Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides numerous ways with which to explore the fascinating topic of magic from a global perspective: from primary texts of witch trial proceedings and a scanned witch-hunting handbook, to articles and book chapters that examine the political and social context of magic, sorcery and demon beliefs around the world.
The most famous of the witchcraft manuals, the Malleus Maleficarum – or Hammer of Witches – of 1486 revised key perceptions about the practice of magic and contributed to the burgeoning era of witch trials at the close of the Middle Ages. Its impact was in part due to its emphasis on the figure of the female, domestic witch over the previous association of sorcery with the male, learned necromancer. Access a high-resolution, zoomable version of the original text here.
A woman with great influence in the state affairs and finance of the Mongol Empire through her friendship with Törägänä Khatun, Fatima Khatun’s downfall in 1245 was wrought by accusations of sorcery from the amirs and noyans of the ulus. As described in Wheeler M Thackston’s commentary on the Persian Histories of the Mongol Dynasties, the grandson of Genghis Khan and third Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Güyük Khan, sentenced her to death for supposedly causing his brother’s illness through magic.
This folio from a fourteenth century manuscript, most likely originating from Isfahan, Iran, shows a scene from the Book of Kings (Shahnama). The hero Isfandiyar plays a string instrument and uses his music and the promise of wine to lure a sorceress closer so that he may strike her with his sword.
“Some say that the genies [jinn] spoke to her, others that she was a sorceress and a fortune teller” - one of the most demonstrably powerful women in the eleventh-century Maghreb, Zaynab bint Ishaq al-Nafzawwiyya had a crucial role in the rise of the Almoravid Empire and in the complicated politics of its court. Read more about Zaynab’s political goals and reversals of fortune on her way to queenship in this eBook chapter.
The founder of the Zhou Dynasty and one of the most controversial sovereign rulers in Chinese imperial history, Wu Zetian was known for surrounding herself with magicians. She used both magical and religious symbolism to legitimize her swift rise to the dragon throne, where she remained from 690 to 705. Read more about Wu Zetian’s rise to power and the auspicious omens and superstition-based performances that she used to bolster her position in this study of global queenship.
Accusations of political crimes and treason involving magic abounded in this bloody conflict between the Yorkists and Lancastrians of England at the close of the Medieval period. In one such instance during the reign of Edward IV in 1477, Thomas Burdett was accused of engaging John Stacy and Thomas Blake to calculate ‘by art magic, necromancy and astronomy, the death and final destruction of the king and prince’. Learn more about the fate of the accused and magic as a political crime in Medieval England.
“Moreover, the accused gave his daughter Françoise, then aged six months, to this devil, his teacher, and Beelzebub, his teacher, killed her; and thereafter…committed and perpetrated many acts of sorcery by following his teacher’s instructions on what he should do and when he should do it.” In a series of readings from trials of witches and other workers of magic conducted by inquisitors 1245-1540, many of the accused stand trial for the summoning of demons.
A new article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages explores the medieval understanding of the causes of mental illness, now generally accepted to be more varied and nuanced than often thought. Contemporary Western texts suggest a range of causes were appreciated-namely grief, illness, alcohol, poor diet, or an imbalance in the humours. However, religious belief in demons as a cause of mental illness were also prevalent: both the French theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Silesian scholar Witelo believed that demons could enter the body and upset the balance of the humours.
The early fathers of the church in Europe attempted to forge a new Christian orthodoxy out of existing beliefs and had to redefine the practice of magic in a Christian context. This meant insisting that all magic was demonic in origin, and that the practice of it was always morally wrong. Learn more about the uneasy relationship between Christianity, proto-scientific epistemology and the concept of demons in this eBook chapter.