Medieval Magic, Folklore and Superstition: the Dissertation Stirs…

I’ve been rather quiet recently because I’ve been a busy bee working on my masters degree. All the teaching is out of the way now, so it’s time to get my teeth into some proper research. Like my very good friend over at Grendel’s Handbag (who you should go and check out RIGHT NOW, especially if you like angry Welsh monks from early middle ages), I’ve decided to blog a few bits of my dissertation, partly to help me organise my thoughts, and partly because I’ve found some interesting titbits that I’m sure y’all would be interested to read. My topic: magic, folklore, superstition – basically popular belief – in the later middle ages.


I know, I’m shocked by how cool a topic it is too. (Pic from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, The Morgan Library and Museum)

Why? Well, why not. You can probably tell from my other blog posts that I do like researching a bit of folklore and seeing where traditions have sprung from. A lot of writing has focused on the post-medieval period, mainly because more sources survive and people were writing more of these traditions down, so I thought, y’know, why not have a mooch around in the medieval and see what comes up.


I also loved Sabrina the Teenage Witch when I was little, and will take every opportunity to stick Salem in a post.

My project has changed a little from when I started, due to the information I’ve been getting out of my primary sources (more on them below). Essentially, looking at popular beliefs in context, I hope to get an idea about:

  • What were people doing?
  • Who were these people? Were they from a particular social background? Mostly male/female?
  • Why did they do ‘superstitious’ practices? What was the aim?

I’m going to kick off by clarifying some key terms, but please bear in mind I’m speaking rather broadly, there’s been a helluva lot of discussion on terms and practices between historians, and medieval churchmen themselves, that I can’t succinctly explain in a post (do not ask me what ‘ritual’ is. I may cry).

There was no one word for ‘magic’ in the middle ages, much as nowadays we use the terms ‘sorcery’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘enchantment’ and other terms each of which have subtly different meanings. The most common medieval term is sortilegium, which originally meant lot-casting but by the 12th Century covered many more different practices. Other terms include artes magicae (magic arts), maleficium (usually harming people through magic), necro- or nigromantia (which originally was invoking the spirits of the dead, later meant invoking demons). In English, writers referred to ‘witchcraft’ and ‘superstition’. (Witchcraft not having acquired the stereotypical, woman-sold-soul-to-devil meaning from the early modern period’s great witch trials.)



Superstition, defined by modern sage Stevie Wonder as “when you believe in things that you don’t understand”, was not quite the same as magic, but less learned medieval writers tended to use the terms interchangeably. St Augustine (one of the church’s Big Men in Theology) described ‘magic acts’ and ‘superstitions’ as things that did not work by physical means but instead were signals to demons, who acted for the person. This is different from the idea of ‘natural magic’, which medieval scholars argued was using the natural but hidden properties of parts of God’s creation – a magnet attracting metal, for example, would not be considered strictly magical, as would crystal stone healing. It all gets a bit sticky though, because natural magic could look like dodgy-demon-helped magic, or even a miracle and then you get into a heretical tangle.

Anyway, medieval magic tends to be split into two branches – the ‘low’ magic of the people, usually surrounding herb lore, divination, practical, useful things, and the ‘high’ learned necromancy stuff, mostly summoning demons and alchemy. It’s a bit like in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, you’ve got the wizards, in their fancy university with their books, and the witches living in villages ‘looking after them who need looking after’. (Honestly, I love the guy, he’s clearly done his research.) The magic books from the medieval era are known as grimoires, and one of the most famous ones is called the Key of Solomon the King, apparently originating as an instruction manual for the titular Old Testament king’s son, in how to summon demons to do one’s bidding.


Practical ‘folkloric’ magic

demon summon

Demon-summoning necromancy (don’t try this at home)

Though performed by a minority of learned churchmen, this necromancy was regarded with much suspicion by church authorities, who wrote against such practices. Eventually, the lower magic was tarred with the same brush, and people thought almost everything involved demons. Most practices were declared heresy in the 13th century. Bishops did investigate crimes of magic in England, but not particularly thoroughly, unlike on the continent.

