Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.

Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!

Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.


Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.

The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.

Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!

I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.

There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:

A signifies life or power.

B signifies power among the people.

C signifies the death of a man.

D signifies disorder or death.

E signifies exultation or joy.

F signifies renowned blood.

Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens

One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!


Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine),

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 1: Greek Oracular Texts and The Sortes Sanctorum

I think it’s safe to say that thinking about the future can be extremely scary. No one knows what is going to happen next, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to figure it out! Medieval people were no different. Medieval divinatory practices are an extremely broad category, so today I will be discussing a specific subject of that: Christian divination. When I say Christian divination, I am referring specifically to divinatory arts that invoke God and/or use Scripture to foretell the future. After all, if you are invoking God and/or using Scripture then it doesn’t count as demonic magic. You are asking God for answers, not the devil. (Though I will note later on in the medieval period divination was associated with the devil.)

Usually, I write about medieval Europe, however, our first example of Christian divination actually comes from fifth to seventh century Egypt. Some early medieval Greek-speaking Christians used divination through oracular texts. Oracular texts were questions written on papyrus that asked God what decision they should make. The texts are simple yes or no questions. My copy of Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power has English translations of six of these oracular questions. The topics vary widely, so here is a list summarizing the six to give you a better idea of exactly what could be asked:

  1. Should the writer go on that journey to Chiout?
  2. Should we bring Anoup to the hospital?
  3. Is it your [God’s] will for the writer to make a business offer to the bank?
  4. Should the writer let Theodora marry Joseph?

Now, as you can probably tell, I’ve only included four topics out of the six. This is due to two reasons. The last oracular text is worded extremely vaguely. However, it does still have a What-Does-The-Future-Hold-For-Me vibe:

✝ Do not harm your soul, for what has come to pass is from god.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Then the business question is actually split into two. One version asks for a sign if the writer should not take the opportunity and the other asks for a sign if they should:

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is not your will for me to speak about the bank or about the weighing office, direct me to find out that I may not speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is your will and you help me get the banking business, I invoke you to direct me to find out and to speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Despite five of them being yes or no questions, only the marriage proposal actually includes the answer they got. (It was a yes.) Interestingly enough that one also specifies that the writer is asking the “God of the Christians,” implying that other gods are popular in their area.


Our next oracular text is also known as the Sortes Sanctorum, a.k.a “lots of the saints.” There are different versions of this text, however, my translation is from a seventh to eighth-century papyrus fragment. Because it’s an earlier version it primarily references God, Christ, and biblical figures instead of actual saints. Later versions were written. To use the Sortes Sanctorum you had to roll die/cast lots to see what your future held. The text itself is basically a bunch of numbered predictions and whatever numbers you rolled, that would be your future. Here is an example of one such prediction:

[25. Do not go] forth but [believe] in god: You will experience something good that you do [not] foresee.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

To use later versions of the Sortes Sanctorum medieval Christians couldn’t just open the book and start throwing dice. It was mandatory to perform a few rituals (for lack of a better word) before. Rituals also needed to be done before performing other versions of bibliomancy (using a book in divination). (I will be writing a whole separate article on bibliomancy later!) For another version of the Sortes Sanctorum, you had to choose the right day to ask the question, fast for three days, read a bunch of religious readings, pray a lot, go to several masses,  receive the sacrament of communion, and cast your dice on an altar. It was certainly a lot of effort to know your fate!

That being said, doing all of these things was important to do. Some church authorities considered fortune telling to be extremely pagan. By going out of your way to pray, you could have a good excuse that what you were doing wasn’t pagan but Christian in case anyone came around asking.


Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, 

Magic, The Christian Church, and The Illusion of Control

Content Warning: Discussions of Anti-Semitism, Anti-Paganism, and Anti-Catholicism

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Christianity’s stance on magic, and later on witchcraft, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. What was once thought of as benign slowly became evil and a crime worthy of the death penalty.  However, it is important to note that these opinions fluctuated depending on the sect of Christianity, what type of magic was being performed, where the magical power came from and who was doing the magic itself, as well as what time period the magic was done and what country or region the magical acts took place in. All of these factors influenced the Christian Church’s opinions and influences on magic and witchcraft as a whole. However, magic was what gave people and the Church comfort and control over their lives.

