The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
The effects of magic on both history and literature are well-nigh incalculable, both when it is believed in and when it is not.
Western history is infamously littered with witch-hunts and inquisitions. It may, therefore, be strange to read that the first major effect of the political triumph of Christianity in Europe was to promote disbelief in the efficacy of magic. The New Testament itself is ambiguous on this point; Simon Magus and other sorcerers destroyed their grimoires* upon conversion, but on the other hand, the Magi of Persia were ostensibly led by astrology** to the crib-side of Christ. The Church Fathers, however, came close to unanimity: whatever efficacy magic may have had before the Incarnation, it had been dispelled by the Incarnation. God did permit devils to tempt and delude men, and even sometimes to possess them; but the apparent efficacy of any spell was illusion.
One interesting effect of this was that, while laws (both civil and ecclesiastical) against attempting to harm others by occult means were not abolished, people suspected of such offenses began to be asked rather different questions—not only whether they had done this or that act, but whether they believed that such acts were magically efficacious. The idea of the Church here, as one historian put it, seems to have been that believing in it and attempting it were merely different “degrees of preoccupation with the same evil,” and that it was better to discourage thinking about the whole subject. Indeed, a short tenth-century text known as the Canon Episcopi (“the Bishop’s Rule”) states in no uncertain terms that believing devils or sorcery could really achieve what they claimed, in the material world and not merely in dreams and delusions, was heresy. The Canon Episcopi was a standard element in Catholic canon law throughout the Middle Ages, and not seriously challenged until the Renaissance.
But the Renaissance did come, and with it came a curious shift in atmosphere. Perhaps high-profile witchcraft trials of the early fifteenth century, like those of St. Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, and the second Duchess of Gloucester set the stage. In 1486, a pompous, seething, ludicrous book was published by a Dominican† friar under the title Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of Witches,” contradicting the skeptical view taken by the Canon Episcopi; despite prompt condemnation from ecclesiastical authorities (on doctrinal and ethical grounds alike), the Malleus enjoyed quite a vogue for some years, and its theories and recommendations were accordingly influential. It fervently promoted the idea that women were specially prone to become witches—it is, surely, just a coincidence that before this priest’s book was published, one of the groups of people most often accused of witchcraft were priests—and strenuously supported the use of torture and a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to witchcraft trials. This is not to say that all of the accused were entirely innocent; a colossal scandal at the court of Louis XIV called the Affair of the Poisons seems to confirm that, whether or not the devil actually granted favors when asked, there were at any rate people who asked, and who did what was supposedly necessary to gain the devil’s attention. But does this indicate that the Malleus was correct? or only that, once it was in print, ill-disposed and excitable people were prone to take its ever-so-detailed analysis of witchcraft not as a warning, but as a manual?
The “Mallean” outlook reached its zenith right here in colonial America, in the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693. These were rendered all the more tragic by the shocking stupidity of their procedure. At least twenty-five people were killed; the most famous victim may be Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea (which protected his family by preventing his estate from being forfeited), and died of torture imposed to force him to plead. Among other absurdities, the court determined to accept what it called spectral evidence, or claims by the ostensible victims of witchcraft that there in the court was the shape of the accused, invisible to all but the victim, tormenting them. At this ridiculous travesty of justice, even the infamous Cotton Mather advised caution; within a few years, both accusers and judges were issuing public statements of remorse and begging forgiveness from surviving relatives and the community at large. With final convulsions of this kind, the witch-hunts closed.
Yet of all European institutions, two are noteworthy for being more moderate than the rest even at the start, and taking possibilities like false accusations and mass hysteria into account. One was the Stuart monarchy of the British Isles; the other was, of all possible institutions, the Spanish Inquisition. While the rest of the continent was increasingly witch-mad, King James I personally interrogated several professed witnesses in sorcery trials and caught them out as perjurers. Likewise the Suprema, the high court of the Spanish Inquisition, could be found punishing those who denounced themselves or others as witches—punishing them not for witchcraft, but for slander and making a nuisance of themselves.
