Spells and Superstitions

p. 101.Jpeg

Magic and superstitions are umbrella terms that were used to describe popular beliefs, rites, and practices that did not fit within the boundaries of Church orthodoxy. The medieval Church disapproved of what they considered magic and superstitions because they considered such practices to be powerful remnants of pagan cultures and conduits for demonic powers. Magic took on a variety of forms and varied across regions within medieval Europe.

While some complex forms of magic (such as astral magic) were exercised by members of the clergy, most spells did not require an education in the sciences or Latin to use and were thus accessible to laypeople. Besides spells to cure people, crops, or animals, magic used to incite lust was one of the most common types of spells that people solicited. Magic used to manipulate the weather or the productivity of animals was also unsurprisingly popular considering how much medieval peasants relied on such factors.

There were many ways that one could practice evil magic to cause bodily harm to an individual or a group of people: the use of potions, air contamination, effigies, and curses are some such examples. While it might be easy to theoretically classify such practices as 'bad magic', in reality, spells and rituals that were meant to cause harm were often similar to more benevolent practices and had positive analogues. For example, potions meant to cause harm could have similar components to others that were meant to heal, and charms could serve as both curses and blessings.

Witchcraft was considered a particularly dangerous form of magic. The fifteenth century saw the emergence of the idea of the witch-trial. While religion and social concerns were the primary driving forces for witch-trials, the occurrence of such trials was also greatly influenced by the natural world and by political contexts. For example, trials for witches accused of using weather magic became more prominent in the western Alps following the “Little Ice Age” of the fourteenth century, which caused widespread crop failures; this fueled people’s anxieties and the desire to find culprits, and, naturally, they turned to witches. Inquisitors for witch-trials required the permission of local leaders to initiate trials, and in most cases they targeted known offenders and social outcasts. People who specialized in folk magic were the primary focus of witch-trials because they had to be known in order to be solicited by clients, which made them easy targets. These specialists (who fulfilled important roles in many rural communities) were usually women, and they used a variety of spells to suit their clients' desires; for example, they could help one client with a positive spell (such as an exorcism) one day and invoke some form of harmful magic the next.

The library is committed to ensuring that members of our user community with disabilities have equal access to our services and resources and that their dignity and independence is always respected. If you encounter a barrier and/or need an alternate format, please fill out our Library Print and Multimedia Alternate-Format Request Form. Contact us if you’d like to provide feedback: lib.a11y@uoguelph.ca