Magic in the Middle Ages: Eamon Duffy’s Critique of Keith Thomas

By October 15, 2010

Eamon Duffy sets up his monumental Stripping of the Altars as a challenge to three books: A. G. Dickens The English Reformation, Jean Delumeau Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire and Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Duffy xx). Duffy’s critique of Dickens is related to what I describe in this post (Dickens described the English Reformation as a popular movement while Duffy said it was not; most scholars agree with Duffy now) and the critiques of Delumeau are described in my write up on the Dechristianization of Europe.

Duffy’s critique of Thomas is more complex, however. First of all, seeing Duffy go after Thomas gives me some consternation because as mentioned in a previous post, I consider Religion and the Decline of Magic the best history book ever written; and I would consider The Stripping of the Altars in the running for number 2. However, Duffy brings up some good points.

“It is an extraordinary feature of Thomas’s work,” says Duffy “that there is in it virtually no sustained discussion of the liturgy and its effect on the religious world-view of ordinary men and women. Yet, as I shall argue, the liturgy was in fact the principal reservoir from which the religious paradigms and beliefs of the people were drawn” (2). “Liturgy” is defined as the totality of the rites of worship practiced by the church. Duffy declares in the preface to his second edition, “Even the most apparently heterodox or bizarre magical practices might employ ritual and symbolic strategies derived directly and, all things considered, remarkably faithfully, from the liturgical paradigms of blessing and exorcism: they thus represented not magic or superstition, but lay Christianity” (xx).

Duffy’s book does do a wonderful job of reconstructing and exploring late medieval English liturgy, but this attack on Thomas is a bit of a strawman. First, Thomas’s book focuses on seventeenth-century England, not the Middle Ages; he does have one chapter on the Middle Ages, but reconstructing the medieval liturgy is not his purpose. Second, Thomas does acknowledge the degree to which supernatural practices were linked to the liturgy. Says Thomas, “The medieval church thus acted as a repository of supernatural power which could be dispensed to the faithful to help them in their daily problems” and “it was above all in connection with the sacraments of the Church that such beliefs arose” (32-33). And when Thomas discusses “magic” in early modern England, he notes, “The rural magicians of Tudor England did not invent their own charms: they inherited them from the medieval Church, and their formulae and rituals were largely derivative products of centuries of Catholic teaching” (42).

Duffy’s issue with Thomas likely stems from the fact that Thomas entitled his second chapter “The Magic of the Medieval Church,” suggesting that the medieval church practiced magic. Furthermore, Thomas is unclear on the issue. On the one hand he asserts, “It would be wrong to infer the attitude of medieval Church leaders from the indictments of Protestant reformers” (46), but Thomas makes things less clear with his attempt at defining magic. “The essential difference between the prayers of a churchman and the spells of a magician was that only the latter claimed to work automatically.” This is the difference between supplication and manipulation. However, notes Thomas, “This distinction was popular with nineteenth-century anthropologists, but has been rejected by their modern successors, on the ground that it fails to consider the role which the appeal to spirits can play in a magician’s rituals and which magic has occupied in some forms of primitive religion. But it is useful in so far as it emphasizes the non-coercive character of Christian prayers. The Church’s teaching was usually unambiguous on this point” (41). Thomas adds even further ambiguity by stating, “As Catholic theologians never ceased to emphasize, it was the presence or absence of the Church’s authority which determined the propriety of any action. The difference between churchmen and magicians lay less in the effects they claimed to achieve than in their social position and in the authority on which their respective claims rested. As the Elizabethan Reginald Scot wrote sardonically of the Pope: ‘He canonizeth the rich for saints and banneth the poor for witches’” (49). In sum, says Thomas, “The line between magic and religion is one which it is impossible to draw in many primitive societies; it is equally difficult to recognize in medieval England” (50).

Thomas’s definition of magic—supplicative v. manipulative—seems to be part of the problem; Thomas himself seemed uneasy with its use. Richard Kieckhefer makes it a point to critique this distinction in his Magic in the Middle Ages. “First of all,” explains Kieckhefer, “the sources toll us little about precisely how medieval people conceived of their actions…. Secondly, ordinary people in medieval Europe probably did not distinguish sharply between coercion and supplication” (15). Ultimately, Keieckhefer concludes, “Intentions are so ambiguous, complex, and variable that it is unhelpful to take the intended force as the crucial and defining characteristic of magic in general” (16). As Kieckhefer explains, “This way of conceiving magic has its main roots in sixteenth-century religious debate and gained currency in anthropological writings of the late nineteenth and centuries” (14-15).

