The Will to Understand Witchcraft and Magic in This Era

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

Many people are vaguely familiar with the history of witchcraft and magic. The topic attracts regular media interest. Yet it is also a subject around which swirls much misunderstanding, misinformed opinion, and dubious facts.

One such perennial notion is that witches were burned in England, and likewise the erroneous belief that millions of people were executed during the era of the witch trials. Over the last two centuries this notorious episode in European history has repeatedly been portrayed as a stain on the medieval age. Yet the vast majority of the prosecutions and executions took place not in the Middle Ages at all, but in what historians refer to as the early modern period, an era which runs roughly from the mid-fifteenth-century to the mid-eighteenth-century.

Words like “hysteria” and “craze” litter the older literature on the subject, and continue to be widely used to describe the trials. Yet as James Sharpe and Rita Voltmer will show in their articles, the causes and pattern of the European witch trials were not the result of mass delusion or credulity.

The greatest minds of the era believed in the reality of witchcraft and magic. This was a time in Europe when the Reformation transformed religion and politics, legal systems were becoming more sophisticated, and science made great strides in understanding the natural world.

The belief in witchcraft and magic was not some evolutionary stage that society passed through on the way to general enlightenment and scientific progress.

The intense academic and public focus on the early modern witch trials can, itself, be seen as problematic. Does the execution of tens of thousands of people, for example, make it more important and of more historic value to research and understand witchcraft and magic in this era rather than before or after?

One of the aims of this medium is also to describe how witchcraft and magic have a history that stretches back to the beginning of writing 5,000 years ago and remain with us today as relevant cultural phenomena that continue to reflect fundamental aspects of contemporary societies and individual psychologies.

The origins of magic were already being debated in antiquity, and histories of the witch trials appeared in Europe before the last of the trials and executions had ended.

The topic has excited the minds of artists, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters over the centuries. For some, it is the details of magical practices in pursuit of wisdom, health, wealth, desire, and harm that are of most interest, or the fabulous stories of the seemingly impossible, such as flying, shape-changing, and conjuring demons and angels.

For others, it is the gruesome stories of torture, persecution, and execution that intrigue, provoking reflection on how otherwise reasonable human beings could allow and perform such tasks. The history of witchcraft and magic provides rare glimpses into the human psyche and the complexities of human relationships in the past concerning gender, age, ethnicity, and social status.

Less exciting to some, perhaps, but equally fascinating is what the history of witchcraft and magic can tell us about how societies formed, developed, and changed over the centuries. It enables us to see the profound if often subtle interactions between different cultures that are obscured by studying the “bigger picture” of war, conquest, and the political games between kings, queens, and emperors.

Peter Maxwell-Stuart’s article will provides us with an overview of how magical knowledge and practices reveal the cultural and religious flows between successive empires and religions in the ancient world. Magic unites as well as divides ideologies and religions. Meanwhile, Sophie Page’s article on medieval magic will examine the extraordinary but brief flowering of knowledge exchange between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Spain.

The geography of witchcraft and magic is another important theme running through this medium. As Rita Voltmer will observe with regard to the witch trials, thinking in terms of modern state boundaries can hinder our understanding of why and how things happened in the past.

The same issue applies to the ancient and medieval worlds as well. Maxwell-Stuart notes the problem of talking about “Greece” as an entity, for example.

A basic understanding of the Holy Roman Empire is hugely important for making sense of the pattern and nature of the witch trials. During the early modern period the Holy Roman Empire had influence over a big swathe of central and western Europe, and yet this long-lived European dynastic state is little known to the general public today.

Germany and Italy did not exist as countries until the mid-nineteenth-century, and yet we understandably talk about Germany when discussing the heartland of the trials. As well as being aware of the political geographies of different eras, highlighted in the article on modern magic that we also need to be sensitive to local and regional beliefs, and traditions that were not defined by national, religious, or administrative boundaries.

This medium follows a familiar path in concentrating primarily on telling the story of how witchcraft and magic were viewed, practised, and suppressed in the Mediterranean and European world. However, of course, witchcraft and magic are global concepts.

Encapsulating the diversity and complex contexts of magical beliefs and practices across seven continents is beyond the scope of a volume such as this. The European experience was not isolated from global influences.

Through colonial conquest and expansion from the sixteenth-century onwards, Christian conceptions of witchcraft and magic determined how indigenous religions and beliefs overseas were conceptualised and dealt with by Europeans.

Indigenous magical practices filtered subtly into European traditions. From the late-nineteenth-century onwards, western spiritualists and ritual magicians drew inspiration from the mystical traditions and religions of India and the East. Meanwhile, the early anthropologists busied themselves gathering data for magical practices from across the globe, searching for overarching theories of human development. Moreover, in the article on-screen representations of witches and wizards we see how, today, cinema presents certain stereotypes to a global audience.

We should not see different parts of the world as being in different stages of human development because they believed in witches or relied on magic in their daily lives.

The articles in this medium reveal remarkable continuities in what, why, and how people performed magic in different cultures over the millennia. The reader will find, for instance, the practice of sticking pins into figurines in the chapter on the ancient world and in the one concerned with European folk magic.

The books consulted and copied by the medieval magicians discussed by Sophie Page have been “rediscovered” over the centuries and are now found on the internet and used by modern magicians. While some of the key concepts that underpin magic are thousands of years old, we must also be careful not to portray the myriad beliefs and practices encompassed by the term “magic” as somehow ageless or unchanging, either globally or within different cultures. Magic both reflects and is shaped by changes in an environment, religion, science, and social relations over time.

The writings of the demonologists explored by James Sharpe provide us with a direct line into the mindset of influential individuals and what informed their ideas and convictions. However, most of the sources for the history of witchcraft and magic are much less authorial, much less tangible, and concern a mix of emotions, thoughts, dreams, fantasies, insinuations, verbal accusations, and physical actions that, when recorded at all, usually come down to us through the distorting lenses of bureaucratic selection and interpretation.

The written archive is not all we have, in any case. In a book that has the gift of numerous illustrations, it would have been wasteful not to focus on the material expressions of magical practice and visual media. Whether concerning antiquity, non-literary cultures overseas, or nineteenth-century European folk magic, we are fortunate to have numerous archaeological remains for the history of magical practices. In some instances, from all periods and places, the material remains are the only record we have of widespread popular practices and rituals.

As to the pictorial record of witchcraft and magic, the articles by Peter Maxwell-Stuart and Sophie Page will show how the diagrams and depictions on ancient vases, tablets, and amulets, and the illuminated illustrations in medieval manuscripts, are as crucial for our understanding of magic as the written inscriptions and instructions recorded on such materials.

Charles Zika’s survey of the artistic representation of witches from the sixteenth- to the eighteenth-centuries explores how developments in technique and representation created a new visual language for depicting what witches and magicians were thought to do.

Photography enabled modern magicians to shape and control their magical public personae, while the moving image, as discussed by Willem de Blécourt, led to a further reformulation of historical notions, stories, and stereotypes for a mass audience.

The remit of the series will offer an excellent opportunity to provide a distinct approach that will focus on how the archives, imagery, and material culture shape our understanding of the history of witchcraft and magic, and how history shapes the sources we have.

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