Frances Timbers / History

The Magic Men of Early Modern Britain

Examining how the men who practiced magic in early-modern Britain were replicating the patriarchal structure of society.

Magic Men in Early Modern Britain When most people hear the word magic, they think of Houdini or Harry Potter. Black magic conjures up images of heads being pulled off chickens or satanic rituals involving the sacrifice of babies. Magic has a long history in western civilisation, but it is a history that is often not taken seriously. Modern manifestations in the form of tricks and illusions and Hollywood interpretations of the supernatural have further distorted our understanding of the subject. It is true that in the middle ages, the blood of chickens and bats sometimes played a role in ritual magic to assist in the conjuring of demons. But by the early modern era, the main purpose of the ceremonies was to call upon angels to aid in treasure-hunting or to gain knowledge and enlightenment.

Ritual or ceremonial magic was inextricably tangled with witchcraft, which itself is an extremely misunderstood topic. In England and most of Europe, witchcraft was legislated and prosecuted in the early modern period, that is, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (not the middle ages as is commonly stated). The height of trials and executions occurred between 1550 and 1660. Think Queen Elizabeth I to the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Witchcraft was not an ancient pagan religion as suggested by Margaret Murray in the 1920s, an idea that is often kept alive by modern Wiccans. Nor were witches members of an underground sect of devil-worshippers as promoted by the early twentieth-century cleric Montague Summers and made popular by the Satanist Anton LeVey in the 1960s. For the most part, the figure of the witch was a social construction, which combined the popular belief in the power of fairies and the occult properties of nature with the demonological ideas of the Devil’s activities on earth. In other words, the witch was an invented trope. Convicted English witches were hanged as heretics, for causing harm or maleficium via a pact with the devil. In Scotland and on the Continent, they were burnt at the stake. Most of the victims of this Christian ideology were poor, older women on the margins of village society, who had alienated themselves from their neighbours. Occasionally, an accused witch might actually have been trying to attempt some sort of spell, but the evidence of any occult craft is very slim.

So if early modern witches weren’t doing magic, who was? In contrast to the poor old village women accused of witchcraft, the practitioners of magic were educated men. The theory and practice of magic was kept alive through the middle ages in the monasteries. Monks were some of the few literate members of society as Europe emerged from the remains of the Roman Empire. Along with illuminating theological manuscripts, they copied the magical manuals written in Latin, which had been modified and passed down through the ages. The elaborate rituals designed to summon spirits required expensive materials such as wax candles and incense. Demons and angels were invoked into magic circles following long and complex preparations and prayers. This, in other words, was not the work of illiterate peasant women. The secular laws put into place against witchcraft addressed this type of ceremonial or ritual magic. However, the learned men who practised magic were seldom caught in the witchcraft net. In fact, some men were well-known for their magical endeavours. John Dee, who invoked angels into a crystal for the purpose of communicating with them, was requested to determine the best day for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The queen even stopped by Dee’s home at Mortlake to see his ‘shewstone’ or crystal ball.

Magic was accepted as possible because of the prevalence of a ‘magical world-view’. This would slowly change after the introduction of the ‘mechanical world-view’ of Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and others. The so-called ‘magical world-view’ was an ancient classical premise of natural philosophy in which all parts of the universe were interconnected. The patterns and qualities of the heavenly stars and planets were replicated in the earthly realm. This system not only explained how astrology worked, but also why certain plants and herbs were efficacious for particular ailments. All earthly things corresponded to some heavenly aspect. Magic was possible because the heavenly powers could be invoked or manipulated through sympathy or attraction to achieve certain results. This was the purpose of talismans and amulets. The ‘magical world-view’ influenced both medicine and science, and was not contrary to religion since God controlled all aspects of the universe. Even Descartes’ theory of the earth as a self-sustaining mechanism did not exclude the Great Clockmaker. The only debatable aspect of magic was the involvement of the Devil, who could easily pose as an angel.

Given the ubiquitous nature of the ‘magical world-view’, it makes sense that the practice of magic was an aspect of what it meant to ‘be a man’ in the early modern period. All aspects of society were influenced by gender ideologies, and magic was no different. In a strongly patriarchal society, manhood meant subordination and control over others: women, children, servants, apprentices, and men of lower social standing. Not surprisingly, the demons and angels summoned by learned male magicians were also subjugated, coerced, and constrained. Attitudes toward women were transferred to the spirit world. One set of instructions even outlines how the magician can summon up a fairy in the shape of a beautiful woman for the purpose of sexual intercourse. The attainment of full manhood, which included work and maintaining a household, could also be assisted through the practice of magical techniques. Physicians employed astrology and amulets in their medical practices to make their results more successful. A cunning man could use magic to enhance his reputation in the community by identifying thieves and witches. Potential wealth lay in store for a magician skilled at using hazel wands for treasure-hunting. And great prestige awaited the astrologers and alchemists who were sought out by kings and queens.

Magic then was an integral part of the pre-modern western world. The performance of magic was influenced by the hierarchical and patriarchal nature of the society. By studying magic manuals and the actions of magicians, historians can shed light on the new science emerging in the seventeenth century, post-Reformation religious beliefs, and what it meant to ‘be a man’ in a time of radical change. ■

Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern EraFrances Timbers is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Victoria, Canada. She holds a PhD from University of Toronto. Her new book Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern Era is published this month.

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