Magic did continue to develop and wield influence, but that influence now ran in different currents. Professedly serious belief in and practice of sorcery did eventually return, among small groups of people, from ritualistic secret societies like the Freemasons to pseudo-revivals of paganism.‡ But other trends, which did exist in the ancient and medieval worlds but had been eclipsed during the hysteria of the early modern period, came to the fore as that hysteria waned. We may identify two principal strands: the proto-scientific and the literary.
The proto-scientific strand refers largely to alchemy. Alchemy was originally concerned with understanding and improving human character; it analyzed and explained that character in symbolic terms derived from the classical elements, celestial bodies, and the metals that celestial influences supposedly produced on earth. Lead, the darkest and heaviest metal, symbolized the unpurified soul, which had to be cleansed and purged through many processes—washing, burning to powder, and the like, which symbolized the effort and suffering required to gain wisdom and virtue—in order to be changed into the philosopher’s stone, which stood for spiritual perfection (hence its association with both gold and immortality). But these symbolic processes naturally prompted some curious people to experiment. Setting whatever the language might symbolize for alchemists aside, could you cut a diamond with goat’s blood? Could you cut it with anything? And so on; until, with figures like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton marking the turning point, modern chemistry and physics had begun.
The literary tradition of magic is a bit subtler. Depicting magic is, of course, about as old as literature itself: the suggested reading for Part I includes works like the Gilgamesh and the Æneid. However, the literary tradition is easier to illustrate by means of Medieval and Renaissance literature. Several plays of Shakespeare incorporate magic, but, since all of his language and ideas seem equally archaic to us, the differences in tone are easily missed. To us, Macbeth is exciting as a fantasy play, because most of us do not believe in witches (and those who do don’t believe they are like the witches of the play); to its original audience, it would have been far more like a true crime drama. But by contrast, a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream was quite as frivolous and lighthearted in the sixteenth century as it is now. The first device—a sort of “photorealistic” depiction of supernatural, usually evil, powers at work—was picked up in gothic stories like Matthew Lewis’s 1796 horror novel The Monk; from here, through Frankenstein, we reach the modern traditions of speculative fiction, horror, and sci-fi.
This literary tradition also features a historical irony: it is often a vehicle for Christian authors, and for Christian authors writing specifically about their religion. As touched on above, when Christianity first came on the scene, magic was a rival to it. But in a technological and overwhelmingly secular age, in which materialism and atheism are, if not common, yet familiar perspectives in the West, Christianity may feel more akin to magic than to anything else. Churches are certainly some of the only places today in which one would find much of the traditional apparatus of sorcery: incense, fire, wax, golden vessels, images of superhuman powers, strange gestures made in strange clothes, an archaic and even cryptic language, rooms designed according to a sacred geometry in which the angles and arrangements of things are significant. Both the concept of magic and Christian theology (or certain forms of it) suggest a world teeming with life, aglow with a secret power for good. There is a kind of dynasty of writers who have brought this out—George MacDonald, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and above all J. R. R. Tolkien.
St. Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Logos
Roger Bacon (?), The Mirror of Alchimy
The Trial of Joan of Arc, ed. W. P. Barrett
Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft
Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Anne Somerset, The Affair of the Poisons
*A grimoire is a book of spells; the word is related to grammar and glamor.
**Whether astrology is to be regarded as a form of magic is a hard question. Most Christian authorities today classify it with other forms of divination, on the grounds that it has no rational basis; however, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages—though deeply opposed to the idea that the planets controlled human behavior—accepted astrology, treating its role like that of heredity and psychology today.
†I.e., a member of the Dominican Order—not a person of Dominican ethnicity.
‡Generally, self-proclaimed revivals of paganism cannot really be regarded as such. Limited information survives about pagan practice (even Roman and Greek religion, among the best-attested, are not wholly reconstructable); historical continuity is out of the question; and in most cases, some practices known to be central (e.g. animal sacrifice) are omitted by modern devotees. However, it does not follow from this that traditions using pagan imagery or ideas lack any validity. Many forms of neo-paganism do not claim to be revivals in the first place, and should be evaluated in their own terms.
Gabriel Blanchard has a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, is CLT’s editor at large, and is not a sorcerer of any kind; he is also a proud uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, &c.
Published on 8th February, 2023. Page image of The Lady of Shallott (1888) by John William Waterhouse.