Magic and Religion in Medieval England by Dr Catherine Rider

New Light on Medieval Magic

Dr Catherine Rider's book Magic and Religion in Medieval England has recently been published by Reaktion Books, and looks at popular magical practices in medieval England and how the Church reacted to them.

Magic and Religion in Medieval England is the first study of how the medieval English church viewed popular magic, based on sources which are mostly in Latin manuscripts and not much studied. It reveals new information about magical practices in medieval England: what people did, why they did it, what the Church thought about magic and how churchmen tried to persuade people not to do it.

Dr Catherine Rider explains, "Magic and Religion in Medieval England is based on the many treatises which were written to educate medieval clergy about how they should preach and hear confessions: what sins they might encounter among the laity and how they should persuade laypeople not to commit them. This was part of a major reform movement in the 13th century which aimed to improve the educational standards of the clergy and through that improve the pastoral care that priests offered to their congregations.

"When they talked about the sins which priests might encounter, many of these treatises on pastoral care mentioned magic, and often they went into details about exactly what people did and believed: eg. we hear about healers who used charms containing strange words to heal the sick, people who believed that they could predict a death in the house from the crowing of a magpie on the roof, who thought their neighbours could curse them, or who stole the consecrated bread from the Mass to use in rituals to improve their crops or for love magic. The treatises show that most magic was used to address everyday concerns: to predict and avoid misfortune, improve your love life, or cure illnesses. We still worry about these things, even if we don’t usually use magic to address them! As said above, much of this information has never been studied before and only survives in difficult-to-read Latin manuscripts.

"The book also reaches a surprising conclusion: the medieval church, at least in England, was not that bothered about magic. Churchmen did not like magic but they had many more pressing concerns and there were very few trials – although a few people were tried including Eleanor Cobham, the aunt of King Henry VI, who was tried and imprisoned for using magic to kill the king (interestingly she didn’t deny she’d used magic but said instead that she was using it to help her conceive a child). Some kinds of magic were even treated more as good stories than as real possibilities, such as the idea that magic could be used to turn people into animals, which several medieval writers said was hard to believe."

Visit the Reakion Books website for more details.

Date: 4 October 2012

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