The Routledge History of Medieval Magic

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Sophie Page, Catherine Rider
Routledge Histories
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     550 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The market for broad academic overviews of magic in the Western context, as well as related areas such as witchcraft, occultism, or mysticism, has grown immensely in recent years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The University of Pennsylvania Press published six volumes in the Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series (with a seventh volume focusing on contemporary North America). Volumes such as Defining Magic: A Reader (Equinox, 2013) and The Occult World (Routledge, 2014) heralded both The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West (2015) and The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism (2016). Bloomsbury is now producing a six-volume series titled A Cultural History of Magic, and Brill has entered the game with their 2019 Guide to Ancient Magic.

Routledge, in turn, chose to focus on the time period that followed antiquity, with The Routledge History of Medieval Magic (2019), the focus of this review.

This well-timed volume has been edited by two experts on medieval magic, Sophie Page and Catherine Rider, and focuses predominantly on the period from the 12th to 15th centuries, seen by scholars as a "distinct period in the history of magic" (p. 1-2) primarily due to translations of Arabic—and to a lesser extend Hebrew and Greek—magical texts into Latin, and the rise of a class of educated clerics due to the establishment of the universities.

By using an interdisciplinary approach, in which they utilized textual and archival research as well as archeology and the study of music and visual culture, the authors aim to provide "a detailed look at the impact that magic had within medieval society," (p. i) such as its relationship and interaction with mainstream religion, gender roles, science medicine, natural philosophy, law, and courtly culture. This goal has certainly been achieved, and this collection provides both scholars and students with a through, comprehensive, and updated vista of this fascinating field of research. Its thirty-five chapters have been grouped together according to five parts.

The first of these parts is dedicated to the conceptualization of magic and lays the foundation for what is to come. It is comprised of four chapters written by senior scholars who have become authorities in their field, followed by their responses to each other's respective essays. Richard Kieckhefer calls for a focus on the constitutive terms or categories that elucidate the elusive aggregating term that is “magic,” such as conjuration, symbolic manipulation, and directly efficacious volition (such as cursing).

Claire Fanger, on the other hand, argues for the use of the term “magic” as a focus for analysis, stating that "its ambiguity is a function of its broad reach, part of its life in the [medieval] language" (34). Bernd-Christian Otto agrees with Kieckhefer, and calls for a systematical distinction between first-order and second-order language in the context of the study of medieval learned magic. David L. d'Avray argues that scholars cannot use the categories developed by medieval writers themselves and instead must develop their own etic terms for the phenomena in question.

The second part of the book is comprised of six chapters pertaining to the languages of medieval magic and its dissemination. The first two chapters, by Charles Burnett and Katelyn Mesler, cover the Latin West's encounter with Islamic and Jewish magic, respectively, and are followed by an essay by Sebastià Giralt on the proliferation of magical texts in Romance languages during the 13th century, and specifically those that centered on astral magic. Central and Eastern Europe is also represented with Benedek Láng's survey on the reception of magical texts in these land around the 15th century. Mark Robert's chapter explores magic in the Celtic lands, with a focus on Ireland and Wales, while stating that "a reconsideration of all the surviving records and representations of magical practices is badly needed" (p. 123), and Stephen A. Mitchell concludes the section with his treatment of magic in medieval Scandinavia. A chapter that I feel is missing here could have focused on medieval magic in the Byzantine Empire.

Part 3 of the companion, comprised of nine chapters, is dedicated to key genres, such as hermetic magic and necromancy, as well as to important “author-magicians” such as John of Morigny, Jerome Torrella, and Peter of Zealand. The following section, “themes,” explores how magic interacted with other cultural facets in medieval Europe, such as natural philosophy, gender, medicine, mystic and visual culture, as well as a chapter by Roberta Gilchrist on the archeology of medieval magic. The final and fifth part of the volume is dedicated to various anti-magical discourses that existed during the later Middle Ages, such as rise of the witch hunts in the early 15th century.

Apart from the epilogue by Alejandro García Avilés which analyzes the book's cover image, taken from the Libro de astromagia (ca. 1280-1284), all the chapters in the volume conclude with an informative and candid section dedicated to current lacunas and future directions in the field which would no doubt serve as a guide and an inspiration to a new generation of students and young scholars who would contribute to the study of medieval magic in the years to come.

In summation, The Routledge History of Medieval Magic certainly accomplishes its aims of providing an overview of the advances in research on medieval magic since the 1990s while setting up a strong research agenda for its future scholarly exploration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shai Feraro is a Research Fellow at Tel-Hai College in northern Israel.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sophie Page is Associate Professor in Late Medieval History at University College London. She is working on medieval magic and astrology, especially in relation to religion, natural philosophy, medicine, and cosmology. 

Catherine Rider is Associate Professor in Medieval History at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on the history of magic in the later Middle Ages, looking especially at the relationship between magic and the medieval church.


Catherine Rider and Sophie Page

Many thanks to Shai Feraro for a detailed and generous review. I agree with the point that a chapter on the Byzantine Empire would have been nice. At the time we originally conceived the volume (quite a few years ago now!) we had difficulties finding someone to write on Greek magic but it is a really important and interesting area that needs further exploration.


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