THE PLACE OF MAGIC IN THE INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF EUROPE
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. Indeed, even in our speech to-day numerous vestiges of the astrological art survive. 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. 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
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
Bede expressed similar views in his scientific treatises. 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. 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, we come at the close of the twelfth century to the
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 ...