In terms of historiography, LOADS has been written on magic. You’ve got to watch out for a particular writer’s bias though – some people I’ve come across seem to think ‘The Wicker Man’ is a documentary. Anyway, the daddy of magic historiography is Keith Thomas, whose seminal Religion and the Decline of Magic was first published in 1971. Thomas was an early modernist, looking for an explanation for – as the title suggests – the decline and change in popular belief in witchcraft, astrology and magic. He focuses mostly on the early modern, but does look back in detail to the medieval period as a basis for later belief. His work has been very influential, and since him no one has attempted to really analyse who was doing what, and for what end. Another great writer for looking at the ritual year (festivals and whatnot) is Ronald Hutton, while if you’re looking for a popular history book, you can do no better than getting The Book of English Magic. It’s really readable and gives a great overview of of all kinds of magic associated with England, including druids, witch trials and the modern revival.

But what am I actually doing?

I don't know supernatural gif

Sadly the departmental TARDIS is booked out this term, so I’m looking through Ecclesiastical Court Records and Bishops’ Registers (records of  trials, hearings and basically bishops nosing around their diocese) for instances of people being reported for activity. This has involved a lot of sitting in the Minster library with various record societies’ publications and scanning the indexes for key words.

It is exactly as thrilling as it sounds. At least on the upside, I’ve been listening to lots of music I’ve not heard in a while. This research is brought to you by the Demon Barbers, Van Halen, Thin Lizzie and Bon Jovi.

dean dancing gif

Currently I’ve found around 40 cases and still have a few more leads to follow up. With the ones I’ve already found, I’ve begun classifying them in different ways, using the modern magic of Microsoft excel. I’ve grouped cases together thematically, based on the details or key words used, and highlighted unusual or very detailed cases.

Often the recording of the activity is simply “so and so does sortilegum”. Which is nice, but not very helpful. Other cases provide more detail, or at least use other key words like the ones above. The most common reason for people using magic is to find lost things, or who nicked their stuff. People use a variety of ways to do this, by divining in crystals, or balancing a sieve on a pair of shears and invoking Saints Peter and Paul to identify the thief (they’d then list names, and I think when the sieve fell over, that was the culprit).

These instances make up a third of my cases. The breakdown is thus:

  • 10 too short to tell
  • 10 finding lost things
  • 6 necromancy
  • 5 healing
  • 5 misc (2 something to do with love)
  • 1 divination

Out of the cases, 21 women are accused and 17 men, and while both genders do folk magic, only the men are reported for necromancy (and those are all learned in some way, either as known scholars or churchmen).


Though I have a few examples from 13th century visitations (where bishops or representatives would go around their dioceses to correct any problems), the majority of cases range from after the Black Death to just before the Reformation. One reason for this could be that with the rise of Lollardy and general fears over heresy from the mid 14th century, bishops and clerics were paying more attention to what their flocks said or did under the name of religion, and associated beliefs.

As I go on, I’ll be putting up on here a few interesting cases and practices I’ve found. Just to give you a taste, these tales include a very naughty abbot of Selby who hires a sorcerer to find the body of one of his monks in the Ouse, a woman who uses a stick called Moses to bless children, and one family who cover just about every category. The daughter, Marion, claims to be able to heal people and possess powers of prophesy (especially for finding hidden treasure), that she gained from God and the fairies. Her mother Agnes also claims she used to speak with elves, once ‘to such an extent that for a while her head and neck were twisted around backwards’ until an old man blessed her!


Here’s a grumpy elf I don’t doubt would turn your head around.

As for punishment, people tended to just promise they wouldn’t re-offend, and did some form of penance. None of this being burned at the stake like you get later. Most people recanted their statements anyway, or proved them to be slander.

So to mis-quote Guns n Roses, where do I go now?

Basically, I’m spending more time in the library.

  • I’m going to be reading up on the heresy concerns in the period, mostly looking at how the church responded to this with inquisitions and the like.
  • I’ll be diving in to dusty tomes on the operations of the church courts, so I can develop an understanding of the context of the institutions through which magic and the like was reported and handled.
  • If I have time, I may look into amulets and archaeological evidence for superstition.

And once I’ve got more data, I’ll be putting on my best Humphrey Bogart impression and trying to trace some of the people mentioned in my cases – see if they turn up in any other records, doing the same or other activities. (Proper detective work! This is the bit I really love! I’ve got a hat and everything!) Hopefully from this I’ll get a sense of what kinds of people were doing these activities.

So, until next time…

bogart kid gif

5 thoughts on “Medieval Magic, Folklore and Superstition: the Dissertation Stirs…

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