The Basics

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Michael Bailey
  • Abingdon, UK: 
    , September
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In its broad and eclectic series on “The Basics,” Routledge has sought to provide accessible introductions to a wide range of concepts, from medieval literature to sports management, that are ideal for undergraduates or others new to a particular field. To cover “magic” they have turned to Michael D. Bailey, a medieval historian with a respected reputation in the study of magic and witchcraft in Europe’s late middle ages. In this he has been set an unenviably complex task.

“Magic” is a very difficult concept to examine, in large part because there is nothing approaching a general consensus as to what the term actually means or rather, should mean. Medieval ecclesiasts applied the term to a broad array of practices regarded as being beyond the realm of good Christian behavior; modern occultists use it to describe the manipulation of the physical universe through the force of their own willpower; scholars in fields like anthropology and sociology have used it as a foil against both religion and science.

This makes coming to agreement on what is and what isn’t “magic” an impossible task. For some, astrology and divination are “magic”; for others they are not. For certain Protestants, Roman Catholic ritual is “magic,” although most Roman Catholics would hardly be happy with such a categorization. Most would agree that cursing or hexing is “magic,” but if it is performed by a whole community or social group as a collective endeavor then there are definitions of “magic” which would exclude it. For that reason, increasing numbers of scholars are rejecting the term altogether as some sort of cross-cultural, pan-historical analytic framework. Rather, where it is used it is often more sensibly restricted to being given a stipulative definition suitable for a specific cultural and historical context, particularly one which also employs “magic” as its own emic or folk taxonomy.

Bailey is aware of this; on the final page of this volume he acknowledges the “impossibility of establishing any fixed definition for that mercurial term” (158). He nevertheless embarks on the brave task of not only adopting one particular definition of “magic,” but of devising his own: “Whether in the modern age or throughout human history, when we find people engaging in rites or performing practices meant to invoke, sway, or control either natural or supernatural forces, but in ways that they may not fully understand themselves, or about which other segments of their society may have some very different understanding, we have probably found something that can be called magic” (29–30). He comes to this conclusion on the basis that “secrecy, uncertainty, and mysterious changeability are important hallmarks of magic around the world” (29). This, however, betrays an a priori assumption about what “magic” is; he has already decided that there is a “magic around the world” from which common elements can be identified and then used as the basis of a definition.

To some extent, Bailey’s definition is a variant on the functionalist approach to “magic” associated with Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim. They both sought to distance “magic”—a secretive, isolated practice—from “religion”: a collective, organized endeavor. In Bailey’s definition, “magic” is that which is both conducted by individuals who are somewhat confused about what they are doing and an act that is rejected by others in society. His definition is constructed not on the basis of the nature of the acts themselves but rather on the mentality of the people performing them coupled with their relationship to other sectors of society. In a sense, it is an attempt to define “magic” along both psychological and sociological lines.

As for the utility of Bailey’s framework for defining “magic,” I remain unconvinced. A practicing Christian in modern Britain who prays to God in a church may not “fully understand” how God is listening to her or how God will act upon her invocation. At the same time, many other sectors of British society would think that she was talking to an imaginary friend or fictional entity, nothing more. Few would consider this example of quite orthodox Christian practice an act of “magic” and yet, if I understand correctly, Bailey’s framework would allow us to label it exactly that.

I’m also unsure that a book serving as an introductory volume for students is the best place to proffer a novel and innovative definition of “magic,” even one which is in large part a variant on pre-existing frameworks. This is particularly the case given that the approach adopted by Bailey is not in keeping with much research into “magic” produced by scholars of religion like Randall Styers and Wouter Hanegraaff in recent decades. Bailey might have done better to focus solely on the history of “magic” as a category in Western history, the cultural framework with which he is best acquainted, rather than trying to present it as a cross-cultural, pan-historical taxon.

Bailey’s overview of “magic” is thematic rather than chronological and covers much ground. Chapters focus on specific magical acts, the condemnation and suppression of magic, the identities of magicians, and views on the “reality” of the forces underlying magical practices. He cites a wide range of historical and anthropological examples, with a useful bibliography and further reading section to allow readers to pursue particular areas in greater detail. Almost inevitably given the vast amount of material covered, small errors of fact have crept in. An example that I picked up on was the claim that Margaret Murray was “delighted” and “approving” of Gerald Gardner’s claims to have discovered a survival of her witch-cult (150); in reality she was privately quite skeptical of his allegations. Such issues are minor and do not detract from the overall utility of the work. One thing that is particularly impressive is the fact that Bailey has succeeded in creating a fairly easy and accessible read that won’t scare off undergraduates—a rarity when it comes to recent works on “magic.” For both its breadth and accessibility, it is certainly a book that will be worth placing on student reading lists. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at University College London.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael D. Bailey is Professor of History at Iowa State University. He is founding co-editor of the journal Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft and has published extensively on the history of witchcraft and superstition in medieval Europe.



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