The Hidden Light of the Dark Ages

The Hidden Light of the Dark Ages February 20, 2017

The Magic of the Middle Ages

The middle ages are often referred to as the Dark Ages because many important records from this time period either didn’t survive or were never written.  This was a time at the end of the decline of the Roman empire in the years before the Renaissance when there was not much written work produced.  However, thanks to scholars in the near east there was a revival in the studies of the classical era, including a popular interest in occultism.  It turns out the “Dark Ages” weren’t as dark after all; in fact it served as the fertile soil for the growth that was about to come with the Renaissance.

Illustration by John Owens ca 16-17th century. The British Library. Flickr Public Domain.
Illustration by John Owens ca 16-17th century. The British Library. Flickr Public Domain.

The Occult Sciences

During the 9th and 10th centuries esoteric texts written in Greek were translated into Arabic.  They were preserved in the Near East until finally making their way to the West.  Through the 11th and 13th centuries there was a large transmission of Arabic learning to the West.  The widespread Ottoman Empire which reached from modern day Turkey to the Balkan peninsula had regular contact with the west.  Material concerning the arts and sciences were translated into Latin, which would have a widespread influence on the learned Christians of the West.

The occult sciences were based on an understanding of virtues occultae, the hidden qualities found in nature.  Specifically free thinkers of the time were seeking to uncover and understand the subtle and secret relationships between all things in order to use those relationships to one’s benefit.  The occult sciences could be utilized to explain unseen relationships between elemental and celestial concepts not otherwise manifest in their physical properties.  Natural philosophers believed that nature was the repository for this occult knowledge.  By recognizing nature’s secrets one could manipulate this knowledge and create wonders otherwise impossible.

Both theologians and natural philosophers during this time period were looking to understand the world around them.  As previously mentioned, the Latin west inherited a rich tradition of literature from antiquity.  The influx of new learning in the Latin West in the 12th and 13th century provided a new theoretical framework for natural philosophy.  Of course there were already existing folk practices, however learned magic provided a new way of categorizing the occult sciences.  Early classifications, such as Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, presented an overall negative view of magic, claiming that it was an art learned from malefic angels.  St. Augustine was also known to have demonized all forms of magic, however there were other’s who advocated for a distinction between natural magic and illicit demonic magic.  Some theologians believed that the explanations of natural virtues would help benefit mankind through their practical applications.

Natural Philosophy

Newly translated treatises in natural philosophy introduced natural magic as a new branch of science.  Many theologians opposed the idea that magic should be included in the curriculum of learning.  There were also those who advocated for its inclusion in the classical studies of the Universities of the time.  For example, William of Auvergne was an influential theologian during the 12th century, who introduced natural magic as the 11th part of natural philosophy.  Another well-known Dominican theologian and natural philosopher was Albertus Magnus, who contributed to the study of natural philosophy and alchemy.  The occult sciences are divided into three broad categories; natural magic, alchemy, and astrology.  These categories can be further subdivided into more precise subcategories.

Ritual magic became a popular practice in the area of the occult sciences, this form of learned magic was influenced by the increasing numbers of new works in the Late Middle Ages.  Like other forms of learned magic, ritual magic shows its association with Greek, Arabic Neo-platonic, and Jewish Traditions.  The manuscripts of this genre draw mostly from Christian biblical and liturgical texts.  This allowed for an acceptable form of ritual magic practiced by theologians under the auspices of the Holy Spirit.  One identifying characteristic like other types of ceremonial magic, is the length and complexity of these rituals, some of which taking months to complete.

The Forms of Ritual Magic

Ritual magic manifests in two distinct fundamental forms according to medieval theologians.  This distinction arose from the attempt to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable forms of magic.  Theurgic magic worked with angelic and celestial forces with the ultimate aim of improving one’s chances of salvation.  This type of Christian magic consisted of extensive purification rituals, and other practices for preparing to receive gifts from the Holy Spirit.

Ars notaria, one of the most important texts of ritual theurgy doesn’t mention the word magic.  It enables the student to better themselves through the Holy Spirit.  This text on Christian mysticism contains a set of Holy Prayers revealed to Solomon to benefit from divine infusion and gain knowledge of the liberal arts.  There were other influential texts within this category of Christian magic as well, I think of them as Christian spell books, Liber visionum, Anacrisis, and Ars crucifixi.

Goetia was a considered a more subversive form of ritual magic, but was still practiced by theologians despite conjuring both angelic and demonic beings.  This form of ritual magic, often associated with necromancy was inspired by the Catholic Rite of Exorcism.  The idea was that only a man of a pure soul could, under God’s protection, control these beings.  These necromantic rituals derives many of their details from Catholic liturgy.  Goetic rites more visibly utilize suffumigations, magic circles, pentagrams and an array of insturmenta magica.  Books on this form of ritual magic, suggest practices familiar to Christian ascetics such as; long periods of abstinence and fasting following by multiple invocations of God, the angels and the Virgin Mary. (Liber conscecratorium)

Condemnation

The Arabic translations of antiquity that supplied the Middle Ages with a wealth of occult knowledge were originally seen as valuable repositories of information.  Some individuals condemned these texts as soon as they came to light in the 12th and 13th centuries.  The Dominicans condemned alchemy throughout the late 12th century.  Franciscans were also forbidden to have books on alchemy.  In 1317, a papal bull banned alchemical practices.  It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the study of these practices was dignified with the title of Occult Philosophy.

 

References:

Forshaw, Peter J. The Occult Middle Ages.  2013.

Forshaw, PJ. “Chemistry, that Starry Science” Early Modern Conjunctions of Astrology and Alchemy. Sophia Center Press.

 

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