NPJ Book Review: The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, by Valerie I.J. Flint

A personal view: This is an exceptional resource and reference work. It’s not for one sitting/reading. (This review is from my 1990 hardcopy)

Like other works that I am finally getting to (it has been in my library for a few decades) though I have occasionally peered between the covers researching the nature of “magic”…while entertaining the question of what do we really mean by that word, including various etymological roots.

Twenty-nine plus years as a library director, with another ten plus years as a consultant and publisher has affected my filtered interest in the scholarship on “magic” and, has deepened with age, notwithstanding my existential and Zen Buddhist leanings. It’s also intellectually uneasy which brings me to Valerie I. J. Flint’s pursuits and resulting magisterial work.

In a sense, the first sentence in Chapter One sets the stage. “Magic may be said to be the exercise of a preternatural control over nature by human beings, with the assistance of forces more powerful than they.” 

The author begins this complex, scholarly, and definitive study with the knowledge that one is about to experience a journey into an intricately textured history of “magic” and with the implications that our definitions be revisited to achieve an enhanced adaptability of our terminology/subject matter.

The scope of the work brings the reader into a world that is enlightening, disarming and stimulates a rethinking of history, religion, custom, and culture and associated constructs.

Magic is loosely defined today and labeling don’t help in our understanding. Context is a significant variable.  The following is a sampling of the subject matter but certainly not limited to – The Legacy of Attitudes, The Sources for the Middle Early Ages, to The Magic That Persisted: Condemned Magical Agencies, Magic that was needed, To Forbidden Magic, Encouraged Magic, and so forth. The coverage is vast and in depth. The Primary and Secondary works researched and noted are extensive. The footnotes are comprehensive and together within the context of the Primary and Secondary resources are, if one finds the time, intellectually stimulating and offering a deep dive into the research conducted. Impressive. It is more than just a look into how various peoples, religious leaders, etcetera incorporated specific kinds of magic into “traditionalized” practice. It questions meaning itself.

The author’s inspiration to begin her research is spelled out in the Conclusion which in and of itself is provocative…the degree of influences between paganism belief and religious practice in content, ritual and “healing”…and how “magic” though seemingly defying reason was in part an aspiration….even though viewed as abhorrent, depending on the time frame, culture, etcetera.  The author writes, “This book has been an attempt to think again about the hardly thinkable, and, as far as possible, to demonstrate both its unthinkability and its likelihood.”

This again was/is a major scholarly work to be consulted for it has in my estimation implications for the further study of magic we encounter in the history of human cultures and imagination around the world.

The reading level is for lay person and scholar alike who have a deeper than superficial interest in the subject matter of “magic” with the previously made point that it’s a complex read. The footnotes and source material are a book unto themself and quite intriguing.