Magic — the wielding of supernatural forces — was a part of everyday life in the Middle Ages, although some forms were considered far more insidious than others. At one end of the spectrum were forces seen as natural and helpful. This kind of white magic was even practiced by monks and priests, despite Christianity’s increasingly hostile attitude toward such practices. And then there was black magic, a harmful and unnatural practice otherwise known as sorcery.
During this period, people were increasingly put on trial for maleficium, the term used to define sorcery or dark magic. In the 14th century, the accusation of maleficium was mostly aimed at men. It was not until later, with the publication of clergyman Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum in 1487, that dark magic was associated more directly with women, at which point there was a sharp rise in witches (both accused and self-proclaimed) and witch trials.
Practitioners of black magic, including wizards, sorcerers and, later, witches, had a number of tools to call upon to perform their dark arts. Here are some of the practices they might have used during the magical times of the Middle Ages.
The Grimoire Practitioners of black magic needed a way to learn and advance their craft, and these instructions were found in grimoires, which served as a kind of textbook, giving sorcerers all the necessary instructions for casting spells, raising spirits, and various other dark wizardry.
Spellcasting A typical grimoire could contain all manner of instructions for casting spells. Once learned and perfected by a sorcerer, these spells could be used for crafting magical objects, finding lost items, healing sick people, curing impotence, and numerous other acts both benevolent and malevolent. The casting of spells was widely accepted during the early Middle Ages, except for spells with obviously devious, dangerous, or demonic intentions.
Herbology Herbology, using plants to make magic potions and healing medicines, was a fundamental part of what was considered medicinal magic. This, on the surface, would seem like a fairly innocuous, if not altogether positive, practice. But herbology could spill over into areas frowned upon by the church, despite the use of herbal medicine by medieval monks. The influential medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that he saw nothing wrong in “employing natural things” for their useful effects, but warned that “if in addition there be employed certain characters, words, or any other vain observances which clearly have no efficacy by nature, it will be superstitious and unlawful.”
Alchemy Medieval scrolls reveal how alchemy was a fundamental part of magic during the Middle Ages. This is perhaps unsurprising, as alchemy has been a part of occult tradition for millennia, handed down from ancient Egypt and Arabia to Greece and Rome and throughout much of Europe in the Middle Ages. Through alchemy, practitioners sought the key to the transmutation of metals (allowing them to turn common materials into gold) as well as a path to eternal youth. This potential power was naturally of interest to sorcerers, as well as intellectuals not otherwise involved with the dark arts. Both, however, could find themselves in trouble with the law for practicing alchemy.
Divination Divination, or the power to predict or see the future, has long been a staple of sorcerers and other practitioners of magic. During the 12th and 13th centuries, classical Greek and Arabic texts on divination were translated into Latin, and soon this new magical knowledge spread throughout France, Italy, Germany, and England. Numerous methods of divination existed, from astronomical observations to the casting of dice and reading the flight patterns of birds.
Summoning Summoning was one of the more powerful types of magic common in the Middle Ages. Practitioners of white magic would try to summon angels or spirits to help them with problems or provide information. But those involved in black magic — the malefici evildoers — tried to summon demons to do their bidding. This was considered dangerous for both the potential targets of the sorcerers and the sorcerers themselves. The complicated rituals often involved creating a protective circle to keep the summoner safe from the demons they invoked.
Necromancy Few acts of magic struck more fear into the hearts of the common folk during the medieval period than necromancy. This form of magic shared some traits with both divination and summoning, but more specifically, it involved conjuring the dead. By communicating with the dead, the sorcerer sought to obtain insight into the future or help with some impossible or otherworldly task such as magical transportation or illusion. Necromancy was considered one of the higher and more dangerous forms of magic.