Authored by: John Haines

The Routledge History of Medieval Magic

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781472447302
eBook ISBN: 9781315613192
Adobe ISBN:


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Except for a dozen pages in Jules Combarieu’s outdated La musique et la magie (1909), the study of music and magic in the Middle Ages is virtually non-existent. 1 Of all the relevant fields to magic surveyed in this volume, then, music has the dubious claim of being the one least studied. Yet, music was an indispensable ingredient in the everyday performance of magic during the thousand-year period we name Middle Ages, in practical contexts ranging from medicinal to necromantic. As made clear in other essays in this volume (notably the chapters on medicine, gender, popular culture and pastoral literature), the majority of magic practised in the Middle Ages had a performative component. Thus, it included music of some kind, music ranging from elaborate polyphonic songs to recitations similar to the spoken word. Unfortunately, the majority of these rituals were neither described nor even recorded in writing. For this reason, modern research on medieval magic has gravitated, not surprisingly, towards the erudite works of the late Middle Ages, given the impressive surviving evidence ranging from Solomonic literature to the works of Cecco d’Ascoli, both featured in the present volume. Yet, even these learned magic works involved music of some kind, since a great deal of music verges on spoken speech. As explained in a foundational medieval music treatise, Boethius’s De musica, sung music ranged widely from melodic song (cantilena) to the prose ( prosa) recitation of an epic poem (heroum poema). In between these two, writes Boethius, lies a giant middle ground he calls “middle voices” (medias voces), somewhere between speech and song. 2 Although this chapter will give equal weight to the interaction of music and magic in both learned and popular circles, it should be borne in mind that the former was the province of the medieval one per cent and the latter that of the ninety-nine per cent, to borrow a phrase from our own culture. If the aim of modern history – musical or otherwise – is to tell, to the best of our ability, the story of the majority of those living in the Middle Ages, and not just the learned few, then the history of music and magic cannot neglect, in addition to the written witnesses of famous and learned men, those sources that tell us about the anonymous majority and their musico-magical experiences.

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