The Sacred and the Sinister

Studies in Medieval Religion and Magic

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David J. Collins
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , March
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a 1994 essay Richard Kieckhefer asserted that it was vital for medieval historians to recognize not only the deep ambivalence that marked medieval ascriptions of sainthood or witchcraft but also the pervasive ambiguity in medieval participants’ understandings of the spiritual powers they sought to deploy. Those twin themes—ambivalence and ambiguity—form the methodological focus for the essays collected in The Sacred and the Sinister, a volume exploring the complex interplay of the holy and the unholy.

These essays focus on various aspects of medieval and early modern Western culture, concentrating on the 15th and 16th centuries. As the editor, David J. Collins, explains, the volume is informed by two key principles: first, that the imputation of various categories of the sacred or the sinister in medieval and early modern culture was marked by ambivalence and ambiguity, and second, that the proper task of the modern historian is to seek to explicate the complex internal logic of the historian’s sources. The differentiation between the sacred and the profane, the supernatural and the natural, was of crucial importance throughout this time period, but that very differentiation was a source of constant contestation and reformulation.

The opening essays in this volume explore a traditional form of holiness, the hagiographic construction of the sanctity, through analysis of the vitae of two intriguing figures, Christina Mirabilis (1150—1224), who is reported to have manifested the sacred through remarkable forms of bodily mortification, and Margherita Colonna (c. 1255—1280), who is the subject of one of the few 13th century hagiographies written by a woman. The following section of essays explores how the fractures between the holy and unholy could manifest in a variety of contexts: first in an early 15th century dispute between monks and laity over control of ecclesiastical property in Wymondham, Norfolk (which has long shaped a community’s collective memory); then in the evolving use through the High and late Middle Ages of a single word (raptus) to denote both mystical rapture and sexual assault (a semantic range that hagiography often seemed to exploit in framing the female saint as a victim of violence and suffering); and finally in the suspicion and scandal that arose from early Christianity through the medieval period concerning practices of syneisaktism, intimate (but purportedly platonic) relationships between men and women dedicated to religious life.

The third set of essays examines various examples of overt conflict between the sacred and the sinister.  The first essay in this section considers the value of asking whether medieval magic should be understood as a nascent religious movement, the second examines legal disputes over when the unbaptized (particularly Jews) might fall under the jurisdiction of an inquisitor (reflected in the new partial edition of Nicholas Eymeric’s treatise [ca. 1370], “On Infidels Invoking Demons,” included here), and the third explores the role of magic in late medieval German discussions of the nature and causes of madness across a wide variety of literary genres. The final section of essays explores the ambiguities and ambivalences in medieval considerations of magic and celestial knowledge, with an examination of late medieval cosmologies (both philosophical and popular) and their implications for understanding the the potency of demons and the origins of evil and suffering, and then an exploration of the ways medieval commentaries on Matthew 2 (the story of the magi and the star of Bethlehem) worked to incorporate Aristotelian astronomy and natural philosophy.

This volume is framed as a tribute to the scholarship and mentoring of Kieckhefer, and the significance of his rich career is amply evident here as new generations of students and colleagues build on his methods and insights. Kieckhefer’s careful and nuanced readings of primary materials—driven by his efforts to understand the complex interconnections and interplay among religion, magic, science, and culture—are a hallmark of his wide-ranging scholarly work, and the contributors to this volume extend Kieckhefer’s trajectory into valuable new arenas.

Collin’s introduction to the volume concludes by reposing the question of how scholars might best approach the relationship of the holy and the unholy, the sacred and the profane. While those categories have regularly been used to produce central social differences and distinctions, the essays compiled in this book demonstrate that the categories are always best understood in their constant and mobile interrelation. Many of us learned long ago from William James that the seraph and snake commonly abide side by side, and these essays demonstrate exactly how fraught and fluid that affinity might be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Randall Styers is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
May 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David J. Collins is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University.


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