History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Getting Medieval

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Sometimes gifts arrive in a timely manner. Just in time for the beginning of the semester, a news story broke that provided fodder for first day discussion in my medieval courses: Pagans demand return of church buildings 'stolen' 1,300 years agoUsually it's great when the news covers the Middle Ages because it makes the period seem more relevant to my students who generally think things that happened a couple of decades ago are 'ancient' already.

This news item gave me a chance to say yes, it was the practice to 'repurpose' temples: we have a letter from Pope Gregory instructing an abbot to follow this advice:

Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

But these modern pagans have no leg to stand on with their argument that the buildings belonged to them. The temples might just as well have been Celtic or Roman. Further their claims of a 'spiritual genocide' are difficult to substantiate: for one thing, conversion in this era was not generally a violent thing. Most of the time it involved only changing a king's alliance.

Moreover, their claims of representing the "original, indigenous faith of the English people" is a bit tricky. For one thing, the 'English' are neither indigenous nor original to the British Isles. The Celts were there long before them, as were the Romans. But they were both invaders too. Even the Neolithic folks who first farmed the lands of the sceptred isle came from across the Channel to introduce the practice to the Mesolithic hunter-gatherersWe go through a lot of invasions and changes before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrive as mercenaries after the fall of Rome -- and most of the history of this period is written down by their descendants long after they were Christianised. 

I'm a bit prickly about the misuses of medieval history because there's a lot of it going on, both inside and outside the academic community after what Dorothy Kim has called the 'Dumpster Fire Summer' in medieval studies. Across the discipline, many have taken on a renewed commitment to engaging with the controversies involved in 'Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy' (to use Dorothy's title). 

It's great that folks are interested in this historic period, but with the knowledge of the world at your fingertips, don't fall into error by perpetuating ridiculous ideas with no basis in reality. Some good resources to find accessible information about the period include the always excellent In the Medieval Middle blog and the Public Medievalist, which is running a terrific series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages which also deals with the long and terrible history of anti-semitism. 

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 01 September 2017

    "these modern pagans have no leg to stand on with their argument that the buildings belonged to them. The temples might just as well have been Celtic or Roman."
    Thank you for saying so. I've been studying what I can find on traditional witchcraft, much of which uses the Bible. This is in itself an interesting history. There was no official English language Bible until the King James Version in 1614. There were earlier versions in English but apparently it was often illegal to own one. So apparently folk Christian is built over earlier layers of folk pagan with practitioners less concerned with theological niceties and more with does it work or not.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Sunday, 03 September 2017

    There were translations of portions of the bible: King Alfred had Genesis translated in the ninth century because he was afraid of knowledge falling away all together while the ongoing strife with the 'Danes' was ongoing. Wycliffe and his followers translated the bible in the fourteenth century but indeed it was an offence for which you risked your life (Wycliffe had important friends who protected him, until a couple decades after he died when the English dug him up to punish him and burn him! Tyndale was not as lucky.

    As I've mentioned in earlier blog posts, the line between Christian and pagan, religion and magic (for that matter, science and magic) was a lot more porous than we assume today. When monks copy down charms with references to Odin, there's a clear indication that the honoured past was no threat. But anything outright pagan was discouraged (see my post on Burchard).

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