Before the fifteenth century, there were only two types of magic that a person could use. These types of magic could either be beneficial (white magic) or harmful (black magic/maleficium) (Levack). Generally speaking, the Christian Church frowned upon both types of magic during the Middle Ages. Harmful magic, or maleficium, was seen as the worst of the two. After all, maleficium was what caused “bodily injury, disease, death, poverty, or some other misfortune” (Levack 5). The beneficial type of magic was referred to as white magic. White magic was “productive…[it helped] crops to grow or women to bear children” (Levack 5). White magic was also used to heal the sick or it protected people from evil spirits or witches (Levack 5). However, both types of magic allowed people to have some sense of control. Maleficium allowed people to control the people around them through harm while white magic allowed people to control their situations through productive means, as well as to counteract any black magic that was either done to them or about to be done to them.

Harley MS 1526 f.4v demons monks key reading

Demons with a Key and Monks Reading | Harley MS 1526 f.4v | Source: The British Library

However, starting in the fifteenth century and going into the early eighteenth century, there was a third type of magic: demonic witchcraft (Larner 3). Demonic witchcraft is what changed the religious and secular perception of magic forever. Demonic witchcraft tarnished the reputation of white magic and it associated magic, in general, with Satan and his demons. At first, the concept of demonic witchcraft was primarily an elite idea. In fact, “it was developed by the ruling class” (Larner 4). Before demonic witchcraft came into play, the average medieval European peasant did not give much thought to the morality of magic. At least, medieval European peasants did not think of magic as so morally corrupt that using it was a crime. And they certainly did not believe anyone who practiced magic should be executed for demonic witchcraft. During the Middle Ages, European peasants did not think white magic was necessarily bad until the idea was forced upon them. It was only when “the logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic” (Larner 4) did the witch-hunts and the executions of these so-called witches start.

Even though demonic witchcraft created an association of magic with evil, during the Middle Ages, before the fifteenth century, magic and religion were very much intertwined with each other. The connection between the two did not end abruptly once the Early Modern period started. The connection lasted through the Reformation and the rest of the Early Modern period. For example, Catholic rituals and prayers were often thought of in terms of magic. One way Catholic rituals were used by the general public was in magical healing. Magical healing used Catholic prayers because of “the old belief in the curative power of the medieval Church” (Thomas 178). Prayers such as “five Paternosters, five Aves, and a Creed, to be said in honour of the Holy Ghost and Our Lady” (Thomas 179) were used as part of healing charms. Even though church leaders during and after the Reformation attempted to forbid the Catholic elements, they failed. Protestant clergy did not realize that because Catholicism had the “power to give supernatural agency to the believer” (Purkiss 154), the rituals and prayers would not go away any time soon. This is significant because it means the average layperson could call upon the power of God to help heal a sick loved one, thus giving the laity the illusion of having more control over their lives. After all, without access to modern medicine, or any sort of health care besides folk medicine, and the Internet to research what could possibly be wrong with either themselves or their loved ones, magic and prayers were all some peasants had.

Now, it was believed by the general population that the only way to fight harmful magic was with more magic. However, in the sixteenth century, some elite Protestant clergymen did not believe in the existence of magic at all. It did not help the Protestant cause that one sixteenth-century writer, Reginald Scot claimed “only the Catholic Church took the subject of witchcraft seriously” (Clark 526). This meant that the average European population thought only Catholicism offered helpful solutions to healing and bewitchment. While Catholicism offered magical solutions such as “holy water, the sign of the cross, and all the paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic exorcists” the Protestant solution was “prayer and repentance” (Thomas 265). In fact, due to the Reformation, there was a “reduction in the power attributed to holy words and objects” and “the more extreme Protestants virtually denied the existence of any Church magic at all” (Thomas 256).

