How does Magical Thought in the Middle Ages differ from today?

Some work I’m doing for the MOOC course ‘Magic in the Middle Ages’.

One thing that magic in the  the Middle Ages and magic today has in common is that it is always a form of transformation. The sick are healed; the weather is changed; a shapeshifter moves silently through the night; a lover changes his/her mind. The main difference that I can see is that there was so little understood about the world in the Middle Ages, almost everything could be seen as a magical act.

A woman who used Willow bark to ease the pain of a loved one would have been branded a witch, but today we call it Aspirin and sell it in pharmacies worldwide. Western practitioners of Magic in the 21st century accept scientific rationality and work alongside this (for the most part) to continue and even enhance their magical practices. Without realising it, the sorcerers of the Middle Ages were doing this too, but unknowingly, with herbs, chanting and music (which can alter our brain waves), hallucinogens and of course fear; fear of the fairies, demons and even god.

I think it’s a generalisation to say we have ‘prejudices’ against this period, as most folks with an interest in the period will do some research to see how things really were, and those that have no interest will probably not even be aware of the magical practices taking place during this time. Popular culture has always painted the picture of the warty old witch or evil sorcerer, regardless of the time period, because of superstition created by the church; that magic is evil and powered by demons.

It’s easy to understand why people would be enamoured of the idea of the Renaissance bringing the ‘light’ of reason into a filthy, superstitious world. The downside to this, in my opinion, is the loss of ancient traditions and customs that are part of the growth of a culture. it’s great to understand why we do things, and the science behind them, and of course if practices are found to be dangerous, they should stop. But one day, we may not have access to electricity, medicine or even books, and the knowledge and practices of our ‘magical’ forebears could be the most useful hand me down available.

Magic is performing transformation for people. Science is understanding how you did that and how to do it again, exactly the same way. Religion, particularly Christianity in this context, often condemns both science and magic for being ‘against God’. Telling, no?

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