Book Review: The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe

Reviewer: Curt Emanuel

Title: The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe
Author: Valerie Flint
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 1991
ISBN: 0-500-25102-9

One of the fairly resilient "myths" of the early Middle Ages is that of a young, weak Church with a largely ignorant leadership that was unable or unwilling to resist the influx of Pagan and other non-Christian superstitions and beliefs and was forced to absorb these into its structure. Church leaders were unable to recognize Pagan superstition for what it was as it exerted its influence on the Church. In addition, as weak as it was, the Church was simply unable to resist these ideas and the pressure to adopt them that was exerted by the masses in the early Medieval period.

In this volume, Valerie attempts to show that, for the most part, the Church's assimilation of Pagan elements was voluntary and only permitted after careful consideration by Church leadership. She argues that various Church fathers, including Augustine, Gregory the Great and even Hincmar of Rheims, consciously adopted certain superstitions into the early Medieval Church.

Flint begins by describing the status of the Church during the later Roman Empire. She begins by noting that there is considerable denunciation of magic by the Empire, most notably by Pliny in his Natural History and that magic is characterized as unhealthy at best and maliciously evil at worst. Virgil, Lucan, Apuleius and others are enthusiastic in condemning magical practices and practitioners. This was the legacy that the Church inherited.

But the Church, being an agent of the supernatural, is itself a magical organization. At the very least, Christ's conception and resurrection are outside the realm of natural events and the Eucharist with the transmutation of the host is a highly magical event. Augustine is the first to address this in any depth, most fully in The City of God. He allows for prophecy, and for magical properties inherent in certain forms of stone, wood, etc.

Flint's thesis proceeds from this starting point rather logically. She discusses what magical beliefs and practices were prominent among the people of the 5th through 7th centuries and which of these the Church chose to condemn and, in many cases, the penalties for continued practice. She discusses the process by which Gregory the Great and others decide which beliefs should be allowed to become part of the fabric of the Church and which should not.

Flint follows this with a discussion of what magical practices were actually encouraged and how both categories were justified through Biblical references, particularly to Ham. She also discusses the magical battle between Simon Magus and Peter and the ramifications this had on how magicians were viewed during the period.

The substition of Christian icons, particularly crosses and churches at non-Christian magical places is discussed at some length. The eventual approval of the Church of various forms of divination, astrology, magical usage in medicine, relics, and "sanctioned" love magic all receive considerable attention.

I found this book to be very informative. Flint's arguments are clear and she follows a very logical progression in her attempts to justify them. But there are a few problems. She often reaches conclusions based on (IMO) very sparse evidence. Some of this is in favor of, and some even against her thesis. For example, she argues that the extensive use of wooden and stone crosses reflects on the power people saw in these two materials but, as I read this, I asked myself, "What else would you make them out of? Formica?" Several times she begins a phrase with, "It can at least be argued that . . ." As I progressed through this book this became a red flag, telling me that she was about to state something that she believed but for which she had little or no evidence.

This is not to say that she doesn't consult sources. She footnotes copiously and these are often to original sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Lacugna and, of course, writings of the early Church.

There are a few other areas in which this work could have been improved. I often wonder why Medieval Historians have such an aversion to charts. A listing of condemned and approved magical practices, either in the text or as appendices, would have been helpful. She extensively cites Burchard of Worms' Decretum, written in the early 11th century, for penalties proscribed for practicing condemned magic, and a chart listing the practices and the respective penalties would also have made this section easier to follow.

And while she does frequently refer to approved Christian magic, she has little to say on the Priest as magician, and how his use of sanctioned magic may have contributed to how he (and by inference the Church) was viewed by the people of his parish. She also largely ignores the disparity between how magic and practitioners of magic were viewed and treated by the Church during the early Medieval as opposed to the Late Medieval/Early Modern periods. I'm not certain that this last should be in this work, (it may be outside its scope) just that I would have liked to have seen it.

In spite of these flaws, I found this to be an excellent book. It is not, however, an easy read. Some of her arguments are complex and require serious thought (at least by me) to accept or reject them. But there is a wealth of information between the covers, and the discussion of the use of magic in medicine alone (one of the best sections IMO) made it worthwhile for me.

Disclaimer: I am not a Medieval historian and have never taken a course or seminar in medieval history. In fact, I had never read a book on Medieval History until 1996 though my library is well over 100 Medieval volumes and growing. I don't consider myself a specialist in any single area though I'm probably more well-read on the Cathars, Heresy, and the Merovingians and Carolingians than anything else.

Reviewer Rating:

Original review date: 08/14/1999

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