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No. 4: Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 4
July, 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 Biblical Horizons

Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton University Press, 1991). Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.

Valerie I. J. Flint, Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, is refreshingly candid about her reasons for undertaking a study of The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Unfortunately, her reasons are less than commendable: "My own concern, and the concern I hope the present inquiry to excite, is immediately, of course, with unreason and the supernatural in early medieval Europe; but I hope we might deduce, too, that there were and are places for them elsewhere, even now, and even in so apparently `rational’ a society as our own" (p. 12). She believes that early medieval Christians in fact "display a good deal more enlightenment about the emotional need for that magic which sustains devotion and delight" than we do (p. 4). We need, Prof. Flint suggests, a dash of irrationality to spice up the insipid rationalism of a modern, technological society.

Those quotations reveal as well one of the pervasive weaknesses of this book. Prof. Flint uses the terms "supernatural" and "magic" indiscriminately to describe both Christian belief and practice and occult belief and practice. Hence, throughout the book, she alludes to "Christian magic"; Christian magic is, it seems, a "kinder, gentler magic," distinguishable from pagan magic only in the fact that it helps rather than harms its objects. Despite the fact that "Councils and penitentials contain many condemnations of priests who did engage in condemned magical pursuits" (p. 355), Prof. Flint suggests that the priest is the Christian alternative to the magus.

This blurring of definitional lines has exceedingly serious consequences for Prof. Flint’s thesis. The book, after all, purports to be a discussion of a double process in the Christian response to pagan magic. First, there was a process of rejection, followed by a second process of "second thoughts." These "second thoughts" about magic by later Christian leaders (around the 10th century) took the form not merely of "tolerance" of pagan "survivals," but also the form of an "active rescue, preservation, and encouragement" of many of the same practices that had earlier been condemned. To sustain this thesis, however, Prof. Flint must firmly distinguish between Christianity’s view of the "supernatural" and paganism’s, between magic and miracle. But this is precisely what she does not do.

One example of the confusion must suffice. In a chapter entitled "Rescued Means," Flint argues that early medieval Christians employed "heavenly magic" as "an excellent way of combating the prevalence and popularity of the non-Christian earthly magic purveyed by conjurers and witch doctors and necromancers, love charms and potions, spells and the powers of the dead" (p. 128). Among the elements of "heavenly magic" that Christians "rescued" from pagan magic was a belief in the reality and power of demons. Demons were "useful as a means of isolating evil from good, and of inspiring an appropriate fear of it" (p. 146). Now, it is surely true that many of the wild medieval speculations about the powers and habits of demons were derived from extra-Scriptural sources, yet it can hardly be claimed that the medieval belief in demons is a belief "rescued" from paganism. It is, on the contrary, a belief clearly based on the Bible. Prof. Flint, on her assumption that the supernatural is the supernatural is the supernatural, cannot distinguish between firmly rooted Christian beliefs and practices and genuine rehabilitations of paganism.

Despite these serious methodological flaws, however, this book contains a good deal of useful information. She makes several important general points. First, she points out the variety of early Christian response to paganism; there is a continuum of responses, ranging from Boniface at one end to Gregory on the other. Boniface, the apostle to the German Saxons, typifies the confrontational approach; when Boniface saw a sacred oak, his axe hand started itching. Gregory, on the other hand, in a series of long, wise letters to Augustine, the Roman missionary to Britain, outlined another strategy. Instead of destroying pagan shrines and outlawing pagan holidays, Gregory suggested that pagan practices should be adapted to Christian ends. Both approaches, of course, are risky; Boniface risks a pagan backlash, while Gregory risks accommodation.

Second, Prof. Flint shows conclusively that pagan magical practices were readily available to medieval Christians, and constituted a real threat to the Church. As noted above, she so stresses the pressures of the contemporary situation that the biblical and patristic roots of medieval practices are downplayed. Yet, she convincingly argues that the pressure of alternatives to Christianity tempted the Church to rehabilitate and approve less serious forms of magic as a weapon against more serious practices. Astrology provides a case in point. At the Council of Braga (560/65), the belief that human destiny is controlled by the stars was condemned. By the 10th and 11th centuries, however, ancient manuals of astrology began to reappear, suddenly having become respectable. Part of the reason, she suggests, was that astrology was relatively harmless, and could be used as a weapon against more serious forms of magic.

Finally, Flint shows that there were throughout the period complex interchanges among science, magic, and Christianity. She suggests that the Church made common cause with magicians so as to defend their "supernaturalist" worldview from naturalistic attacks. At other times, as with astrology, "scientifically" grounded uses of a practice made it easier for the Church to accept.

In addition to these general historical points, Flint’s book is rich with tidbits of medieval thought and culture: the uses of such biblical passages as Saul’s encounter with the witch at Endor and Ham’s supposedly-magical attack on his father (pp. 333-38); the medieval theology of priesthood (pp. 355-64); the role of the Benedictines in rehabilitating magic; and much more.

The book raises several sets of large practical questions. Most prominently, it raises, as much of recent medieval historiography does, the meaning of Christianization. Clearly, the medieval world was in a real sense Christian, yet it is just as clear that it was far from completely Christianized. Our understanding of the Church’s degree of success in the past will have some effect on our understanding of the Church’s mission today. Similarly, the book raises questions about the appropriate methods of Christianization. When, if ever, do we "baptize" pagan shrines (knowing that idols are nothing) and when, if ever, do we tear them to pieces? Shrines are in fact easy to deal with. More difficult are questions about the Christianization of institutions, cultural practices, habits, customs, social and political structures. To what extent is it the Christian’s business to tear down those structures so as to build anew, and to what extent is it the Christian’s business to work within those institutions to turn them to godly ends? These questions are being pondered rather superficially by many today, and a sobering dose of medieval history might deepen reflection.

