Christianity as folk magic in medieval England

Throughout the medieval and early modern period in England, every village had experts in folk magic (known as ‘cunning’ or ‘wise’ folk, ‘conjurors’, ‘white witches’, or ‘wizards’) who were consulted for help with a variety of matters and, in addition to the services of these practitioners, the people had available to them ‘a common lore’ and made use of this in experimenting with magic on their own.[1] Magic took the form of herbal medicines, potions (love potions, poisons, etc.), spells, and incantations, which were used to help with overcoming sickness, recovering lost possessions, enthralling a lover, gaining wealth, getting revenge, and so on.[2][3] Such magic, while frowned upon by Church authorities, was generally tolerated provided it was ‘suitably christianized, such as through the substitution of the names of Jesus, Mary, and angels for pagan deities and spirits; the use of the cross, holy water, and the Eucharist; and incantations that were more like prayers’.[4]

The use of Christian motifs in folk magic was more than simply a case of subterfuge aimed at the illicit continuation of now forbidden pre-Christian practices, for to the average medieval Englishman, Christianity was itself a form of magic, and the newer faith was syncretised with the old. Priests and cunning folk were no different in the eyes of the populace, and ‘church teachings and ritual structures were incorporated by layfolk into a preexisting array of supernatural beliefs and practices’.[5] Prayers were used in the manner of spells or charms, holy water and holy relics were said to provide protection, and coins blessed during the offertory were believed to have curative properties. Ecclesiastical ritual was seen as a form of magical ritual with ‘automatic potency’.[6]

Lay devotion included the use of charms invoking sacred names and words, and passages from the gospels or other sacred words were used as written charms which were hung round the neck or placed by the sick:

[C]harms against unstaunchable wounds, invoking the wounds of Jesus or the nails or lance that caused them seemed legitimate. Joshua’s prayer that made the sun stand still and Christ’s word that made the sea stand still might be invoked to make thieves unable to move if they touched a devotee’s goods. Phrases from the Gospels such as ‘Jesus passed through the midst of them’ might be used to ensure safe passage through perils, or ‘not a bone of him shall be broken’ to heal a toothache. Christ’s harrowing of Hell and breaking of its gates might even be invoked to open jammed locks.

[7]

While Church authorities insisted that spiritual sincerity and Christian piety were required in order for supernatural effects to take place, for most people ‘issues of causation had little or no significance’ and they were interested in ‘the effect of a ritual rather than the origin of its potency’.[8] Christianity was ‘true’ because it was seen to work, not as a result of intellectual assent being given to Church doctrines or theological notions.

References:

[1] Richard Godbeer (1992) The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.24-25.

[2] Arthur Versluis (2007) Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), pp.55-56.

[3] The Devil’s Dominion, p.24.

[4] Rosemary Ellen Guile (2006) The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy(New York: Facts On File, Inc.), p.177.

[5] The Devil’s Dominion, p.26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eamon Duffy (2005) The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale: Yale University Press), pp.285-286.

[8] The Devil’s Dominion, p.26.

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