Courtly Magic in the Middle Ages

Courtly Magic in the Middle Ages

Meaghan Zarb

The medieval court was the centre of political life during the Middle Ages, where officials of all ranks attended to governmental affairs. As a place of wealth, influence and power, intrigues were an ordinary suspicion within the medieval court. This was the ideal environment for popular magical practices to cultivate as the employment of magical practitioners provided great political advantages. This setting reflects the Arthurian romances written during this period and it is common belief that they provide at least an embellished version of the demand and practices found in courts. Astrologers delivered a calendar of ideal times for rulers to make political decisions and alchemists, the possibility of riches and prolonged life. A knowledge of chemicals and herbs would have proved useful in intrigues where poisons and love spells were in demand. As fear and usage of magic was ever present, courtiers engaged in the practice of possessing precious stones whose properties protected them from such inflictions. Wealth and power didn’t just produce the ideal environment for rivalries but also that of the best entertainment and latest technology. The court was home to illusionists and the latest mechanical feats of engineers of the day. They also possessed the valuable minstrel, whose services provide insight into the interest courtiers held in magic.

Medieval court society was built with various members of the elite classes, all who wielded differing levels of influence and authority. This included clerics, administrators, ambassadors, chamberlains, chancellors and other forms of nobility. Within the court there were also those who, whilst brandishing significant amounts of influence, held no formal office.[1] The dynamic levels of wealth, power and influence found in the court is often viewed as an ideal environment for magic to flourish[2] as those driven by these ambitions employed magic to assist in their plots to beat rivals and gain their desired position. Maksymiuk, in his analysis of the political advantages court magicians provided states that ‘intrigues at court were commonplace.’[3] Magic was both employed and feared[4] within the courts for this reason, and courtiers within this competitive setting would have kept their guard up.[5] This description of court life prompts thought of Romances of the Middle Ages, such as those of King Arthur. Literature often reflects certain realities of the world it is produced within[6] and historical evidence supports that such intrigues involving magic did take place, like as that of Eleanor Cobham. She was the wife of the Duke of Gloucester, Henry IV’s uncle and heir, and was accused of attempting to murder the king through magic with the help of four accomplices, one of which had once before been arrested for employing magic. Eleanor does not deny her involvement in magic, but rather stated it was for assistance in conceiving a child.[7] Eleanor’s lack of denying the use of magic reveals the possibility that magic was common practice in the court.

The possibility of the everyday use of magic by courtiers is emphasized by the employment of magic advisors and, very frequently, astrologists. The medieval court was a place for the elite, and thus the educated sector of society at this time. Whilst various forms of divination assisted the court in administrative matters, as ‘the main attractions magic held for courtiers was the possibility of influencing political events by predicting the future,’[8] astrology was in higher demand as ‘the cutting edge of new scientific, cosmological and magical discoveries.’[9] It was considered a safer, natural form of magic[10] and thus was not illegal. This kind of magic was embraced by monarchs to assist them in political and military counsel, [11] as well as in their plots against other courtiers and as a means to protect themselves in events to come. For example, Emperor Frederick II,[12] had in his service from 1220 Michael Scot, a physician and imperial astrologer. Michael Scot believed that astrological services were not for the poor, but should only aid kings, physicians, barons and practitioners of other magical sciences and occult arts.[13] Once again, contemporary literature provides at least a glimpse of the services the king’s magical advisor could offer. During the battle with the Kings of the North, Merlin insists Arthur to end the fighting as these kings will be invaded and destroyed by Saracens and to continue will only exhaust resources. [14] Although Merlin gained his strength of magic through his incubus father[15], his prophecies that assist the political moves made by King Arthur correlate with the works performed by court astrologers during the 12th to 14th centuries.

Along with astrology another kind of magical science was alchemy. Whilst alchemists don’t seem to have been as highly sought for they did find their way into the medieval political network as their work provided numerous political advantages. A position in the courts would have likewise proved fruitful for an alchemist as alchemy required sufficient funds for materials.[16] As political influence relied heavily on wealth, the possibility of cheap materials becoming ‘true gold and very fine silver’ through transmutation was enticing enough. Practitioners of alchemic sciences were highly educated and had a great understanding of chemicals and their properties, making alchemy useful for medicinal purposes.[17] It was believed that the Elixir of Life, as well as other alchemical brews had healing properties. With knowledge of this, Henry IV in 1456 gave twelve men permission to practice alchemy, two of which were his physicians. Henry IV stated he would bestow the riches of transmutation on his kingdom and believed that this elixir could prolong human life, cure all illnesses, heal wounds and worked as an antidote to all poisons.[18] All important aspects to guarantee a prolonged reign. It would seem however that ‘turbulent political climate of the fifteenth-century,’[19] prompted fear and suspicion of magical practitioners and accusations of harmful magic increased.[20] The chemical knowledge that an alchemist would possess could have easily been applied to intrigues through drugging and poisoning. Throughout antiquity and into the medieval period, poisoning was associated with magic. If a healer who worked with herbs treated a patient only for the condition to worsen, it was assumed that the healer was using the herbs for harm rather than good. [21] In many circumstances, whether the magic is harmful or helpful depends on ones point of view.[22]