In the face of the growing tide of Satanism and the occult, finally, Prof. Flint’s book, despite her intentions, provides something of a cautionary tale. For it shows the budding of what the Reformers attacked in full bloom: the corruption of the Church by paganism. We need to beware, lest, through attempts at cooptation of the paganism that surrounds us, we fall prey to the same corruption.

   Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.

The philosophes of the 18th century often attacked Christendom using the tools of anthropology and comparative religion. Rousseau contrasted the idyllic equality of primitive, natural peoples with the bondage of life in society. Diderot explicitly contrasted Christian sexual mores with the morals of primitive islanders, and made sure that Christian morality suffered by comparison. This background makes all the more surprising the embrace of anthropology and comparative religions by students of Biblical studies, which began, as Mary Douglas shows, already in the last century. The old charge that modernism reduces theology to anthropology must be seen to have a double meaning.

Today, however, it is not only modernist Biblical scholars who are fruitfully employing the insights of various branches of anthropology and comparative religion. Anthropology takes seriously many elements of the Biblical world and Biblical teaching that are overlooked by more philosophical approaches to the text. Signs, symbols, gestures, postures, rituals, foods, "taboos" — all these are prominent in the Bible, yet go little noticed by those who seek only to systematize the text. So long as the presuppositions of modern anthropology are clearly understood, and its insights carefully evaluated from a Biblical perspective, there is no reason not to make use of anthropology.

Among the important concepts that anthropology and comparative religion bring to the fore is the idea of place, and especially of sacred space. Jonathan Smith’s slim volume is an attempt to arrive at a theory that synthesizes ritual and place. Among his larger conclusions are the following: place is a human construct, that is, humans are not placed, but rather they place (p. 28); ritual is not a response to sacred, but makes the sacred (p. 105); sacred things should be linguistically understood, that is, they are given meaning only by their place in the hierarchical system, and have no meaning in themselves (pp. 107-9); ritual is the temporal extension of holy space (p. 115).

We cannot accept all of Smith’s conclusions. After all, while it is true that human beings create places out of spaces, and thus humans place themselves and things, it is not correct to say that humans are not placed by anything else. God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, and we understand that God "places" us throughout our lives. Moreover, for the Christian, Smith’s contention that ritual is not a response to the sacred, but makes the sacred, must be reversed: Worship is a response to truth and to God’s presence. Rightly understood, Christian worship does not call down God, nor it is designed to stimulate the worshipper into an enchanted state.

Smith’s theory, however, is of less interest than his specific discussions. In this review, I would like to highlight several of those points. First, Smith spends the first chapter challenging the late Mircea Eliade’s emphasis on the universality of the "cosmic center" theme. While admitting that Eliade’s construction may be found in some religions, he denies that it is universal. He advances a careful discussion of one of Eliade’s books concerning the Tjilpa (an Australian aborigine tribe) myth of the broken pole. For Eliade, the breaking of the pole was a return to primordial chaos, the loss of the connection with the transcendent world. Smith shows that Eliade’s understanding was based on a Christianized reworking of the original myth, and that the pattern of the myth is simply an event followed by a memorial of the event. Smith’s challenge to Eliade is convincing; yet, this does not reduce Eliade’s usefulness for students of the Bible, where the patterns that Eliade emphasizes are clearly in evidence.

Chapter 3 is an extended examination of the temple of Ezekiel, which he explicates using Louis Dumont’s distinction between hierarchies of status and hierarchies of power. Smith shows that the temple of Ezekiel is a complex spatial hierarchy, with zones of varying degrees of holiness marked off by barriers and by vertical changes.

From Ezekiel’s vision, Smith turns toward Jerusalem, where he examines the intriguing overlap of sacred spaces in that city. He argues that the rediscovery and exploitation of the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha in the early centuries of the Christian era revolutionized the early medieval liturgy. A visitor to Jerusalem made a pilgrimage of the stations of the city, all of them associated with the life of Christ; at each station a portion of Scripture was read. This new emphasis on the chronology of the earthly life of Christ was reproduced in medieval liturgies and in the medieval Church calendar. Feast days that were once celebrated together were separated, as narrative patterns overcame the more thematic and doctrinal emphasis of the earlier liturgy. Ritual thus overcame the "divisiveness and particularity of space" (p. 95). This correlation of portions of the liturgy with events in the life of Christ relates to what Schmemann calls "mysteriological piety."

Finally, Smith discusses the Zwinglian attack on ritual, quoting Indian scholar J. P. Singh Uberoi to the effect that the source of modern Western rationalism is to be discovered in the Reformation debate over "the mode of presence of divinity in Christian ritual" (p. 99). By dividing between the real and the symbolic, Zwingli ushered in the dualism of the modern age. After Zwingli, modern thought has assumed that nothing can be spiritual and material at the same time: "Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company for man at Marburg in 1529; and myth and ritual was no longer literally and symbolically real and true" (p. 99). Ritual is therefore seen as something that takes place on the surface, and to say something is symbolic is to mean that it is merely symbolic. Again, Schmemann comes to mind, with his contention that Western theology "fell" during the medieval eucharistic debates when theologians first began to oppose "symbol" and "reality."

Smith’s book has a good deal that would be of interest only to specialists in comparative religion or anthropology. Yet, it also contains many stimulating insights into the patterns of Biblical revelation and of Christian history, and points the reader to a wide range of useful literature.

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