crystals to heal, or candles and symbols to cast spells – those beliefs are widely seen as being in a different category from faith-based, religious beliefs, whose magical ideas, despite having no greater evidence to support them, are rarely subject to the same level of scrutiny. I wonder how much of the way we treat religious thought as distinct from superstition springs from this initial alliance between universities and the church, which placed the church on the side of reason, set against ignorance? I suspect that it never would have occurred to the religious figures of the Middle Ages that one day scientific thought would turn against them, and that their beliefs, too, might come to be seen by many as superstition. It’s human nature, I think, to scrutinize the beliefs of others, while seeing our own as demonstrable truth.
Our scientific knowledge may have advanced far beyond the dreams of medieval scholars, but interest in magic – in amulets, in spells, in the belief that objects have mystical powers and that our thoughts and dreams can influence the world around us is so hardwired that magic captivates even the most skeptical among us. How many of the fantasy books that I’ve read, the role-playing games I’ve played and the movies that I’ve enjoyed leverage a fascination with medieval magic that still captures my imagination, despite the forces – scientific and religious – that for very different reasons would have me turn away? Medieval, European magic is all around us, and it’s not going anywhere.
Note: A lot of the information in this post (if not the personal reflections) comes from a wonderful Coursera class that I’m following, “Magic in the Middle Ages.” Writing about subjects that I’m interested in as I learn about them is a great way for me to process the information (and maybe even retain some small bit of it), but it’s important to note that I’m not a medieval scholar – I’m presenting the facts in as much as I know them, tossing in my own thoughts and commentary as I go. If you think I’m getting something wrong, call me out!