Knowledge of poisons was also associated with love magic[23] and this blurred line between the categories of ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic certainly applied to this form of magic. Like the actions of Heracles’ wife in a play written by Seneca, women were thought often to have ‘confused lethal poisons with aphrodisiacs.’[24]For example, it was common thought that many love potions caused impotence in men.[25] Kieckhefer states that even if a woman was to try and regain the affections of her partner, it was still viewed as sorcery in the eyes of lawyers and theologians.[26] Whilst numerous academics do not specifically link the use of love magic to the court outside of Arthurian romance, the political gain that would come from manipulating marriages and partnerships is extensive. Contextually, this kind of powerful magic was not to be looked upon lightly. Love magic, potion or enchantment would have been feared and used by courtiers as much as any other variety of magic for this reason. Love potions were made of herbs, ashes and other materials. The physicians who worked in the court could be accused of using such magic as they would have known the properties of these materials.[27] Once again, romances provide insight into how magic can be used in intrigues. In Le Morte d’Arthur, political tension between courtiers fluctuates, in an attempt to take Sir Lancelot from Queen Guinevere, Dame Brisen enchanted Lancelot to Dame Elaine’s bed for him the next morning to ashamedly jump out a bay window in realisation of the night’s proceedings. When Queen Guinevere heard of this happening, she rebuked Sir Lancelot[28] and ordered Dame Elaine to avoid the court.[29]

The bewitching of courtiers, in particular Sir Lancelot, happens throughout Arthurian romances. It would have served as a reminder to those in power to protect oneself from forces beyond their control. ‘Medieval practices for protection offered a way of coping with reality that reflected a larger belief system about the nature of the cosmos and the human condition.’[30] This mind set is accentuated by the popularity of gemstones as protection among nobility.[31] As an object of nature and thus a creation of God, gems would have possessed occult powers like that of herbs.[32] The magical properties and uses of stones were contained in books known as lapidaries.[33] Lapidaries date back to antiquity, but it wasn’t until the High Middle Ages that this tradition became highly developed.[34]An example of such compendium is Albertus Magnus’ The Book of Secrets that describes the virtues of herbs, beasts and stones. Many of the formulas found within this text would have assisted the political aims of courtiers, such as the uses of beryllus that is said to ‘overcome thy enemies and flee debate.’[35] If ‘it is of pale colour and may be seen through as water, thou shalt overcome all debate…maketh thy enemy meek…causeth a man to be well mannered and giveth also good understanding.’[36] A magical advisor or practitioner was not essential to this practice making it extensive throughout courts in Western Europe.

Less dangerous but popular magic practices in courtly tradition were those with the function of entertainment. These acts would have taken place in courts during festivities and political gatherings,[37] as elaborate forms of entertainment were another way to garner influence and standing in the court. The focal point of performative magic was the idea of illusion and deception of the mind.[38] ‘Sleight of hand, optical illusion, secret writing and making objects move mysteriously’ would have been practiced by acting troupes, acrobats and other performers. [39] It can be assumed that performing troupes, particularly those who were permanently employees of courts, would have had a ‘magician’ or an individual who specialised in such illusions. Manuscripts provide formulas to make objects appear self-moved, such as a beetle inside an apple, as well as more complex illusions like using lights and mirrors to make a man appear headless.[40] A prevalent practice of courtiers from the 13th century onwards was the possession of elaborate machines known as automata.[41]Only the elite could afford such splendours and would impress guests[42] with devices that ‘moved mysteriously through the illusion of mechanical technology.’[43] These playthings consisted of marvels like mechanical bronze lions, with moving tails and whose mouths would open and project a mighty roar.[44] Constructors of automata had to tread carefully as accusations of necromancy were common.[45] Automatons came through stories of late antiquity and were often associated with men like Virgil who, in medieval legend, were regarded as great magicians due to stories of their mechanical constructions.[46] This association of engineering to the works of wizards is also evident in romances, such as the magician Gansguoter from Heinrich von Dem Türlin’s Crône.[47]With castle walls that rotate continuously so entry is impossible and other architectural feats, Gansguoter was ‘a master engineer.’[48]

Another popular practice was the employment of minstrels. Whilst they themselves were not practitioners of magic, their verse contained magical content. Romances were among the most popular tales told[49] and the impact of these romances and the minstrels work is evident in historical records, as King Henry VII named his first son Arthur after the publishing of Le Morte d’Arthur.[50] Favoured minstrels were employed by nobility as a means of entertainment[51] ‘but also for educating the aristocracy in the values of courtly love and chivalry.’[52] Courtiers would have also been able to relate to the family and political discord found in Arthurian legends.[53] These legends were often centred on magic.[54] The most prominent practitioner of magic in the medieval period, Merlin, comes from Arthurian romances.[55] The stories also contained magical devices such as gemstones, illusionary banquets and swords.[56] These devices are reminiscent of precious stones as well as illusionary entertainment found in courts as literature echoes the customs of the time.[57]

Due to the political circumstances present in the medieval court, various forms of magic both thrived and were sought. Magical practitioners were employed for intrigues, but also entertainment. This world is reflected in the literature of the time with Arthurian romances providing extravagant versions of courtly practices. Astrology, as a new form of ‘science’, allowed nobility to make decisions at ideal times. Alchemy brought about the possibility of gold from base metals, as well as medicines to cure all ailments. The knowledge these people possessed would have been used for poisons and love magic, both powerful means of controlling actions of the court. Many courtiers would protect themselves from such schemes with precious stones. With wealth brought the finest entertainment, with illusionists, automata and the traditional minstrel, these highly demanded services remind us that magic was a very real aspect of medieval court life.

