The Place of Magic in the Intellectual History of Europe

Lynn Thorndike



Illustrations of Belief in Magic in Mediaeval and in Early Modern Times

Even a slight acquaintance with European history reveals the existence of a number of curious and apparently unreasonable beliefs prevalent throughout a period extending from early mediaeval to comparatively recent times. There is the belief in witchcraft, for instance. From the canons of synods in the early Middle Ages down to the pitiless executions during the witchcraft delusion, there is abundant evidence of its prominence. It played its part not only in humble life, but in court intrigues and in the accusations brought at state trials.

The belief that one’s future could be learned by observing the stars was equally widespread. Astrologers throve at the courts of kings, and sometimes their advice was taken even by him whose every act was held to be under special divine direction. It would be a great mistake to think that the astrologer was maintained merely for the amusement of king and court, like the jester. His utterances were taken most seriously, and the principles of his art were so generally accepted as to become the commonplaces of the thought and the conversation of daily life. In 1305, for instance, when certain cardinals urged Pope Clement V to return to Rome, they reminded him that every planet was most powerful in its own house.[1] Indeed, even in our speech to-day numerous vestiges of the astrological art survive.[2] Moreover, a grander and more imposing witchcraft displayed itself in the stories of the wizard Merlin and in the persons of the wicked magicians with whom knights contended in the pages of mediaeval romance. So strong was the tendency to believe in the marvelous, that men of learning were often pictured by subsequent tradition, if not by contemporary gossip, as mighty necromancers. Even Gerbert, who seems to have done nothing more shocking than to write a treatise on the abacus and build a pipe-organ, was pictured as running off with a magician’s book and daughter, hanging under bridges between earth and water to escape noxious spells, and making compacts with Satan.[3] The attitude of the average mind as it has just been illustrated was to a large extent characteristic of the best instructed and most widely read men. The erudite poet Dante accepted the influence of the constellations upon human destiny. Bodin maintained in his Republic — perhaps the greatest book on political science written during the sixteenth century — that astrology was very useful in tracing the development of society.[4] Aquinas, chief of the mediaeval theologians, accepted astrological theory, except as limited by human free will, and further admitted that most men make little use of their liberty of action but blindly follow their passions, which are governed by the stars.[5] Among other great mediaeval churchmen and canonists, d’Ailly and Gerson both believed that God signified important events in advance through the stars, and d’Ailly made some astrological predictions himself. Astrology was much taught in the mediaeval universities,[6] and was regarded as the climax of mathematics and as an essential part of medicine.

It is with such beliefs, accepted by educated men and forming a part of the learning and science of the times, that we are concerned in this essay. First, it is necessary to give some further evidence of the nature and of the general acceptance of these beliefs. This object will be most quickly and effectively secured by a resume of the views of a few of the men most prominent in the intellectual history of the past. These men should offer fair, if not flattering, illustrations of the learning and culture of their times. In especial we shall notice the curious notions of those who wrote on scientific subjects or showed even a considerable approach towards the modern scientific spirit. This we shall do partly because their writings seem at first thought the place where we should least expect to find such notions, and hence furnish striking illustration of the almost universal acceptance of these beliefs; partly because, as we shall soon find reason to conclude, there is really some connection between such beliefs and science.

The early Middle Ages are not distinguished for the prevalence of education and of culture in Latin Christendom, to say nothing of profound knowledge or original thought in any particular branch of learning. But in such learning and science as there was may be found examples of the beliefs which we wish to consider. We see them in Isidore of Seville, whose Etymologies, we may well believe, constituted an oft-consulted encyclopedia in many a monastic library for several centuries after the seventh, when it appeared. This saint, like almost all good Christians of his day, believed that marvels could be effected through magic by the aid of demons, although such resort to evil spirits he could not condemn too strongly.[7] But he saw no harm in holding that certain stones possess astonishing powers,[8] that the dog-star afflicts bodies with disease, and that the appearance of a comet signifies pestilence, famine or war.[9] He maintained that it was no waste of time to look into the meaning of the numbers which occur in the Bible. He thought that they might reveal many sacred mysteries.[10]

Bede expressed similar views in his scientific treatises.[11] Also, if we may regard as his two little essays about the authenticity of which there is some question, he ascribed such extraordinary influence to the moon as to maintain that the practice of bleeding should be regulated by its phases, and wrote — with some hesitation lest he should be accused of magic — an explanation of how to predict coming disasters by observing the time and direction of peals of thunder.[12] Passing over several centuries during which judicial astrology is very conspicuous in the mathematical treatises which formed the greater part of the scientific literature of the times,[13] we come at the close of the twelfth century to the De Naturis Rerum of Alexander Neckam (1157–1217). We find him ecstatically musing over the consonance of celestial harmony and associating the seven planets with the seven liberal arts and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit,[14] as if believing that there is some occult virtue in that number or some potent sympathy between these material bodies and such abstractions as branches of learning and generic virtues. Descending from the skies to things earthly — the transition is easy since he believes in the influence, saving human free will, of the planets on our lower creation[15] — he tells us that mugwort prevents the traveler from feeling fatigue,[16] and that the Egyptian fig makes the wrinkles of old age vanish and can tame the fiercest bulls once they are gathered beneath its branches.[17] He describes fountains with properties as marvelous as those of the herb or of the tree.[18] He tells of stones which, placed on the head of the sleeping wife, provoke confession of marital infidelity,[19] or which, extracted from the crop of a rooster and carried in one’s mouth, give victory in war.[20] What is more, words as well as plants and stones are found by the careful and industrious investigator of nature to have great virtue, as experiment shows beyond doubt.[21] Neckam, despite the fact that according to his editor, Thomas Wright, he “not infrequently displays a taste for experimental science,”[22] was, after all, more of a moralizing compiler than anything else. But greater men than Neckam, men who were interested in learning and science for their own sake, men who knew more and wrote more, still cherished beliefs of the same sort. There was Michael Scot in the early years of the thirteenth century, the wonder of the cultured court of Frederick II, perhaps that monarch’s tutor, the “Supreme Master” of Paris, the man who helped much to make the treasures of learning amassed by the Arabs in Spain the common property of Latin Christendom, the introducer to Western Europe of a Latin version of Averroes and of an enlarged Aristotle.[23] Scot composed a primer of astrology for young scholars. His writings on alchemy show that he experimented in it not a little. His Physionomia accepts the doctrine of signatures, tells us that these signs on the outward body of the soul’s inner state are often discovered through dreams, and contains a chapter giving an extended description of the rules of augury — an art on which the author, though a Christian, apparently bestowed his sanction. Prophetic verses foretelling the fate of several Italian cities have come down to us under his name. A poem of Henri d’Avranches, written in 1235-6, recalls to mind the fact that certain prophecies concerning the emperor had been made by the then deceased Michael Scot, whom the poet proceeds to call a scrutinizer of the stars, an augur, a soothsayer, a veridicus vates, and a second Apollo.[24] A most interesting recipe for invoking demons to instruct one in liberal arts is attributed to Michael Scot in a manuscript collection of Occulta in the Laurentian library.[25]

Later in the same century stands forth the famous figure of Roger Bacon, the stout defender of mathematics and physics against scholasticism. Some have ascribed to him numerous important innovations in the realm of natural science and of the mechanical arts, and have regarded his promulgation of the experimental method, guided by the mathematical method, as the first herald note of ...