THE ATHLONE HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC IN EUROPE SERIES: Volume 3 - The Middle Ages
Edited by Karen Jolly, Catharina Raudvere and Edward Peters, published by Athlone Press at £17.99. 288pp. ISBN: 0-485-89103-4 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
Another corker here from this six volume set from Athlone dealing with the history of witchcraft and magic through Europe. This is the penultimate release with only volume four left to be published, dealing with the witch-trials - I can't wait! One of the glorious things about this series is that virtually every volume in it represents an updating of a little covered topic - only the last one about the witch-trials will be different in this respect as it will be dealing with an extremely well covered period. All of the other books, including this current volume under review, have represented a timely update of the topic in their respective periods and summarised all the crucial research to-date. On with this volume…
As usual with this series there is an introduction by the editors followed by the contributions by, in this case, three authors. In this volume the first part is by Karen Jolly whose work is titled, ‘Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, Practices'; the second part is by Catharina Raudvere titled, ‘Trolldomŕ in Early Medieval Scandinavia'; and the third part is by Edward Peters and is titled, ‘The Medieval Church and State on Superstition, Magic and Witchcraft: From Augustine to the Sixteenth Century'. This is a very interesting collection of papers describing witchcraft and magic from (using English terms) the dark ages through to the beginning of the early modern period.
Karen Jolly's paper describes many of the practices and beliefs of the period including the use of charms and spells for healing, profit and harm. Her writing style is quite dense in this paper but it manages to flow nonetheless. The information she supplies provides a good feel for the different ‘classes' at work in the world of magic. For example, the wealthy could afford more powerful magic in the form of prepared rings with gemstones and inscriptions, whereas the poor would only have access to a lesser brand. Many different practices and beliefs are detailed in this excellent and open minded summary of magic and witchcraft. Jolly appears to be sympathetic to a magical world-view.
Catharina Raudvere's paper is a fascinating examination of the Sagas and Eddas from Iceland. These speak of tolldomŕ, the use of magic, within the land of the Gods of the Norse people. In this paper, which has an excellent structure and writing style, you can find information about the use of the runes, shapeshifting, divination and many other kinds of magic which were at work during this period. Throughout the paper passages and poems are quoted which illustrate or inform upon these practices providing a real sense of the nature of magic and witchcraft in this society. If, like myself, you've only ever come across the Icelandic myths you'll find this to be a truly fascinating paper.
Edward Peter's paper is also an excellent piece of work, and more concise than the others. In seven sections advancing in years from early medieval period and Augustine to a section entitled ‘Superstition, Magic and Witchcraft on the Eve of the Reformation' he charts the development of ideas about magic and witchcraft. This chapter includes well-known examples like those of Alice Kyteler and the Trial of the Templars amongst others. What separates this chapter out from other similar ones is the way in which Peters brings them all together into a flowing narrative, showing the earliest formulations of elite ideas about magic and witchcraft and their much later manifestations in famous trials. Quite an achievement.
For those of you who have read my other reviews of the books in the Athlone series my conclusions will not be a surprise. I highly recommend these books. At times they can be a little heavy going in terms of word choice but it is so well worth persevering in the case of these volumes. If you read this volume or any of the others you'll be very up to date with the latest high quality research in the topic and will have so many references and books to chase up from the bibliography that you'll be free to pursue the subject even further at your leisure. Buy them now while they're still hot!