Needless to say, Protestant laity did not find this particularly helpful. Because of this new belief, Protestant laity began to go to cunning folk for help because they believed their church would not. It did not help the Protestant Church’s argument that some of the cunning folk’s customers thought the cunning folk were taught their magic by God. It also did not help that some cunning folk went along with that idea (Thomas 266). In fact, because the Protestant clergy did not believe magic was “theologically neutral” (Thomas 266), they essentially forced some cunning folk to claim they were demigods to avoid being accused of being devil worshippers. As a result of all this, Protestant churches began to see cunning folk as competition. The Catholic Church, however, did not have the same problem. Catholic laity could pray to a saint for the same problem and the saint was supposed to help answer their prayers (Thomas 273).

The Christian faith did not just consider cunning folk as competition. Christian clergy also saw other faiths as competition to their own. This thought process caused “Church fathers [to] consign the religions…both Jewish and pagan, to the kingdom of Satan” (Levack 30). For the Jewish faith in particular, “many contemporaries believed that Jews were a magical people who…practiced secret cabbalistic rituals” (Roper 40). Because Christian clergy considered other faiths evil, this resulted in them demonizing the other faiths’ God/gods (Levack 30). The Christian Church’s anti-Semitic views also contributed to associating Judaism with witchcraft (Roper 40). Brian P. Levack goes on to state that many traits associated with the Christian Devil are also traits associated with pagan gods. Early Modern witches were known to confess that they were worshipping at “a horned beast as a god” (Levack 30). He says that this theory is why some scholars believe that Early Modern witches were practicing “an ancient fertility religion” (Levack 30). But Levack argues, “these confessions cannot…be taken at face value” (30). It is also important to note that in the Church’s attempts to convert European pagan peasants, they forbid “everyday practices such as folk healing, using love potions, or searching for stolen goods with the aid of a sieve” and referred to these practices as “un-Christian superstitions” (Ankarloo 60). I should note that demonizing other religions happened within Christianity as well. Protestants “believed that Catholics were emissaries of the Devil and the Pope was…the Anti-Christ” (Roper 16).

Despite Protestants thinking Catholics were literally from Hell, both Catholic and Protestant churches had strong stances against witchcraft. Ironically, while the official Christian stance on magic was that it was sinful and you should never use it or consult someone who uses it. Some clergy did not get the message. This could in part be due to the fact “Protestants’ views about witchcraft ‘rested on narrower foundations’ than did those of Catholics” (Clark 528). Clergy on the lower rungs of the church hierarchy were actually known for using magic themselves. In fact, “the roles of priest and magician were by no means clearly distinguished in the popular mind” (Thomas 274). This is in part to do with the fact that medieval clergymen were most likely to be the most educated person in the community and would know how to read and understand spell books “and formulae of conjuration which were employed in the invocation of spirits” (Thomas 274). Keith Thomas goes on to point out that medieval clergymen were expected to know divination, invocation, as well as healing. His parishioners would ask him for help accordingly. And of course, a clergyman was expected to know the art of exorcism.

After the Reformation, the expectations of the clergy changed. In France, quite a few clerics were accused of using “witchcraft and black magic” (Monter 43). Some of the clerics were arrested, two were “tried…and both were liberated”, one “had his paraphernalia burned” and others were executed (Monter 43). While it does seem extremely contradictory that the Christian Church would speak out against magic, but clergy would still use it, Keith Thomas makes an excellent point regarding this hypocrisy: “it was precisely because the Church had its own magic that it frowned on others” (273-274). This means that when someone used magic, including the clergy, it was extremely important to know what the source of that magic was. Magic could come from a natural source, from God himself, or from Satan and his demons.