Indeed, Duffy’s critique is more along these lines: the imposition of modern and Protestant definitions of religion and magic on medieval practices. Duffy particularly attacks Delumeau’s claim that the peasantry of late medieval Europe was “deeply magical, making use of pagan rites and deflecting christian sacraments to this-worldly ends” (277). Duffy admits that “Thomas’s discussion of late medieval English attitudes is more carefully nuanced … but his overall view is not substantially different” (277). Duffy quotes Thomas, “‘It was only at a popular level that such agencies were credited with an inexorable and compelling power,’” while medieval theologians “‘regarded sacraments as symbolic representations rather than as instruments of physical efficacy’” (Duffy 277, Thomas 47). It is this equating of the physical with magic and folk beliefs that Duffy challenges. Duffy first insists that popular practice was generally in line with the liturgy which revolved around the exorcism of demons: “It would be a mistake to see even these ‘magical’ prayers as standing altogether outside the framework of the official worship and teaching of the Church. The world-view they enshrined, in which humanity was beleaguered by hostile troops of devils seeking the destruction of body and soul, and to which the appropriate and guaranteed antidote was the incantory or manual invocation of the cross or names of Christ, is not a construct of the folk imagination. Such ideas were build into the very structure of the liturgy, and formed the focus for some of its most solemn and popularly accessible moments” (279). Further, Duffy asserts, the rites of the medieval church were preformed for explicit material ends. “The texts of the blessing ceremonies clearly presuppose that their effects would by no means be confined to the merely spiritual—holy water, salt, bread, candles, as well as the herbs blessed at Assumptiontide or the meat, cheese, and eggs at Easter, were for the healing of bodies as well as souls. The application of the sacramentals to this-worldly concerns, which some historians have seen as a mark of the superficiality of late medieval Christianity, was amply legitimated by the liturgy itself” (282).

Duffy tells the story of the distribution of a prayer called the Hundred Paternosters, a meditation of the suffering of Christ, to a “‘good husband mon harde of the grete vartu and grace of the forsaid prayers he used his dayly as deuoutly as he coude.’” Later his servant beat his ox so severely that it could not stand or eat. “All attempts at medication failed, and the husbandman was at his wits end ‘for he was but a pore man.’” So the husbandman turned to the Hundred Paternosters and “the beast was duly discovered heartily eating and entirely well, and the grateful husbandman knew that ‘god had sauyed his oxe by the grace and vartu of the foresaid holy prayers’” (296-97). Thus “in the face of calamity, he unhesitatingly turns to the devotion for a power which can heal his ox as readily as it edified his spirit” (297). Ultimately, Duffy argues, “The rural husbandman, seeking divine intervention in the face of the ruinous sickness of a beast, was not locked out from the comforts of interior affective devotion. Late medieval Catholicism was a broad Church” (298). This rejection of conflating the material with magic is one of Duffy’s most powerful arguments.

Yet Duffy’s arguments on other issues related to magic are murky. “Even the most apparently heterodox or bizarre magical practices,” asserts Duffy, “might employ ritual and symbolic strategies derived directly and, all things considered, remarkably faithfully, from the liturgical paradigms of blessing and exorcism” (xx). Claims Duffy, “Any attempt to explain this dimension of late medieval piety in terms of pagan survivalism among the uneducated peasantry is misconceived. These prayers were clearly a manifestation of popular religion, but it was a popular religion which extended from the court downwards, encompassing both clerical and lay devotion” (278-79). “This is not to suggest,” says Duffy, “that all such actions remained within the bounds of orthodoxy…. Instead, they represent the appropriation and adaptation to lay needs and anxieties of a range of sacred gestures and prayers, along lines essentially faithful to the pattern established within the liturgy itself. This is not paganism, but lay Christianity” (283). Yet Duffy does not answer the question of whether all practices were lay Christianity and if some practices were not what made them so. Says Duffy in his preface to his second addition “studies of magic, witchcraft or of Lolladry abounded, but studies of orthodox—that is, mainstream—fifteenth-century religious practice were rarely undertaken. The Stripping of the Altars, nevertheless, did not argue for the insignificance of magic, or witchcraft, or of Lollardy. Quite simply, they were not its subject matter” (xix).