You can see more of Meaghan Zarb’s research on her Academia.edu page and on HubPages. You can also follow her on Facebook.


[1] S. Maksymiuk, ‘Knowledge, Politics, and Magic: The Magician Gansguoter in Heinrich von Dem Türlin’s Crône’, The German Quarterly, 67, 4, 1994, http://www.jstor.org/stable/408671, accessed 12 January 2015, p. 471.

[2] R. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, New York, 2010, p. 96.

[3] Maksymiuk, Knowledge, Politics and Magic, p. 472.

[4] R. 95.

[5] C. Rider, ‘Harm and Protection,’ in Magic and Religion in Medieval England, London, 2013, p. 101.

[6] R. 105.

[7] C. Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England, London, 2013, p. 98.

[8] Maksymiuk, Knowledge, Politics and Magic, p. 473.

[9]A. Lawrence-Mathers and C. Escobar-Vargas, ‘Magic and Politics’ in Magic and Medieval Society, Hoboken, 2015,p. 9.

[10] R. Johnston, ‘Astrology and Alchemy’, in All Things Medieval: An Encyclopaedia of the Medieval World [2 volumes], Santa Barbara, 2011, p. 466.

[11] A. Lawrence-Mathers, C. Escobar-Vargas, Magic and Medieval Society, Hoboken, 2015, p. 10.

[12] R. 466.

[13] Maksymiuk, Knowledge, Politics and Magic, p. 474.

[14] T. Malory, Le Morte de Arthur, Book I, Chapter XVII, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/mart/mart016.htm, accessed 11 January 2015.

[15] R. 111.

[16] Ibid. p. 135.

[17] Ibid. p. 138.

[18] Ibid. 138.

[19] C. 101.

[20] Ibid. p. 101.

[21]R. 81.

[22] Ibid.

[23]K. Jolly and E. Peters and C. Raudvere, ‘The Practice of Magic: Popular and Courtly Traditions’ in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, London, 2002, p. 60.

[24]R. 81.

[25] K. Raudvere, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, London, 2002, p. 60.

[26] R. 81.

[27] Ibid.

[28] T. Malory, Le Morte de Arthur, Book XI, Chapter VIII.

[29] Ibid. Book XI Chapter IX.

[30]K. 46.

[31] Ibid. p. 49.

[32] R. 74-75.

[33] R. 465.

[34]K. 34.

[35]A. Magnus, ‘Of the virtues of stones’, in The book of secrets of Albertus Magnus of the virtues of herbs, stones and certain beasts, also a book of the marvels of the world, Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman (ed. ), Oxford, 1973, p. 34.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid. p.11.

[38] K. Raudvere, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, London, 2002, p.66.

[39] Ibid p.6.

[40] R. 91.

[41] Maksymiuk, Knowledge, Politics and Magic, p. 476.

[42] Ibid.

[43] K. 67.

[44]R. 101.

[45] K. 67.

[46] Ibid.

[47]Maksymiuk, Knowledge, Politics and Magic, p. 470.

[48] Ibid. p. 476.

[49] R. Johnston, ‘Minstrels and Troubadours’, in All Things Medieval: An Encyclopaedia of the Medieval World [2 volumes], Santa Barbara, 2011, p. 497.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid. 33.

[53] Ibid. 35.

[54] K. 108.

[55] Ibid.

[56] K. 69.

[57] R. 106.


Primary Sources

Magnus, A., ‘Of the virtues of stones’, in The book of secrets of Albertus Magnus of the virtues of herbs, stones and certain beasts, also a book of the marvels of the world, Michael R. ), Oxford, 1973.

Malory, T., Le Morte de Arthur, in Sacred Texts, http://www.sacred texts.com/neu/mart/mart016.htm, accessed 11 January 2015.

Secondary Sources

K. Raudvere, ‘The Practice of Magic: Popular and Courtly Traditions’ in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, London, 2002.

Kieckhefer, R., Magic in the Middle Ages, New York, 2010.

Lawrence-Mathers, A. and Escobar-Vargas, C., ‘Magic and Politics’ in Magic and Medieval Society, Hoboken, 2014.

Maksymiuk, S., ‘Knowledge, Politics, and Magic: The Magician Gansguoter in Heinrich von Dem Türlin’s Crône’, The German Quarterly, 67, 4, 1994. http://www.jstor.org/stable/408671, accessed 12 January 2015.

R. Johnston, All Things Medieval: An Encyclopaedia of the Medieval World [2 volumes], Santa Barbara, 2011.

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