In the sixteenth century, the official view of popular magic by both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were not positive ones. In fact, their views towards popular magic have been described as “hostile” (Thomas 258). Not only did the Church continue to punish the use of maleficium, they also started to punish the use of popular magic (Ankarloo 60). This is important because it reflects the Church’s evolving anxieties in the early part of the Early Modern period concerning all types of magic, not just kinds that had sinister results. It also reflects the Church’s changing attitudes towards using magic in general. As previously stated, the medieval Church gave laity the agency to harness God’s power through magic to help themselves and others. Now that agency and control had been taken away. Bengt Ankarloo also makes a point to say, “the vigilance of the Church in these matters was bolstered by the Reformation and Counter-Reformations of the sixteenth century” (60). This reflects the Church’s determination to convert people to their sect of Christianity as well to keep the people converted. With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church was given the opportunity to fix issues the elite clergy found problematic, but it also gave them a chance to find an excuse to further their influence in the lives of the lower class.

In conclusion, before the rise of the idea of demonic witchcraft, magic was widely tolerated, if not outright accepted by European society. It was only when the Christian faith started to associate magic with Satan and evil in the fifteenth century did witchcraft become a crime worthy of death. If magic had never been linked to demons, would there still have been the witch trials? Or would have European society thought up another way to dispose of those who were inconvenient to them? Either way, the use of magic was extremely important in Europe, especially in terms of religion. For peasants all across Europe, magic gave them a way to feel like they had some sort of control over their lives. When Catholic clergy used magic it legitimized their job position much more than if they had not used magic at all. 




Ankarloo, Bengt. “Witch Trials in Northern Europe: 1450-1700.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 53-95.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Clarendon Press, 1997.

Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief. Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984.

Levack, Brian P.. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Monter, William. “Witch Trials in Continental Europe: 1560-1660.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 1-52.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. Routledge. 1996.

Roper, Lyndal. Witch Craze. Yale University Press. 2004.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1971.


Witchcraft and Gender in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and sexual assault

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the perception of magic and how it was used went through many different iterations, especially in regard to women and men. Generally speaking, different types of magic were used, or mostly used, exclusively by either men or by women. Some of these types of magic were more accessible to both genders, thus both genders were more likely to use them. (Please note I use the phrase “both genders” here as in medieval times the concept of being non-binary did not exist and the medieval concept of gender, while occasionally flexible, was still determined by one’s sex (Salisbury 81).) Crimes concerning the use of magic were also prescribed to different genders. How society perceived the ways men and women used magic is placed upon on misogynistic ideas that we simply cannot ignore.

During the Middle Ages, the existence of magic was well known amongst the general European population, including men, women, laity and the clergy. While “Christian writers associated magic very strongly with demons” (Rider 29), in secular society magic was comfortably intertwined with science as well as with religion (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 1). Richard Kieckhefer goes on to point out that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science”. This is especially true when one takes into consideration the relationship between medicine and cunning-folk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Smallwood 21). I will go into further detail about that later. However, the relationship between medicine and magic is also prominently seen in impotence magic, particularly in the eleventh century.

Impotence magic in the early Middle Ages was seen as a major problem for men and women alike, especially when it came to marriage. If a couple could not consummate their marriage, then that would be a perfectly valid reason for annulment (Rider 29). This put a lot of pressure on both parties, especially the woman. In one case documented by the medieval writer Hincmar of Rheims, a man who had been bewitched by his disapproving mother-in-law to be impotent, threatened to murder his wife unless the bishop granted him an annulment (Rider 32). Luckily for the man’s wife the bishop “recognized the work of the Devil” (Rider 32) and cured the man’s impotence through “penance and ‘ecclesiastical medicine’” (Rider 33). This story shows that even though women could be feared due to their use of magic, they still lacked agency over their lives due to masculine control. It also reminds the reader that men were willing to punish women who had not used magic against them if it meant they could break the charm causing them the inconvenience.