Yet in one instance, Duffy lists practices “disapproved of by the clergy.” In Robert Reynes’s commonplace book, Duffy finds a number of charms “most of which would probably past muster with the parish clergy.” Zodiacal material in the book “were certainly widely disapproved of by the clergy” but the item that gets the most comment from Duffy is an “elaborate formula for conjuring angels, for purposes of divination, into a child’s thumbnail.” Says Duffy, “Reynes knew the Ten Commandments, but had evidently not internalized the standard comments on the First Commandment, which prohibited quasi-magical practices of this sort” (73). Looking up the actual practice reveals the following. The diviner is to take a child between the ages of seven and fourteen, then tie a red silk thread around his thumb and “scrape hys nayle wele and clene.” The child then says the Paternoster and then the following “prayer” in Latin (I’m translating this, my Latin could use some touch ups). “Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory, send to us three angels from you, that will speak the truth and not speak falsehoods of all that we ask them.” “And sey this prayer iii with good hert and devoute. And then schal aper iii aungels in the chyldis nayle. And then let the child sey thus ager the, wheder thu wylt in Latyn or in Englys:” instructions that tells the angels through God, Mary and John the Evangelist to speak the truth and no lies. “And then let the child aske what that he lyst, and thei schal schewe to hym.” [1]

Duffy’s labeling this ritual as “quasi-magical” bring up the question of how does Duffy define magic? The ritual makes clear attempt to be Christian both in using Christian prayers to “sey this prayer … with good hert and devoute.” The only definition that Duffy supplies is that it was disapproved of by the clergy. This is a problematic definition because 1) the clergy did not all agree (in fact, Kieckhefer argues that it was the clergy more than anyone else that were engaged in such practices [chapter 7]) and 2) the medieval clergy condemned many practices that we would call Christian, such as heresies and Protestantism itself.

The fact that, as Thomas notes, much that was called magic in early modern England derived from the medieval liturgy suggests that “magic” itself is a problematic category. C. J. Watson’s “official/unofficial” that I mention in my previous write up seems like a better way to proceed. For my purposes, we then need to reconsider the religious aspects of many of these practices that persist among the common people well into the nineteenth century.

[1] Robert Reynes, The Commonplace Book of Robert Reynes: An Edition of Tanner MS 407, ed. Cameron Louis (New York: Garland, 1980), 169-170.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. I really need to read this one.

    The point about exorcism is interesting. I had traditionally viewed all the anti-catholic literature focusing on exorcism as hinging on cessationism. But this raises the issue that it was perhaps equally or more about the ritual (magical) component. This would be consistent with the charges of theater. What do you think?

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 15, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  2. I have always liked the Duffy book, in part I suppose because I think he is exactly right about exorcism. And you’re also correct, Steve, about his “straw-manning” of Thomas. These days I just accept that sort of thing as par for the course.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 15, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

  3. J., many Protestants said that exorcism was sorcery. But they said the same thing about the mass. Cessation always undergirded Protestant attacks on exorcism because after ridiculing it they would say that such things had ceased. Reginald Scot, who Thomas quotes in the 5th paragraph of this essay, made a point to attack exorcism as sorcery, and that it had ceased after the early church, but Scot also argued that demons could have not material effects. That was an idea that few people accepted. Thomas argues that Protestantism thus put the common people in a bind: it still left them vulnerable to demons, but removed the ability for people to protect themselves against demons. So they went to the cunning folk who continued to use Catholic rituals.

    Thanks SC.

    I know I didn’t make it explicit, but I see these discussions on magic as contextualizing the Smiths’ “magic worldview” (or lack thereof). Even the angel conjuring ritual that Duffy mentions I see as being important. I submitted a paper to MHA that will discuss all this.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 16, 2010 @ 9:01 am

  4. Glad to hear you’ll do mha this year. Looking forward to your talk.

    Comment by smb — October 17, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  5. This is totally unrelated to “Magic in the Middle Ages,” but I am wondering if you are the same Steve Fleming who was in Xalapa during the 70’s??? 🙂 Write me back, if you are.

    Comment by Bibba — March 2, 2011 @ 12:06 pm


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