The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe

Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton University Press, 1991). Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.

Valerie I. J. Flint, Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, is refreshingly candid about her reasons for undertaking a study of The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Unfortunately, her reasons are less than commendable: “My own concern, and the concern I hope the present inquiry to excite, is immediately, of course, with unreason and the supernatural in early medieval Europe; but I hope we might deduce, too, that there were and are places for them elsewhere, even now, and even in so apparently `rational’ a society as our own” (p. 12). She believes that early medieval Christians in fact “display a good deal more enlightenment about the emotional need for that magic which sustains devotion and delight” than we do (p. 4). We need, Prof. Flint suggests, a dash of irrationality to spice up the insipid rationalism of a modern, technological society.

Those quotations reveal as well one of the pervasive weaknesses of this book. Prof. Flint uses the terms “supernatural” and “magic” indiscriminately to describe both Christian belief and practice and occult belief and practice. Hence, throughout the book, she alludes to “Christian magic”; Christian magic is, it seems, a “kinder, gentler magic,” distinguishable from pagan magic only in the fact that it helps rather than harms its objects. Despite the fact that “Councils and penitentials contain many condemnations of priests who did engage in condemned magical pursuits” (p. 355), Prof. Flint suggests that the priest is the Christian alternative to the magus.

This blurring of definitional lines has exceedingly serious consequences for Prof. Flint’s thesis. The book, after all, purports to be a discussion of a double process in the Christian response to pagan magic. First, there was a process of rejection, followed by a second process of “second thoughts.” These “second thoughts” about magic by later Christian leaders (around the 10th century) took the form not merely of “tolerance” of pagan “survivals,” but also the form of an “active rescue, preservation, and encouragement” of many of the same practices that had earlier been condemned. To sustain this thesis, however, Prof. Flint must firmly distinguish between Christianity’s view of the “supernatural” and paganism’s, between magic and miracle. But this is precisely what she does not do.

One example of the confusion must suffice. In a chapter entitled “Rescued Means,” Flint argues that early medieval Christians employed “heavenly magic” as “an excellent way of combating the prevalence and popularity of the non-Christian earthly magic purveyed by conjurers and witch doctors and necromancers, love charms and potions, spells and the powers of the dead” (p. 128). Among the elements of “heavenly magic” that Christians “rescued” from pagan magic was a belief in the reality and power of demons. Demons were “useful as a means of isolating evil from good, and of inspiring an appropriate fear of it” (p. 146). Now, it is surely true that many of the wild medieval speculations about the powers and habits of demons were derived from extra-Scriptural sources, yet it can hardly be claimed that the medieval belief in demons is a belief “rescued” from paganism. It is, on the contrary, a belief clearly based on the Bible. Prof. Flint, on her assumption that the supernatural is the supernatural is the supernatural, cannot distinguish between firmly rooted Christian beliefs and practices and genuine rehabilitations of paganism.

Despite these serious methodological flaws, however, this book contains a good deal of useful information. She makes several important general points. First, she points out the variety of early Christian response to paganism; there is a continuum of responses, ranging from Boniface at one end to Gregory on the other. Boniface, the apostle to the German Saxons, typifies the confrontational approach; when Boniface saw a sacred oak, his axe hand started itching. Gregory, on the other hand, in a series of long, wise letters to Augustine, the Roman missionary to Britain, outlined another strategy. Instead of destroying pagan shrines and outlawing pagan holidays, Gregory suggested that pagan practices should be adapted to Christian ends. Both approaches, of course, are risky; Boniface risks a pagan backlash, while Gregory risks accommodation.

Second, Prof. Flint shows conclusively that pagan magical practices were readily available to medieval Christians, and constituted a real threat to the Church. As noted above, she so stresses the pressures of the contemporary situation that the biblical and patristic roots of medieval practices are downplayed. Yet, she convincingly argues that the pressure of alternatives to Christianity tempted the Church to rehabilitate and approve less serious forms of magic as a weapon against more serious practices. Astrology provides a case in point. At the Council of Braga (560/65), the belief that human destiny is controlled by the stars was condemned. By the 10th and 11th centuries, however, ancient manuals of astrology began to reappear, suddenly having become respectable. Part of the reason, she suggests, was that astrology was relatively harmless, and could be used as a weapon against more serious forms of magic.

Finally, Flint shows that there were throughout the period complex interchanges among science, magic, and Christianity. She suggests that the Church made common cause with magicians so as to defend their “supernaturalist” worldview from naturalistic attacks. At other times, as with astrology, “scientifically” grounded uses of a practice made it easier for the Church to accept.

In addition to these general historical points, Flint’s book is rich with tidbits of medieval thought and culture: the uses of such biblical passages as Saul’s encounter with the witch at Endor and Ham’s supposedly-magical attack on his father (pp. 333-38); the medieval theology of priesthood (pp. 355-64); the role of the Benedictines in rehabilitating magic; and much more.

The book raises several sets of large practical questions. Most prominently, it raises, as much of recent medieval historiography does, the meaning of Christianization. Clearly, the medieval world was in a real sense Christian, yet it is just as clear that it was far from completely Christianized. Our understanding of the Church’s degree of success in the past will have some effect on our understanding of the Church’s mission today. Similarly, the book raises questions about the appropriate methods of Christianization. When, if ever, do we “baptize” pagan shrines (knowing that idols are nothing) and when, if ever, do we tear them to pieces? Shrines are in fact easy to deal with. More difficult are questions about the Christianization of institutions, cultural practices, habits, customs, social and political structures. To what extent is it the Christian’s business to tear down those structures so as to build anew, and to what extent is it the Christian’s business to work within those institutions to turn them to godly ends? These questions are being pondered rather superficially by many today, and a sobering dose of medieval history might deepen reflection.

In the face of the growing tide of Satanism and the occult, finally, Prof. Flint’s book, despite her intentions, provides something of a cautionary tale. For it shows the budding of what the Reformers attacked in full bloom: the corruption of the Church by paganism. We need to beware, lest, through attempts at cooptation of the paganism that surrounds us, we fall prey to the same corruption.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons