Diviners and Magicians: Their Reputation in Europe in the Central Middle Ages

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Diviners and Magicians: Their Reputation in Europe in the Central Middle Ages
Klaus Herbers1

I. Dante’s “Divina Commedia” and Soothsaying
Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet, wrote “The Divine Comedy” in the beginning of the fourteenth century. It is a monumental work, and it has certainly not been possible to explore it in any depth in what follows. In the poem, various people and groups of people are apportioned a place in Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise. In Christian teaching, these are the places of eternal damnation or eternal bliss, with Purgatory as the place of purification in between. This division enables Dante to make carefully differentiated judgments and classifications: he does not just condemn the evil to Hell and raise the good to Paradise, but Purgatory, the intermediate stage, has a significance of its own. The poet and narrator is guided by Virgil, and has a chance to both get a glimpse of the afterlife and to comment on what he sees. In the twentieth Canto, he encounters those sad nameless women “who used their needle, loom, and spindle for magic,” as well as a series of clairvoyants, magicians, and conjurers (indovini e sortilegi e ... incantatori), as they are called in the chapter summary. In this introductory passage, Dante also mentions Michael Scot, one of the most well-known scholars and astrologers of the European middle ages, who worked at the court of Emperor Frederick II in Naples in the mid-thirteenth century.2 He appears together with Guido Bonatti and other diviners. We know what fate was apportioned to these people from illustrations accompanying the Divine Comedy: Dante and Virgil look into the fourth of the ten bolgie, or ditches, into which the eighth circle of Hell is divided, and see the soothsayers and magicians with their heads turned backwards on their bodies. They have to move forwards constantly, but with their eyes forcedly turned towards their back. Thus, their punishment becomes a reversal of their life, as they claimed to be able to see further into the future than their fellow men. Virgil points out many people who had been condemned to such a fate: in addition to the medieval scholar Michael Scot, they include characters from classical antiquity; and, at the end of the passage, Virgil brings attention to the above-mentioned women, who had prepared witches’ brews and magic potions, instead of giving themselves to normal feminine activities.

It is more or less certain that soothsaying and the interpretation of the future were not Michael Scot’s primary field of activity—that rather, was a number of learned traditions, including astrology and astronomy.3 Nonetheless, the Divine Comedy distils a general tendency of the later middle ages into literary form, and I would here like to give some examples which can be seen as representative of this development in the Latin Christian middle ages. I will concentrate on the medieval reception history first of the person of a learned pope, and second of a place of learning, Toledo.

II. A learned Pope at the Turn of the Millennium: Sylvester II (999–1003)
Did the learned have a hard time in medieval Europe? Certainly, classical antiquity had a more relaxed approach to the interpretation of the future. The middle ages were different. From the church father Augustine it was a general rule that excessive curiosity, curiositas, was a sin. And it was even worse with those who sought to know such things which only the gods—or, in the Christian era, the One God—could know. Christian faith and faith in the stars were not easily reconciled: predestination through the stars, the power of God, and free will were difficult to bring into harmony. This led to numerous theoretical debates in the middle ages, often difficult to follow. One of the first successes of the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities (Fate, Freedom and Prognostication), is that a volume of articles collected by Loris Sturlese, which we hope to translate into Chinese in the near future, has begun this work.4

At times, even learning itself could nonetheless become dangerous. This can be exemplified by the posthumous reputation of a certain pope (that is, the leader of western Christendom and the successor to the seat of the Apostle Peter at Rome), who was elected in the year 999. In his previous life, as Gerbert of Aurillac, he had been a student in the Spanish monastery of Ripoll, where he had encountered the achievements of Arabic scholarship. The record of a great scholarly disputation at Ravenna provides clear evidence that Gerbert was both learned and an experienced teacher.5 Before he became pope, he was archbishop of Reims and of Ravenna. He was pope for almost four years. After his death, numerous stories began to spread about his remarkable ascent from Reims via Ravenna to Rome, which attributed it to a pact with the devil. Some sources (such as the Annales Palidenses) claim that he became pope through the use of black magic, others (Martin of Troppau) through satanic assistance. The English historian William of Malmesbury went even further. According to him Gerbert was helped to become pope by both the emperor and the devil, as well as by the discovery of a treasure. Furthermore, a statue, which Gerbert had fashioned from ore, predicted his election to the papacy. William goes on to tell of how Gerbert plunged into the innards of the earth in the campus Martius, the Field of Mars in Rome, in order to find the treasures of the ancient emperor Augustus.6

Other stories refer to the death and end of the pope.7 In a version told by Cardinal Beno, the pope was beaten to death whilst celebrating mass in the Jerusalem church in Rome by his own daemon. This, allegedly, marked the fulfillment of a prophecy, as the daemon had told him earlier that he would not die as long as he never celebrated the liturgy in Jerusalem. However, the prophecy did not refer to the city of Jerusalem, but to the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, a church situated in Rome.

As time passed, other stories appeared. At times they speak of the pope’s tricks or delusions (quibusdam praestigiis), or of the black arts in general. Sigebert of Gembloux, another historian, claims that Gerbert/Sylvester was slain by the devil for practising the black arts. The most garrulous man on the subject was the Roman cardinal Beno, mentioned above, who wrote a short work which proposed that Rome had actually been a school of black magic throughout the eleventh century. This story was retold and elaborated into the late middle ages, and was fashioned into variants in which the pope had daily intimate conversations with Satan himself.

The accusation of black magic also served as weapon in conflicts within the church. For example Pope Gregory VII, after having been deposited, was described as by Cardinal Beno and Petrus Crassus as a black magician. One development is of particular interest: in the twelfth century, the skills in black magic of which both Gregory and Gerbert/Sylvester were accused were traced to the same place—to Spain, which was distinguished by both Christian and Muslim intellectual traditions in the middle ages. Sylvester II was connected with Córdoba, Gregory VII with Toledo, as the place where he allegedly learned the dark arts.
III. Toledo, a Centre of Nigromancy in the Thirteenth Century?
We thus reach the subject of the medieval reputation of Toledo. A Cistercian monk of the early thirteenth century, Helinand of Froidmond, put it as follows: “Clerics go to Paris for the liberal arts, to Orléans for various authors, to Bologna for law, to Salerno for medicine, and to Toledo for daemons, but nowhere for good manners”. 8

Not only eleventh-century popes, but also other learned men, ran the risk of this kind of accusations. Whosoever had an interest in exploring the interior of nature in the twelfth century onward, could be subjected to accusations of being a magician, wizard, or alchemist. In fact, twelfth-century Toledo was a centre of translation: important scientific and philosophical texts from classical antiquity were translated into Latin, via Arabic, and thus made accessible to the medieval West. Among them were several texts on astrology and astronomy.

Toledo’s reputation as a centre for translation is commensurate with its reputation as a centre for the secret sciences. The Cistercian monk Caesarius of Heisterbach (d. 1240) portrayed the school of Toledo as an international centre of black magic. In his “Dialogus miraculorum,” written between 1223 and 1224, he writes of the black magician Philip, who tells of his time in Toledo. In this city, Philip says, there were many students of the dark arts, above all men from Swabia and Bavaria—that is, from southern Germany—who one day asked their master: “Master, we wish to see these incredible things of which you have told us with our own eyes”. Their teacher then, after much urging, led them to a field at the appropriate hour, drew a circle with his sword, and commanded that they should in no case leave the circle. Then, using the necessary incantations, he summoned daemons. They first appeared in the guise of warriors, and challenged the students to a sort of tournament. When the daemons noticed that this was impossible, they took on instead the guise of the fairest maidens, and through lascivious movements tried to entice the youths to leave the circle. Finally, as one of the students was no longer able to resist the tantalizing calls, he grabbed a ring which had been offered to him several times, and left the circle. Immediately, he disappeared from the sight of his companions. The students complained to the master, but he referred only to his previous warnings. The students became angry, and when he had seen the true wrath of Bavaria, the master realised what they were capable of, and gave in. After negotiating with the devil-in-chief he finally managed to retrieve the student to earth. The student told his fellows colourful tales of Hell. This tale, according to Caesarius, made it clear quite how opposed to God’s will the dark arts were. The student took leave of Toledo, and became a Cistercian monk.

Above all the narrative frame in this tale makes manifest the didactic objective of the Cistercian narrator: not only to warn against the black arts, or to chastise errant clerics—for mostly clerics trained in liturgy and in exorcism gave themselves to the black arts—but also to point to the equivocal nature of Toledo’s reputation as a place of learning, in particular from the early thirteenth century onwards. In addition to the so-called exempla literaturs—that is, didactic examples along the lines of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s, as well as thirteenth-century authors such as Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, Stephen of Bourbon, and others who wrote in Latin—also vernacular literature presented Toledo as a school of the dark arts, for example Parzival by Wolfram of Eschenbach. Another author writing in German, Herbort of Fritzlar, wrote that “one can still learn such cunning in the city of Toledo, which is in Spain” (noch so lernet man die list in einer stat zu Tolet die in Yspanigen stet). Toledo is also portrayed as a centre of magic and the dark arts in epic poetry from France. Even a local, Juan Manuel, active in the fourteenth century, wrote of how the dean of Santiago de Compostela, this bastion of Latin Christendom in the region, travelled to Toledo to get instruction in the secret sciences.

The association of Toledo with the dark arts, prevalent from the late twelfth and in particular the early thirteenth century onward, demonstrates not only an interest in magic, wizardry, and nigromancy, but also shows how suspect the new scholarship coming out of Toledo appeared to contemporaries. Learning itself— and this appears to have been a novelty of the time—was connected with magic. The points of connection lay in particular in the fields of astronomy and astrology. This ‘nigromantic topos’ reveals a fundamentally divided reaction to new scholarship and knowledge: on the one hand fear and skepticism, on the other curiosity and interest in new possibilities. Furthermore, another perspective can be detected, for example in Wolfram of Eschenbach: learned knowledge has to be interpreted in a Christian way. Still, the magic arts were—at least in the reception of scientific texts from the thirteenth century onwards, and based on Arabic writings—integrated into the scholarly canon.
IV. Learning and Magic – Scholarship and its Dark Side
We end with a return to Italy. The great apocalypticist of the late twelfth century, Joachim of Fiore, is not condemned to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, Joachim appears there not so much as a teller of the future, but rather as a representative of the Christian tradition of alerting and admonishing.9 Thus, the future should be foreseen also in Dante—from a Christian point of view. But when learned are condemned to suffer among diviners and magicians in Hell, the great poet was apparently unwilling to grant them such a favourable interpretation. It should be noted astrology, as practiced by Guido Bonatti or Michael Scot, both employed at various Italian courts, was by no means invariably disreputable: at rulers’ courts, astrological counsel was used to decide on which days to wage battle, or for other purposes. But important scholarly achievements, such as those which Michael Scot could accomplish at a court like that of Frederick II, were challenged in terms of their broader significance—also in great literature. These people found themselves with their heads reversed, looking backwards in Dante’s Hell. This tension between acceptance and criticism is an integral part of the scholarly and intellectual upswing of the central middle ages. To which extent apocalyptic thinking prefigured modernity is an interesting question, but it is one which here will be left open.10 It is clear, anyway, that this tension had its roots in part—but only in part—in Christian tradition. To this day, we keep encountering, and keep having to come to terms with the dark sides of learning. What can we know, and what are our limits? As long as we cannot reach a definitive answer to these questions scholarship and prognosis will always stand in a tense relationship to one another, but hopefully also a fruitful one.

List of Primary Sources
Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, Chronica, ed. P. Scheffer-Boichorst, MGH SS 23 (Hannover, 1874), 631–950.

Annales Palidenses, ed. G. H. Pertz, MGH SS 16 (Hannover, 1859), 48–98.

Cardinal Beno et al., Gesta Romanae ecclesia, ed. K. Francke, MGH Ldl 2 (Hannover, 1892), 366–422.

Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum, ed. J. Strange (Cologne, Bonne, and Brussels, 1851).

Helgald of Fleury, Vita Robert Pii, ed. R.-H. Bautier and G. Labory, Source d’histoire mediévale 1 (Paris, 1965).

