For most of us, any mention of historical witchcraft will conjure images of the large-scale witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when countless innocent women met an untimely end at the hands of their paranoid accusers. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that the ancient magical arts had been around for many centuries, long before the rot of religiously-driven mass hysteria set in. For much of the Middle Ages magic was a part of everyday life for the common folk, practiced by both men and women in communities throughout Europe, while elements of the supernatural were harnessed by scientists and physicians, and featured in all levels of society including the nobility and even kings. This was a time when the boundaries between science and witchcraft were blurred, and it was believed there were people who could cast spells and use magic for good or evil. Although there were some witch trials during the period, England lagged behind the Continent in the growing concerns around witchcraft and its association with women’s ill intent, and it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that we joined the other European countries on the slippery slope to the famed frenzy of fear.
One of the earliest depictions of witches in Martin Le Franc’s ‘Le Champion des Dames’ (1451). Note the absence of hooked noses and huge warts – that came later…
To the medieval mind, laden with superstition and belief in divine – or devilish – intervention, magic came in many forms. On the one hand, the supernatural could be used for everyday purposes, from finding a lost belonging that might have been stolen, to conjuring rain for thirsty crops or ensuring protection against evil spirits or premature death with the use of charms, herbs or amulets. For the more adventurous, there were spells to secure an amply-stocked barn, while a disgruntled medieval housewife could rid herself of her husband by covering herself in honey, rolling naked in grain and using the resulting milled mixture to bake her unwanted spouse a loaf of doom. I wonder how many women tried that one…
Then there was healing magic and herb lore, accessed widely by people in rural communities who were never able to see a doctor. In an age of insecurity and poverty, people would consult the local wise woman for help in all kinds of issues, including fertility problems, sickness of family members or livestock, protection against disasters and the delivery of babies. With knowledge passed down to them through generations, wise women used a combination of herbal remedies, healing spells and charms to help their neighbours, and their finely honed skills and experience meant they were valued members of the community.
Midwifery was one of the valued skills offered by the local wise woman
The Catholic church frowned on magical practices, asserting that it was all a load of superstitious old tosh and that it didn’t work, but in reality there was little they could do to stop it. As medieval Christianity demanded, on pain of eternal damnation, a blind faith in miracles and copious insubstantial good and evil entities, it was hardly surprising that people would try to tap into these spiritual powers to improve their lot in life. One thirteenth century French priest, William of Auvergne, whilst condemning the use of most magic, admitted that some ‘natural magic’ could be tolerated, and could even qualify as a branch of science. As long as it was used for benevolent purposes and didn’t involve heresy – a seriously different matter altogether – the supernatural did have its place. So it was perfectly acceptable for a farmer to get a virgin to plant his olive trees, or to use seal skin to protect oneself from lightning. Obviously, that was just good scientific practice.
Atrology was a vital part of the physician’s art. This page from a doctor’s almanac shows the star signs attributed to each part of the body to help plan a patient’s treatment
Higher up the social scale, supernatural services were sought by the nobility and royalty wishing to protect themselves from plots against them, or their wives in childbirth, or to foretell the outcome of future events. Kings would employ highly educated astrologers to advise them of the best time to go into battle according to the alignment of the stars, while an ambitious nobleman might have a chart drawn up to predict his future prospects at court. Astrology was also an important part of medical practice, with physicians planning treatment in consultation with the patient’s specific astral alignment. Another elite supernatural skill was the practice of necromancy, the ability to call up the spirits of the dead to ask them to perform supernatural feats and learn what the future held in store. This was an area of magic believed to be performed only by university-educated men who had access to the ancient Latin texts, and as women couldn’t go to university it was believed that they couldn’t carry out the required rituals.
Necromancy was the preserve of highly educated men alone
The problem with such learned aspects of the occult is that they could also be used at the opposite end of the magical spectrum by those with malicious intent. As well as planning medical treatments or aiding in the development of successful battle plans, astrology could be used to determine the best time to cast an evil spell. And what happened if the treatment failed and the patient died, or the battle was ultimately lost? Did this indicate that the astrologer had secretly been plotting against his client? The use of necromancy could also backfire spectacularly, as in the case of Thomas Burdett, a member of the household of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV. In 1477, Burdett was convicted and executed along with his associate, a supernatural practitioner called John Stacey, when their alleged plot to bring about the king’s death by necromancy was uncovered. Clarence most likely knew about the scheme, and with his increasing obsession with the magical arts and desire for the throne it’s quite possible that he was also involved. When the king finally put Clarence on trial for treason, the charge against him was for spreading the defamatory rumour that ‘the king our sovereign lord wrought by nigromancy and used craft to poison his subjects’. High status accusations of dark witchcraft were taken very seriously, especially when all-important reputations were at stake.
George, Duke of Clarence, whose fascination with the dark arts led him down the perilous path of treason
The fifteenth century also saw some high-profile court cases involving accusations directed at noblewomen. In 1441, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester and protector in the minority of the young King Henry VI turned to magic for help in conceiving an heir for her husband. But in associating with a known witch and recruiting two astrologer clergymen in her household to assist, she found herself in too deep. A wax doll was allegedly involved in the rituals, and the use of image magic was known as one of the best methods of causing harm to the intended victim. The astrologers were charged with using necromancy in an attempt to kill the young king, but Eleanor managed to avoid the death sentence largely because of her gender. Necromancy was, after all, the preserve of educated men alone, and all Eleanor had wanted was to get pregnant. Nevertheless, her fall from grace was swift and dramatic. Divorced from her husband, she was forced to perform a humiliating public penance three times, walking barefoot and bare-headed carrying a large candle which was to be placed on the altars of three specific churches. She then spent the rest of her life imprisoned at Beaumaris Castle in North Wales.
Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, with her husband Humphrey
With magic being increasingly split into gendered arts, another accusation that could be levelled at noblewomen in England was that of love magic. Eleanor was already believed to have consulted the witch in her employ many years earlier to make her husband, Humphrey, want to marry her, but to influence the heart of a king was to play with fire. The bandwagon of love magic was jumped on by the Richard Neville, earl of Warwick in 1469 during the Wars of the Roses, when he tried to invalidate Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville as part of his attempt to oust Edward from the throne. He accused Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, of using ‘Witchcraft and Sorsory’ to ensnare the king’s affections for her daughter. Why else would a king, who should have been turning his marital gaze across the channel for a sound continental alliance wish to marry a low-born English nobody with no political advantages to offer? The clever Jacquetta, however, called in a favour from the mayor and aldermen of London, who wrote to Warwick in her support. With London behind the Queen’s mother and the so-called witnesses’ spurious testimonies against her crumbling, she was cleared of all charges. Jacquetta may have walked free, but there were many wives and mothers who were not so lucky. All over the country, women were becoming all too aware that attitudes to magic were changing.
Edward IV’s wedding to Elizabeth Woodville, carried out in secret in 1464, was thought by some to have been engineered by Jacquetta’s magic
Elizabeth Woodville herself was added to the accusations of using love witchcraft along with her mother to entrap the king by Richard III’s parliament in 1483
Despite the bubbling cauldron of resentment towards witchcraft in England, it wasn’t until Heinrich Kramer’s misogynistic treatise on how to deal with witches, Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, was published in 1487 that perceptions of witchcraft truly changed, becoming associated with satanic heresy and devil worship. Women, being the weaker sex, Kramer asserted, were less able to resist the temptations of the devil and had a ‘natural proclivity for evil’. Although it wasn’t taken as a text book remedy for witchcraft at the time, the stage was set for the notorious witch-hunts of the following century.
When it comes down to it, humans have always had both light and dark within them, and with people at all levels of medieval society dabbling in the occult, this also meant that magic also dipped its influential finger into science, religion and politics. With such grey areas between these vital parts of medieval life, for women involved in magic in a superstitious, male-dominated and volatile society, that could only make for a very loudly ticking time-bomb. So this Halloween, I’ll be raising a glass to all those who suffered the pyroclastic blast of the early modern witch-hunts, and to all those who practiced the magical arts peacefully in the centuries before the hysteria took hold.