Harley MS 2965 f.37r charm against poison

A Charm Against Poison | Harley MS 2965 f.37r | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog


As previously mentioned, the relationship between magic and medicine was already intertwined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with cunning-folk. However, to fully understand that relationship, it is important to know that while ‘“cunning’ men and women were regularly prosecuted for using charms,” they were not considered to be witches (Smallwood 21), at least in the earlier Middle Ages. But by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Church had already considered cunning-folk and their folk magic to be demonic (Broedel 36). Before 1400 they were considered to be healers who used charms as medicine for “those who could not afford or appreciate the real thing” (Smallwood 21). These charms “had for the most part been orally passed down for many generations” (Smallwood 21) and amongst both genders. How “the secrets of healing” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) were passed down varied. Sometimes women could only tell them to other women or men could only tell them to other men. In certain areas, the gender of the person receiving the knowledge had to alternate every time the information was passed down (Kieckhefer Magic in the Middle Ages, 59). And even though cunning-folk “had a mercenary interest in not passing on the knowledge [about their magic] to potential clients” (Smallwood 21), this did not mean that the extent of their knowledge was kept secret.

One case where the knowledge was not kept secret was with the career, trial, and execution of Matteuccia Francisci, who also combined folk magic, medicine, and witchcraft. Matteuccia Francisci “was a well-known folk healer and magician, who specialized in…magical remedies [and] counseling for battered wives” (Broedel 37). She was so famous and sought after that “clients came to her, sometimes from out of town” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages60). Now, while she sounds like she would be an upstanding and respected member of her community, “a large number of people” (Broedel 37) that the records refer to as ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) accused her of witchcraft. Given that Matteuccia was a woman who helped abused wives, it makes one wonder if these ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) were actually the abusive husbands who wanted to get rid of the woman who was taking away their control. After all, what better way to prevent their wives from getting help then to get rid of the powerful woman helping them? This is especially true when you take into consideration Matteuccia specialized in love magic (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59), which is the equivalent of a modern date rape drug. Even so, people did not exactly appreciate having the tables turned on them. It did not help Matteuccia Francisci’s case that some of the magic she used required dubious ingredients, such as “a bone from an unbaptized baby” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) and some of her magic transferred ailments from one person over to a completely innocent passerby (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59).

Ironically, cunning-folk did not just strictly use magic in their medical treatments. Their use of magic was intertwined with the Catholic Christian faith as well. Folk magic “borrowed from Catholic practices” (Davies 36) and one man, Henry Clegate of Headcorn, had even been taught to do magic by the local priest (Davies 36). Owen Davies goes on to point out that the Reformation furthered the belief that cunning-folk were practicing demonic witchcraft and not regular magic, due to the elements of Catholicism that were thought of to be magical. It did not help that during the Middle Ages a chunk of “diocesan priests, men and boys in minor orders, monks, and friars” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages155) practiced the demonic art of necromancy. Necromancy was one type of magic that was mostly practiced by men, clergymen especially. Due to the fact they were able to gain access to this knowledge rather easily through written texts and necromancy required “some degree of learning in Latin and familiarity with ritual practices” (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20).


Harley MS 1526 f.5r demons monks reading

Demons and Monks | Harley MS 1526 f.5r | Source: The British Library


Another form of magic that was practiced by men was the art of exorcism. Exorcists were not always clergymen and they certainly “did not have the same standing in the Catholic church” (Ferber 577) as those who were ordained. The art of exorcism was not a widespread phenomenon either. For example, during the Reformation, exorcisms in France were seen as extremely creditable while in Spain and Italy it was not (Barry 20). It should be noted that during this time, French Catholicism “faced strong Protestant competition” (Barry 20) and the Catholic and Protestant faiths had very different views on witchcraft, thus on exorcisms. The Catholic Church wanted to seek “help for the witch” while Protestants “prosecuted [the witches] with comparable vigour” (Williams 81). However, whether or not exorcism was actually demonic magic, regular magic, or simply a miracle of God was hotly debated (Ferber). Either way, “many exorcists became subject to condemnation, derision, and regulation” (Ferber 575-576).