Helinand of Froidmont, Sermo XV. In ascensione Domini II, PL 212, cols 596–611.

Herbort of Fritzlar, Liet von Troye, ed. G. K. Frommann, Bibliothek der gesamten deutschen National Literatur I:5 (Quedlinburg, 1837, reprinted 1966).

Juan Manuel, El libro de los enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor et de Patronio, ed. J. M. Blecua (Madrid, 1988).

Martin of Troppau, Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum, ed. L. Weiland, MGH SS 22 (Hannover, 1872), 377–475.

Petrus Crassus, Defensio Heinrici, ed. L. von Heinemann, MGH Ldl 1 (Hannover 1891), 432–53.

Stephen of Bourbon, Tractatus de diversis materiis praeciabilibus ordinatis et distinctis in VII part. sec. VII dona Spiritus s., ed. (in excerpts) T. Kaeppeli, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum Medii Aevi III (Rome, 1980), 354f.

William of Malmesbury: Gesta regum Anglorum , ed. and transl. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998).

Wolfram of Eschenbach, Parzival, ed. K. Lachmann (6th ed., Berlin and Leipzig, 1926).
MGH Ldl: Monumenta Germaniae historica. Libelli de lite imperatorum et pontificum.

MGH SS: Monumenta Germaniae historica. Scriptores (in folio).

PL: J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, 221 vols (Paris, 1844–64).

1 Klaus Herbers, Dr. Prof., Deputy Director of the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.

2 See, among various editions, Dante Alighieri, La Commedia secondo l’antica vulgata, ed. G. Petrocchi (Florence, 1994): Inferno, Canto XX: ‘Canto XX, dove si tratta de l’indovini e sortilegi e de l’incatatori, … e di loro pene e miseria e de la condizione loro misera, ne la quarta bolgia, in persona di Michele di Scozia e di più altri’; and Canto XX:115-118., p. 615. On this topic, see recently Thomas Ricklin, Dante zwischen Zauberern und Divinatoren. Einige möglicherweise nicht nur prosaische Hinweise zu Inferno XX, in Mantik, Schicksal und Freiheit im Mittelalter, ed. L. Sturlese, Beihefte zum Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 70 (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2011), 129–52, with references. Thanks to Erik Niblaeus (Ph.D) fort the translation of my paper into English.

3 See Silke Ackermann, Sternstunden am Kaiserhof. Michael Scotus und sein „ Buch von den Bildern und Zeichen des Himmels“ (Frankfurt am Main, 2009).

4 Loris Sturlese, ed., Mantik, Schicksal und Freiheit im Mittelalter, Beihefte zum Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 70 (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2011).

5 See C. Stephen Jaeger, Gerbert versus Ohtric. Spielregeln einer akademischen Disputatio im 10. Jahrhundert, in Spielregeln der Mächtigen. Mittelalterliche Politik zwischen Gewohnheit und Konvention, ed. C. Garnier and H. Kamp (Darmstadt, 2010), 95–120.

6 See Christa Habiger-Tuczay, Magie und Magier im Mittelalter (Munich, 1992), pp. 74ff.

7 For this and the following paragraphs, see J. F. Böhmer, Regesta Imperii II. Sächsisches Haus 919–1024. 5: Papstregesten 911–1024 (Vienna et al., 1998), Nos +973 und 974 with the relevant references. Accessible online at www.regesta-imperii.de.

8 For this and the following paragraphs, see Klaus Herbers, Wissenskontakte und Wissensvermittlung in Spanien im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert: Sprache, Verbreitung und Reaktionen, in Artes im Mittelalter, ed. Ursula Schaefer (Berlin, 1999), pp. 30–48, with references.

9 Dante Alighieri, Commedia: Paradiso, Canto XII:140.

10 Cf. Johannes Fried, Aufstieg aus dem Untergang. Apokalyptisches Denken und die Entstehung der modernen Naturwissenschaft im Mittelalter (Munich, 2001).

Zhouyi Yanjiu周易研究Zhouyi Studies (English Version), vol. 8, no. 1 (December, 2012) 175-181

©2012 Zhouyi Studies (English Version)

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