Male exorcists were not the only ones whose powers were debated about whether they were holy or demonic. One such phenomenon was ‘“positive possession”’ (Ferber 582) that afflicted mainly women. These women were thought of to be holy, yet to be possessed by demons. Needless to say, they toed the line when it came to being “seen as either the direct agents or the deluded victims of the Prince of the World, the devil” (Ferber 583). However, in the case of the mass possessions of nuns in the early modern period, it could be argued that the devil possessing these women was simply proof of how virtuous they truly were. According to Moshe Sluhovsky, it was thought that if the devil considered a group of nuns to be too good and holy, he would possess them as a way of soiling their purity. After all, if the nuns were “feared by Satan [they] therefore must be approved by God” (Sluhovsky 1394).

This is not to say that mass possessions, especially mass possessions of nuns, were considered to be the result of witchcraft. In fact, mass possessions happened a noticeable amount in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period amongst many different demographics (Sluhovsky 1381-1382). However, in a religious Christian setting, mass possessions of nuns in convents happened a significant amount more, especially when compared to mass possessions of monks (Sluhovsky 1381). Mass possessions of nuns eventually became such a common occurrence in the early modern period that writers started simply listing when and where the possessions occurred instead of including any further detail (Sluhovsky 1385).

Now, it should be recognized what the politics of the convents were like when the mass possessions occurred. Some convents were rather relaxed when it came to the living conditions for the nuns. However, some of these convents went through rather strict reforms, causing the nuns and their families to verbally protest their new living conditions (Sluhovsky 1392). Some of these reforms included “excessive mortification” and a priest who “forbade [his nuns] to eat anything but turnips throughout the [Lenten] fast” (Sluhovsky 1391). Naturally, the upper members of the clergy did not listen to the nuns or their concerns. It was only after the reforms were put in place, mass possessions of nuns happened. I suspect in actuality the possessions were not the result of Satan being angry at the nuns’ holiness; instead, it was a way for the nuns to protest the restrictive reforms as well as an opportunity to act out in the only way that could be considered safe. After all, if a demon was causing the nuns to misbehave, they could not be blamed or punished for trying to blow off some steam.

However, in the case of the nuns of St. Catherine, I do not think this to be the case. The agency of the nuns did not please someone for it was recorded that “only after the devil increased his attacks on the nuns…that the recalcitrant nuns surrendered their arrogance, accepted the reform, and [the devil] disappeared” (Sluhovsky 1390). This statement has a lot of unfortunate implications. It makes one wonder if it was not actually the devil tormenting the nuns, but the clergy who limited the nuns’ ‘“unrestricted freedom”’ in an attempt to control their behavior through fear (Sluhovsky 1390). If so, this would not be the only case where men used fear to control women they considered to be misbehaving.


Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r nun and demon drowning

A Demon Drowning a Nun | Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r | Source: The British Library


Throughout the early modern period accusations of and trials for witchcraft slowly focused more and more on badly behaved women. It was an excellent way to control women, especially when one takes into consideration that while both men and women practiced magic, women were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20). In contrast, men were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for heresy (Broedel 47). It should also be noted that of the women accused of witchcraft, more often than not, it was women who were considered undesirable to society. Women in this category included women in poverty, older women, and women who were either suspected of having or confirmed to be infected with syphilis (Ross). These three categories were undesirable in different ways, however, the last two had some overlap.

Eric B. Ross argues that dementia from syphilis was a contributing factor in older women’s strange behavior that led them to be accused of witchcraft. While this may or may not be true, I argue that their strange behavior could have also been a result of regular dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Older women “who were accused of witchcraft…were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial” (Ross 336). Anyone who has ever visited an elderly relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can safely confirm this description matches the cognitive diseases. It also does not help that when women are older they are no longer considered beautiful, therefore they are considered worthless and a burden.

Overall, while magic was a liberating tool for women or men who felt trapped in their living situation, it was a dangerous one that came with many risks. The risks were especially high for women in the early modern period. Whether it was being possessed by demons proving your holiness, creating love magic, causing impotence, or seeing into the future, someone would eventually be threatened by your abilities. Their fear of your power could very likely cause your downfall.




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Ferber, Sarah. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 575–592.

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Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

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